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The Country Is in Chaos. Can You Keep Making Music?

The Country Is in Chaos. Can You Keep Making Music?

Music education has long been important to Venezuela, but with the nation in turmoil, music students and teachers are struggling.

Music has historically been a source of immense pride for Venezuela’s citizens. From traditional genres like joropo, a rural form of string-based music (not unlike the fandango), to the embrace of electronic music, the South American country is known for a rich diversity of sound. In part, its musical dexterity can be traced to the creation, in 1975, of a sustainable national music-education system called “El Sistema,” which gained worldwide acclaim for bringing classical-music classes into schools in every economic sector. (Gustavo Dudamel, the current music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, got his start in El Sistema.) But as with so much of Venezuelan society right now, even this revered music program is in peril. Over the past six years, as the disastrous leadership of President Nicolás Maduro has plunged the country into a state of chaos, with hyperinflation, food shortages, a population exodus, and a breakdown of services like health care, the music scene has taken a backseat to issues of mere survival. (A sampling of current problems in Venezuelan music education includes a lack of funds for instrument maintenance; stolen instruments; instructors leaving the country; no places to rehearse or perform; and more.)

For young Venezuelan musicians, these significant challenges result in lost opportunities and broken dreams. But no one is giving up. Here are some of the stories of the artists who are doing the best they can to make music, under incredibly difficult conditions.

José David Lunar, 27, plays the cuatro, a traditional Venezuelan instrument, in the band Song3.
María José Castejón playing maracas at the Song3 rehearsal.

María José Castejón, 25 Maracas player

As a student at Universidad Simón Bolívar, a public science-oriented university in Caracas, Castejón has been using her musical skills to protest the presidency of Nicolás Maduro—playing the maracas during mass demonstrations. “Every event I do is my protest, because I keep making music despite what is happening,” she says. "It is hard, but we are still doing it.” María José Castejón was only 17 when she fell in love with maracas, after playing them in a classical Venezuelan piece called “Cantata Criolla.” She started making music at the age of 11, taking cuatro lessons and music theory at the Typical Orchestra in her home state of Anzoátegui; later on, at 16, she began performing as a percussionist in the Sistema Nacional de Orquestas, Venezuela’s national orchestra system. But with the maracas, there was a connection that remains. The instrument’s rich history is part of the attraction: maracas originated with the indigenous tribes of South America and the Caribbean long before the arrival of colonizers; they were used in healing rites and religious ceremonies. Nowadays, along with the harp and the cuatro, maracas are an essential element of Venezuelan sound. “Maracas are an instrument that deserve stardom—they have a lot to say,” Castejón explains. “They allow you to dance while you play them.”

Cherart Rodríguez is a percussionist with the Typical Orchestra of Caracas, one of the few institutions that accepted him to study in spite of his being blind.

Cherart Rodríguez, 17 Sings and plays the cuatro

When it comes to music, Rodríguez says, “It is my life. I started with her, I am with her, and I will spend my lifetime with her.”

The teenager’s tenor voice makes the walls rumble. Cherart Rodríguez sings and strums the cuatro, the most Venezuelan of Venezuelan folk instruments, similar to a ukulele but with a longer neck, more frets, and different tuning. Every weekend for the past four years, Rodríguez has been traveling across the nation’s capital to attend rehearsals with the Orquesta Típica Infantil y Juvenil Caracas (OTIJC), where he learns and plays a variety of sounds, ranging from percussion to strings.

Rodríguez, who was born blind, faced an uphill battle obtaining a proper music education: most music schools he applied to told him they wouldn’t take him because there were no teachers for students like him. In 2015, when Rodríguez was 13, his family reached out to Óscar Martínez, the director of the OTIJC, who embraced the challenge of helping to educate the teen in music. Now, four years after enrolling, Rodríguez is proficient not only in the cuatro but also in guitar, drums, snare drums, maracas, and bongo drums. His peers in the OTIJC are central to the experience, guiding him across classrooms and letting him know what's happening around him. “They are always there when I need them, in good times and bad,” he says.

Diana Valero plays an original composition based on her experience during protests in 2014, 2017, and 2019. She plans on using the piece as part of her application to the Berklee College of Music in the US.

Diana Valero, 16 Piano player

Part of Valero’s music education requires her to take online music lessons, but completing courses isn’t easy when there’s no reliable internet.

Sadness, rage, fear, uncertainty, hope. Diana Valero hits the keys of her piano, and the music tells the story of the street protests against the government of Maduro. The 16-year-old, a resident of the Los Guayabitos neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas, has turned her frustration into a multilayered piano piece, titled “La Historia del Caos” (“A Story of Chaos”). She will use it along with images of the protests to apply for a scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, a top US music university, to study film scoring and music composition.

