BAPTISM BY BEAT
Down by the
sea, the drums call. The villages of Barlovento spring from their
sleepy states for the Fiesta de San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist)
in late June.
In Caruao, 40 kilometres
from the nearest piece of asphalt, two bars frame the 100-yard seafront
wall. The one on the left is old and tall. It echoes with raucous
laughter, raised voices and the splatter of phlegm. The other is
more sedate with newer plastic tables. It's empty.
During San Juan, the
tambor drums of Barlovento pound relentlessly, all day
and all night, while the locals dance their sensual, slinky moves,
fueled by firewater and rum. At some point, figures of the saint
do get carried into the water, and children are baptised, but essentially,
it's a good excuse for a party.
SLAVES FOR CHOCOLATE
Barlovento means 'windward',
but you won't find it on the map. It refers to the stretch of Venezuelan
coast centred on the inland villages of Birongo and Curiepe, and
the coastal villages of Chirimena, Caruao and Chuspa, all east of
Caracas. Not that far away, the country's greatest natural disaster
swept away thousands of houses and lives in December 1999.
The people of eastern
Barlovento, communities descended from black slaves, are only beginning
to rebuild their lives. For a while, the drums of this strong and
remarkably robust culture were silenced.
The region is synonymous
with black culture and folklore, which combines elements of Catholicism
with African voodoo and santería rituals. The settlements
hark back to the glory days of Venezuela's cacao plantations: glorious
for the Gran Cacao landowners, as they became known, miserable
for the slaves from Central Africa who were shipped in to work the
plantations. The first cacao plantation in Venezuela flourished
in the lush valleys of Curiepe, and though slavery was officially
abolished by Bolívar in 1823, it wasn't until 1854 that slaves were
truly emancipated. Having nowhere else to go, they stayed on, often
swapping chains and whips for debts and early deaths.
These communities formed
relatively isolated settlements, and preserved their traditions
which survive today. The main African influence come from the Bantu,
Yoruba and Mandingo peoples. Only at weekends is their existence
registered, when Caraqueño families descend in their obese four-by-fours
to the beaches. Out come the kids, deck chairs, cool-boxes, beer
bottles, stereos and plonk, sorted. If you can't sit a yard from
your parked car, forget it.
There are two types of tambor. One stand-up, about
waist-high and nearly two feet in diameter. The other long and tubular
resting on the ground. It still has skin stretched over one end,
like the other, but one side is flat - or has been flattened. That's
where the drummers hit it with their inch-thick wooden sticks. About
three or four men will crouch along its length, pounding. The drums'
rhythm changes from one village to the next. The rhythm is mesmerising,
oscillating between frenetic and frenzied and back again. A percussive
There are horns too, blown in staccato bursts on the off-beat, or
whenever the blower feels like it. They're huge conch shells, held
up high, with one end drilled out for a mouthpiece. They make a
deep down bass sound which boom-boom-booms.
Everyone's black. All the drummers are men. The women egg them on
and join in the chants.
The dances mimic the mating prance of birds. Tight, jigging movements,
with all the emphasis on the hips. Pelvises move in taut, winding,
concentric circles, knees bend and feet shuffle. Couples size each
other up, with the man coming as close as he can to the woman. She
ducks and dives in swoops and jibes, always eluding his embrace.
The battle of the sexes, Afro-Caribbean style. It's also a bit like
pro-wrestling, one dancer tagging another who then enters the fray
with new vigour. Top of the bill tonight, Big Mamma takes on Mister
An old woman starts to shout and reprimand the people for something.
About twenty curlers knit into her hair, and she's wearing a flowing
dress of far too many colours for it to be co-ordinated with anything
but her wrath. Dancing shouldn't involve touching, she seems to
be explaining, with plenty of hand flailing.
The music stops, for
a while. Some out-of-towners look sheepish. They were responsible
for the lewd displays. A drum cracks, then another starts up, the
old woman retreats, and everyone starts dancing afresh. It seems
like there's more to this jiggy business than meets the eye of the
only whiteboy in town. I'm with a guy from the Andes. He sits in
the Empty Bar with a beer, looking on from a distance. He seems
even more out of place than me. Hard, but true.
One drummer strikes me.
His skin is round midnight blue. Later, when the drums up camp to
the beachfront malecón, a million droplets of sweat shine on his
back and shaven head. They merge into coursing rivulets, or spring
from his spine in the fast-fading evening light. His grin grits,
flashes like a shark's. The muscles on his abdomen and arms, every
last one, pulse and contract. He thrashes out this sound that goes
right through you. Musical osmosis.
There's a strange mix on the seafront. The drummers, groupies and
dancers will be getting to this frenzied, hyperventilating stage,
and not ten yards away, old sea dogs prop up the malecón wall, beneath
the shade of a palm or two. Their fingers clasp the neck of Polarcita
beers which loll at 33rpm. Mothers sit on the tree-surrounds, chatting
and watching their little-ones with half an eye. The older children
make their own entertainment. They emulate the grown-ups and dance
about each other. I laugh as I watch one push another into the melee,
and see all the giggles and hands-on-mouths of eleven year olds
getting it on.
One woman is stunning, with gold, dangling earrings and bright red
lipstick to match her bikini top and shorts. The top was too tight,
and looked uncomfortable, unlike her shorts which did very little
to cover her buttocks. In fact, they did nothing at all.
An old man sways up at one point. Some younger women in their Day-Glo
bikinis and cut-off shorts entice him in. He has a pair of shiny
blue shorts on and a T-shirt with "Caruao" emblazoned
in pink letters, and some very ordinary shoes with dark blue socks
pulled up to the knee. On his head, one of those white-straw, poor
man's Panamas: style messiah. His arms swing about a lot as he stoops
dancing. He's pretty wasted. He doesn't last long with the women,
and slinkers off to join his mates in the bar, chuckling to himself.
As the light finally
gives up the ghost, it begins to spit with rain. Later, I was told
it always rains when the drummers come out to play for San Juan.
Without fail, all along the coast. It's joyous rain though, warm
and welcome. We could do with some of that in England. I fear the
drummers would be at a loose end however...