Afro-Venezuelan songs burst onto global stage

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Hailing from an isolated village in rural Venezuela, Betsayda Machado is on the cusp of international stardom. A few minutes online – watching videos on YouTube, reading articles that detail her fascinating story – and a long Skype conversation with Betsayda make this assertion abundantly clear.

And, as part of her first world tour, she’s about to appear at the 2017 Richmond Folk Festival; Richmond audiences will have the good fortune to catch her as her name is on the rise.

Her group, Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo, left their home in Venezuela in 2016 to spread parranda across the world. Over the last few months, they’ve traveled America, talking about the history of the slave trade and cacao plantations in Venezuela, traditional Christmas celebrations, learning to sing in church, crowdsourcing, and even DNA testing—that is, when they’re not setting the air on fire with their drums and vocals.

“A Joyful Show”

Parranda is a music genre unlike any other. Imagine traditional Christmas songs performed over various percussion instruments accompanied by dancers.

Whatever you are thinking, that’s not quite it, because you really have to hear parranda to get it.

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles saw Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo at Globalfest in January and described the band as “vital, accomplished, local, unplugged, deeply rooted.”

NPR reviewer Anastasia Tsioulcas saw the same performance and called it “one of the most joyful shows I’ve heard in years.” And New York Radio Live said the group had an “electrifying live set, complete with pitch-perfect harmonies, dazzling dancers, and irresistible rhythms.”

Between the drumming, the dance, the voices and the backstory, it’s no wonder these rural Venezuelans are taking the music world by storm.

“Hot, earthy, raw and infectiously happy”

Parranda is the sound of a huge Christmas party, with an entire village caroling in the street, serenading each house as they wind throughout town, accompanied by rhythms that are deeply entwined with Venezuela’s cacao plantations and the African slave trade.

It’s hot, earthy, raw and infectiously happy.

“Parranda is a synonym for ‘party,’” Betsayda said, speaking through her manager, Juan Souki. “Parranda is a Christmas genre and when you get involved in the singing of parranda, you become a parrandero.”

Betsayda became a parrandera at a young age, taking up singing at Christmas Mass with her brothers at the age of 5. Her town, El Clavo, is a tiny village of fewer than 1,500 people and its centuries-old regional music genre had been almost completely unknown to the outside world until this year, when Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo hit the world scene.

The Firestarter

Betsayda’s childhood household consisted of her parents and 15 siblings, although she said only eight lived with her at the time, plus seven or eight cousins.

“It was actually really nice,” she said. “It was a time I don’t think is ever going to come back. There were things I lived as a young girl I don’t think the young ones now could experience.”

The Christmas season was–and is–the high point of the year for music and celebration. The church Mass was a focal point of the festivities and Betsayda grew up singing there.

She also sang in the parrandas that surrounded Mass.

“Parranda starts in a house and goes to each single house in town,” she said.
While the celebration is ongoing throughout the Christmas season, El Clavo’s residents chose New Year’s as the date for their biggest festivities of the year. This set them apart from larger, nearby towns.

On January 1, the parranda started at Betsayda’s home, Juan said, highlighting the Machado family’s preeminence as local musicians.

Although the whole town participates, there are a few key musicians--“firestarters” as Juan calls them–and members of the Machado family were always among them.

As she grew, Betsayda became not only a firestarter, but THE firestarter.

The Black Voice of Barlovento

Much of Betsayda’s American press states that she’s nicknamed “The Black Voice of Barlovento”; that’s not really a nickname so much as a title.

“Historically in the Barlovento region, in sync with the harvesting of the cacao they would make a huge regional contest,” she said. “They would identify the best singer not only on how well they sang but on how many types of songs they knew. There’s an a capella section and others and you have to dominate every single section. I won that award.”

The competition and the title rise out of Barlovento’s legacy of slavery. In the 18th century, slaves were brought from Africa to work the cacao fields, and it is from them that 10 percent of the Venezuelan population, including Betsayda’s family, is descended.
The music, too, is deeply rooted both in their African heritage and the cacao fields where they worked.

