Sunday, December 14, 2003

The Nutcracker in Yaracuy

Sunday 14, December 2003

Jennifer Fisher wrote yesterday in the NYT a wonderful article on the cultural value of the Nutcracker, The Ballet Russia Didn't Want. The Nutcracker became a big hit in the USA while Europe never quite warmed up to this Christmas Fantasy Story of a child’s birthday. Ms. Fisher argument is quite convincing, the "family values" tendency of the US society can find itself very nicely represented in the Nutcracker.

Of course this made me retrieve my CD of the ballet and I played a couple of times, through an unseasonable rainy day in San Felipe. I suppose that I am probably one of the very few people that would play the Nutcracker in San Felipe. Not that I associate it with Christmas. North Americans have that mania to associate a lot of things with Christmas to the point of making them irrelevant the rest of the year. A major victim is Haendel Messiah, which is perfectly playable at Easter, or any time for that matter. No, my love of the Nutcraker comes from way back, when I was 5 actually and my Dad bought an HiFi system. I remember the first LP he brought along, LP that I suppose had the greatest influence in my musical development: La Mer of Debussy, Rhapsody in Blues of Gershwin, Capriccio Espagnol of Rimsky Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. This last one in a wonderful US edition with plenty of black and white pictures of the different moments by some ballet company. Nobody at home could translate the short text so I imagined all sorts of wonderful tales that I think were better than the original story. But I digress.

As I kept busy around the house trying to hum the ballet I had to fight the outside world noise trying to intrude. The main culprits were these cheap trucks loaded with big loudspeakers that go around Venezuelan small towns doing all sorts of advertisement at given time of the year. Elections too, are a big noise pollution time. But now it is Christmas and even big shoe stores of San Felipe are able to have jingles written for their store, following the Gaita rhythm. Gaita are the music from Maracaibo and serves many objectives, besides entertaining. It is mass produced in Maracaibo starting in August, reaches a peak there at the celebration of La Chinita in November (the Virgin protector of Maracaibo) and then moves all over the Venezuelan air waves. Gaitas have a very nasty habit: many are protest songs and many governments saw their popularity plummet at Gaita's time. This year Gaitas are very cruel with Chavez.

It is very easy to get tired of Gaitas, in particular as jingles in the streets of San Felipe on the last big shopping day before Christmas. There is a big week end left before Christmas, but that week end will be a travelling time for many people and attendance to the stores will tend go down. Actually most stores in Venezuela will be closed by the 24 at noon if not even on the 23rd! Christmas for us is the 24 at Midnight and on the 24 in the afternoon we are too busy preparing for guests or getting ready to go out.

I was thinking of all these things while I was doing my own private culture clash that afternoon, wondering how loud I could put my speakers before my neighbors came to complain. One thing that was crossing my mind is how was the Nutcracker in Caracas this year? With all the Venezuelans that have lived in the US, the Nutcracker is becoming a staple of Christmas here too. Venezuelans do respond to that family gathering message that is so important for us at Christmas when people will spend a lot of time and money to cross the country and visit relatives. Even people with humble means will go to great length to travel in December to eat Hallaca with their parents. In this respect we are a lot like North Americans at Thanksgiving, except that in lieu of turkey we eat hallaca, our more than fabulous version of tamale, the glory of Venezuelan cuisine.

But I wonder if under Chavez the Nutcracker will keep its slow progress into Venezuelan society. To begin with the laxity in copyright measures by the Venezuelan government has finally closed the last record store of San Felipe. Now you buy your CD at street corners, all pirated versions of whatever the recent hits are. I am pretty sure that none of these street vendors has cloned a version of the Nutcracker to popularize it around here. Someday, maybe, but for the time being forget about classical music outside limited stores in Caracas.

I do not think that the fate of The Nutcracker is promising, looking at the way that the Chavez administration has handled cultural affairs. The regime has let the Museum of Modern Art decay, has sacked the staff of the National Library to be replaced by political hacks, has let Unesco sites of Venezuela go to seed. Classical ballet? A straw in the wind! Chavez is tone deaf by the way, one thing we can detect as he is not afraid to sing in his Alo Presidente of every Sunday. Though he likes to be filmed in folk dances that as far as I can tell he does not manage well. Thus be it Nutcraker, Gaitas or Villancicos, I am not expecting much from a regime that in addition is almost in open war with the Catholic Church.

This disregard for culture and tradition is starting to affect the country, perhaps even more than the economic crisis. Tonight as I write I leaned over my window and none of my neighbors has put this year their Christmas lights. Only some have put a wreath on their doors. Another "tradition" is biting the dust this year: Venezuelans love with noisy fireworks that through December explode anytime of day or night. Well, this year it has not been a problem at all in San Felipe. I cannot say that I am sorry for that.

Clearly there is no Christmas spirit this year. The irony is that the Government spokespersons have been making a big campaign of "getting back Christmas that was stolen from us last year from these nasty opponents that went on strike". It certainly has not fired up the spirits as far as I can tell... At work the personnel has preferred to organize a field day at the beach instead of having our annual Christmas party. Next week I will spread what we would have spent for the party among people so the ones that want to go to the beach will have pocket money to do so. I am not sorry I must confess, less trouble for management that normally has to do all the organizing work.

This is not to say that Christmas is absent, but it fair to say that it is only a shade of what it used to be in Yaracuy. Townhall has put up the lights. Stores do advertise. But all complain that customers are not buying. After my exercise walk I stopped at my "frutero". Outside of Caracas you can find everywhere these wonderful stores that sell only fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juice, and believe me, after an hour of a power walk a fresh Passion Fruit juice will restore more than any Gatorade. My "frutero" looked grim as he told me that his sales have dropped since November 15 by almost half! They normally double, with the end of the year bonus and shopping spirit! He has a few shelves where he would also sell a few goodies such as Olive Oil or jams and "turrones" that sell well when people feel like partying. They are all empty. He cannot afford to refill them with the devaluation, and he does not think that people in San Felipe would be able to afford them anyway.

TV runs specials on how to cook "cheap" hallacas that are still way more expensive than last year. Some Christmas jingles try to grace ads. But it stops there. We are not into it this year. We will snack with Pan de Jamon, we will eat our hallaca, we will exchange presents, we will even put some of our very own, very gorgeous, very Venezuelan Christmas music. But we all have our mind elsewhere. How are we going to make it through next year? What is going to happen to us?

I think that Christmas might be even sadder than the last year disaster in the middle of the strike. At least we had a motivation then, giving us something like the Christmas hope for a better tomorrow.

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