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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Afro-Venezuelan Musicians Connect the Diaspora by Khalil Abdullah

On a wintry Sunday in February, an enthusiastic audience in Washington, D.C., was treated to the Eleggua Group’s fusion of African polyrhythmic percussion and all-Spanish vocals. The temperature outside the Venezuelan Embassy’s Bolivarian Hall may have flirted with zero, but, inside, the Afro-Venezuelan musicians brought a radiant zest that warmed the crowd. “Excellent, more than excellent!” exclaimed Paris, an African American, after the show. “Fantastic!” raved Hawah Kasat, a young artist who had just returned home to D.C. from Central Asia.

The troupe started the concert with a musical tribute to its namesake, Eleggua, the Afro-Venezuelan saint “who opens the ways,” said Alexis Machado, the group’s musical director. “Any project or any dreams you have, Eleggua will help you make your dream possible.”

Part of the Eleggua Group’s dream is to share its African ancestry with other peoples of the African diaspora. “We are all brothers and sisters wherever we are in the world,” Machado said.

Patricia Abdelnour, the Embassy’s Cultural Attaché, said the idea to bring the Eleggua Group to the United States grew out of a dialogue with the Smithsonian Museum. Initially, the discussion centered on a trip during Hispanic Heritage Month but the uniqueness of the group’s mission to preserve Venezuela’s African traditions made a visit during Black History Month a logical choice.

Glendis Verde, one of the lead drummers, said the Eleggua Group had been “very welcomed in the United States, especially [by] the kids.” At a performance at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington earlier in the week, Verde said the children “really identified with us,” and added that the group’s members took delight as the youngsters “performed their dances with our rhythms.”

At the Bolivarian Hall, the young children eagerly sat in a tight semi-circle around the Eleggua Group. They listened to the descriptions and history of the instruments and were allowed to play the drums and maracas. There was always room to dance.

Belen Palacios, 73 years old, did more than hold her own with the younger members of the troupe during the performance. Palacios sang and danced, several times inviting adult members of the audience to the floor to challenge her with their prowess and stamina.

Palacios has been declared a “Cultural Alive Patrimony” by Miranda State, roughly equivalent to a living legacy or cultural treasure. She is known as the “Queen of the Quitipilas,” bamboo tubes that are struck against the ground to provide an intricate yet forceful percussive line that vies for dominance with the drums. Palacios, who learned how to carve and play the quitipilas from her mother over 60 years ago, was accompanied on the instruments by daughter Calixta Palacios and niece Karelys Colmenarez, a 19-year-old whose effervescent smile never waned for the duration of the concert.

Kalenka Velasquez, a vocalist born to Venezuelan parents in Brooklyn, NY, served as translator for the group. She returned to Venezuela at a young age and lives near the group’s members in Barlevento, Miranda State. She explained the women of the Eleggua Group do more than perform. “We work in our communities and in neighboring communities,” agreed group member Nelsy Rivero. “We conduct workshops in schools to recognize ourselves and our culture.”

The modern history of the African presence in Venezuela largely dates from the introduction of forced labor by the Spanish. Slavery was declared illegal in 1854 and the slow integration of Afro-Venezuelans as fully participating members of society has mirrored the struggle of other African descendants in the Americas. Though Venezuela has recognized mestizo, the mixed blood ancestry of Europeans and indigenous Indians, as an official identity to be embraced, the social inference has long been that a greater proportion of European blood conferred superiority.

Given that Venezuelan’s census has no categorical means for Afro-Venezuelans to self-identify, estimates of their population range from 10 to 15 percent of the country’s 25 million inhabitants. Should “Afro-Venezuelan” appear on the next census, it is still likely that many will opt for the mestizo identity, despite Hugo Chavez’s public recognition and pride in his Afro-Venezuelan heritage, the country’s first president to do so. Chavez, through consultation with Afro-Venezuelan cultural organizations, has established a presidential commission to work toward the elimination of racism in his country. The Eleggua Group members are, in essence, cultural ambassadors.

Jorge Guerrero Veloz, an Afro-Venezuelan historian and activist who accompanied the musicians, explained that there are many aspects of Afro-Venezuelan culture that can be traced directly to specific regions of Africa, like the Congo. These traditions include the techniques for playing and making specific types of drums and instruments, food dishes, and even the tightly wound braids that graced the heads of the Eluegga Group performers.

Veloz also discussed the efforts of Venezuelan historians to document his people’s origins and referenced the sailing exploits of African seamen into the Americas. “Abubakari the Second!” said Veloz emphatically, referring to Mali’s king of the 1300s, A.D. According to Prof. Ivan Van Sertima in “They Came Before Columbus; The African presence in Ancient America,” Abubakari’s expeditionary fleet, which crossed the Atlantic from Africa, is only one example on a continuum of exchanges that occurred between Africa and the Americas in the pre-Columbian era.

Indeed, the absence of African and Afro-Venezuelan history in Venezuelan schools is something that concerns the musicians. “I personally feel proud of being a descendant of African people,” said Heeidy Rondon, who often serves as the lead singer, but “we see the real racism in [Venezuela’s] education pattern.”

Throughout the concert, Machado provided a brief commentary before each musical selection. He spoke of watching television in 2005 and seeing the African American people of New Orleans struggling to survive Hurricane Katrina. He wrote and dedicated a composition to them, one whose ferocious tempo belied its underlying sadness. He described another piece as “a song of thanks for all we get from the earth.” It, too, enthralled the audience in waves of sound.

“Everyone should remember they have mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters,” said Machado, as he introduced an energetic drum song that is typically only performed by men. He said the women of the Eluegga Group “do not only want to be considered [a] housewife and a sexual object.” And, on cue, they ripped through an exhilarating display of drumming virtuosity.

Machadpo said there are times during the year, like on June 24 in celebration of John the Baptist, “you can hear the drums throughout the whole coast of Venezuela.”

“We were told our mother is Spain,” he noted later, “Our mother is Africa.”

For Hector Gonzales, an audience member and native of Caracas, cultural politics had disappeared as the Eleggua Group touched his memory. Once again outside in the fading light and biting chill, he reflected on what the performance had meant to him. “You appreciate the music more,” Gonzales said poignantly, “when you are far away from home.”

This article was published by New American Media.

Khalil Abdullah

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

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