Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Venezuela in music

It seems that the new and improved Juan Forero at the Washington Post will not stop from surprising us. For the first time in fact he acknowledges that all in Venezuela before 1998 was not awful. I will not speculate on the reasons that make Juan Forero a little bit more of an objective observer on Venezuela than the cheer leader he was 2 years ago, but a good article always need to be acknowledged.

When I was a student and that the Teresa Carreño was under construction I remember how I was crawling among construction debris to fin a path toward the Jose Felix Ribas auditorium, the only one of the complex that was already running. It was a rather small auditorium, compared to the gigantic Rios Reina that would open once I had left to study in the US, but the acoustics were excellent and to this day it has retained a warmth of sound and atmosphere that I have not found elsewhere (though the AC can be bitterly cold on occasion).

Already in those years Venezuela had embarked on an audacious program to bring music to the youth, to the barrios, as an alternative to an already poor educational system and creeping misery. And by all means it has been a rousing success considering all the odds that have been placed on the road. The ones I was risking injury to go and listen where called at the time the Sinfonica Juvenil, already associated with Sucre. The atmosphere was bon enfant, that is, it was mainly composed by friends and relatives and a dusting of onlookers like me. Concert in, concert out, you would learn to pick up all the faces in the crowd. It was also the Herrera Campins administration and it was not uncommon to see a minister come to attend a representation, sans body guards, something that is unthinkable today as the importance of a minister is directly linked to how many bodyguards (goons?) follow him or her everywhere.

The system of mass musical instruction was starting and it kept growing attracting world wide acclaim, even visits from noted maestros from Europe. Now it is producing its first stars such as Dudamel who are directing or playing in Europe's hallowed centers. Of course, under chavismo and the glorious revolution concert hall music has been taking a back seat as the Rios Reina is needed for all sorts of political events. Not to mention that a kid with talent can make the overseas money in an amount he would never dream of in Venezuela. But at least chavismo has not tampered too much with the youth instruction that is still wide spread though I am not so sure if it is still growing.

Thus Juan Forero tells us about the 31 years of the program, and even regales us with a multimedia presentation. The only missing thing in his article is how difficult it has become in Venezuela to listen to classical music.

Piratry has made havoc with recording industry and record stores. The meager offerings of classical music and jazz that we used to have are all but gone as the stores cannot make enough money to sustain a classical section. When that one exists it is ususally composed of top 40 like pieces of the cheapest labels you can find overseas. Only the Esperanto chain in Caracas still manages to maintain a slight selection, way down since currency control exchange was installed in 2003. Apparently classical music CD are not obtaining preferential dollars.

The radio siutation is not much better. Before the state network, RNV, became the favored propaganda tool of Chavez, it carried a significant amount of classical and jazz, and news from the wires. Now instead you have every speech of Chavez, political talk shows, and a rare piece of music when they finally run out of crap to say. Only in Caracas you had a classical station, always in trouble, always playing top 40 symphonies and now forced to play 50% Venezuelan music. I am not even sure whether it is still on the air. Because of course, that ridiculous 50% Venezuelan music was applied to all broadcasting as if Venezuela had enough Mozart in the past to match the world production. But the revolution cannot be bothered with such cultural subtleties while it is remaking Venezuela's Kultur.

So, the best bet if you want to listen to classical music in Venezuela is to head to the barrios. Even the Felix Ribas is almost out of reach: it is strangely sold out on most concerts when before 2002 it was still easy to walk to the ticket office and get a ticket a few minutes before the performance. All sorts of rumors account to this sudden success. My favorite is the government reserving the seats for its elite so that they do not get a "cacerolazo" when they go. Apparently it did happen often in the 2002-2003 period.

Thus the extraordinary paradox barely hinted in this Forero article: classical music is more of an elite thing than ever except that now it is reserved for barrios conservatories. When the kids leave their school there is nowhere for them to buy a record, except Esperanto where they can hardly afford to enter. Even the buhoneros of pirated CD do not bother carrying Mozart. There is also no way they can afford to go and watch the great maestros unless they are invited to play for them! A year ago as I was putting gas in San Felipe some guy came to peddle his collection of pirated CD. For fun I told him that I was not interested in salsa or regaeton, only classical music. There was a puzzled look on his face. Then he had a bright smile and told me that yes, he had classical salsa from the 60ies and 70ies.... Classical music and Jazz have ways to go still in Venezuela.....

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