“Parranda has a lot of rhythm, poetry and melody,” Betsayda said. “Only hearing the drum on its own, it will make you smile.” The drums are the basis for parranda–at least the old-style parranda that Betsayda’s band follows.

“The tree that the drums are made of is very lucky,” she said. “It’s a very common tree in our town–the lano tree.”

There are several types of drums used in a parranda and the local musicians make them all by hand.

“There are some very special procedures and traditions to make the drums,” Betsayda said. “You cut them under a specific moon and you tie them with specific knots.”

It’s not magic or religion, she said. It’s just that if the wood isn’t cut at exactly the right time, it will open and break.

An accomplished parrandero knows when and how to cut the wood and how to build and tie the drum, she said. It’s part of the tradition that she and the rest of La Parranda El Clavo are determined to keep alive.

“I stand for what is tradition because it’s what I grew up with,” she said. “Our rhythm, our lyrics, our style is unique. We are very traditional and this is what we stand for and what we defend.”

Juan added that an outsider who hears two different parranda groups may not understand how different they are. “We would say it is the same type of music but they would hear all the differences between them,” he said.

For Betsayda, the difference is in the drums.

“If you listen to other parrandas, there is an anxiety or an urgency to bring in more melodic instruments,” she said. “We are purists. We make our own drums and we defend the old way, without all the melodic instruments.”

The old way has proven to be popular. Betsayda’s group spent 30 years singing only in El Clavo–essentially an informal band that was often asked to play at celebrations and funerals.

And then fame started to spread. Betsayda’s clear, full voice became well-known throughout the region. “She’s made a strong career,” Juan said. “She’s one of the very few persons in the town who was already recognized as a singer. Now she’s an icon.”

But taking the ensemble on tour isn’t so simple when the band is made up of the entire town.

“We’re doing a reduction of what the parranda in the region does,” Betsayda said. “A parranda would be 100 people, not eight. The eight are the traveling presentation of it.”

Defending Tradition

As they travel the world, the band has a purpose beyond playing joyous music. They want to save the music and traditions of their region while still bringing opportunity to an area that is economically disadvantaged.

The parranderos of El Clavo are field workers and teachers, Betsayda said. They sing at Christmas and then they have other commitments the rest of the year. One of her goals is to help promising musicians rise.

“How do we start thinking of a place where laborers singing and working and becoming parranderos is something formal or something that you have to train for in order to achieve?” she said. “How do you give them space to train, to practice, to keep building tradition? How do we give that opportunity to our children?”

The region is very underprivileged, she added, and too many young people turn to crime when they don’t have “a passion to defend.”

But it’s not just about keeping kids from crime. It’s also about keeping the music from disappearing.

“It breaks my heart to see younger generations being seduced by other genres and the anxiety of trying to make their music commercial and hip and not pay attention to what is traditional,” Betsayda said. “We defend tradition.”

Centuries-old tradition preserved by modern technology

To defend tradition in the face of mass-produced culture, they are keeping up with the newest trends.

Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo is funding their tour through Indiegogo, an online crowdfunding campaign. They also have a Grammy-winning artist mixing their album, a design studio, a Facebook page and a documentary film crew—not to mention the DNA tests.

Betsayda and her band are embarking on a search they hope will take them home, using cutting-edge genetic technology to trace their roots. Within the Afro-Venezuelan community, there’s a growing interest in finding out where their ancestors came from. Betsayda and her band are part of that movement; they are working with geneticists to retrace their hereditary journey to determine where they come from, with a film crew in tow to document their story.

A prominent professor in Venezuela has asserted that the Afro-Venezuelan population came from Senegal but “everyone has different theories,” Betsayda said.

“We’re all curious and we want to know about these tests. A great conversation has also been about how no one is completely white and no one is completely black or one thing or the other,” she said. “But there are different theories from different people.”
Using high-tech science to solve a mystery that has troubled people for hundreds of years and using social media to spread a centuries-old tradition doesn’t strike Betsayda as contradictory. They’re simply making use of the current tools to keep alive traditions that have sustained them for generations.

“We’re just thankful for what’s happening,” she said. “And we’re getting ready to give our best.”