When Valero was seven years old, she asked her parents to sign her up for guitar lessons. Her hands were too small for the guitar neck, however, so teachers recommended that she learn piano. She’s currently enrolled in the Ars Nova academy, a private school where she’s obtaining a bachelor’s degree in music at the same time she’s finishing high school. Two years ago, she switched from practicing on a keyboard to playing on a grand piano in her basement, a present from a music teacher whose brother decided to leave Venezuela (and the piano) in 2016. “I wouldn’t be able to pay even for the fifth part of that piano,” she says.

Sebastián Lemoine's studio, built with equipment he bought for cheap from people leaving the country. He's creating his own production company, Poseidon Audio Production.

Sebastián Lemoine, 22 Music engineer and producer

Building a studio from scratch with little money isn’t easy. The whole setup is jury-rigged: for instance, Lemoine uses a sock to hold the keys on his keyboard in place.

Over the past two years, Sebastián Lemoine has been slowly turning a bedroom into a home recording studio. He had help: the bedroom is part of an apartment owned by his uncle, who left the country in 2015, and the equipment inside was obtained with the help of folks like his parents, who gifted him a used mixing console.

Though Lemoine’s makeshift studio now has a name, Poseidon Audio Production, making a living through music remains an elusive dream. He doesn’t know what days he can work, thanks to surprise power outages that can last for hours or days, and internet access is spotty, making it difficult for him to reach international clients. But in spite of all this, Lemoine still bets on Venezuelan musicians, and even though his clients usually can't pay, he believes their talent and sheer force of will mean “we can turn that into something.”

Marcos Salazar, musician, actor, professor, radio host, and theater director, at an antigovernment demonstration protesting the lack of water and electricity.

Marcos Salazar, 31 Radio-show host

Music plays a big part of many political demonstrations. Salazar is part of La Pelorela, a music-based protest group that invites people to bring makeshift instruments to generate noise against the country’s increasing chaos.

“We are not Putin, we are not Trump. We are the people united against the oppressor,” screams Marcos Salazar while hitting an empty paint container in a protest called by the opposition leader Juan Guaidó in Caracas in early April. A group of people surround Salazar and join in the slogans he is chanting.

Salazar is not a musician per se—he hosts a radio news show called Notiaudio El Pitazo—but music has been a constant through his life. As a teenager he took singing lessons, and he had a few rock bands; his guitar skills are self-taught. He credits the financial support of family members outside the country to keep his lifestyle afloat. “An income in a foreign currency is the only thing that can help you,” he says. “We sing to the rhythm of batucadas, we give the protest a different atmosphere. We show that we are still angry, we are still demanding, but not letting the terror take over us.”

Horus (real name: Siulbert Osorio) began his rap career at open-mic nights and by rapping on buses. Now he’s recording his first album.

Siulbert Osorio (Horus), 22 Rapper

At one point, Horus considered quitting performing hip-hop altogether in favor of more stable work: “Music had me discouraged. I dedicated too much effort into it, and it didn’t even return the peace of mind I needed to keep making it.”

His birth certificate reads “Siulbert Osorio,” but in hip-hop circles he is known as Horus. Osorio discovered hip-hop as a little kid by listening to his father’s English-language rap records. He didn’t get hooked, though, until his mother gifted him a pirate CD with a mix of Spanish-speaking rappers like Nach, Randy Acosta, and Los Aldeanos. “That album was my life; I listened to it every day,” he says. “It was when I realized that rap was being made here, too.”

By the age of 16, Osorio was going to open-mic events in different areas of Caracas to perform. Two years ago, after dropping out of a program in audiovisual arts at the Universidad Nacional Experimental de las Artes (UNEARTE) so that he could work various jobs to support his family, Osorio moved to Colombia for more economic opportunities. Once, when he was on vacation back in Venezuela, a producer who had heard his work invited him to perform during the intermission of a show, called “Batalla de Maestros” (“Masters Battle”), in Chile—and thus began Osorio’s hip-hop career. Now he is back in Venezuela to record his first album, though still scraping by. “It gives me enough money for the basics; there are no luxuries,” he says. “But it’s enough to keep at it.”

Duglas Mendoza plays the guitar at the youth center in Caracas. Though the instrument is missing a string, Mendoza still uses it to teach the choir at church.
Bryan Carrer, 28, plays the flute at a friend’s apartment.

Duglas Mendoza, 30 Music teacher, singer, keyboard player

Mendoza is looking to record his first self-composed song but doesn’t have enough money to afford a studio.

Duglas Mendoza lives with his mother and three nephews in San Isidro in Petare, one of the biggest and most violent slums in Latin America. Starting last year, when his older brother died in a car accident, he has been supporting his family by working at a private institution researching inflation. (His mother, a pensioner, only receives 40 thousand bolívares, or $7, in income every month.) It’s been more than three months since water came out of the tap, and his family has had to search for it in streams from mountains, miles away from their house, while the power goes out often.

A self-taught singer and occasional keyboard player, Mendoza began playing music about eight years ago using, among other things, a broken guitar gifted to him by a neighbor. (“I glued it together with white glue. It does not sound entirely good,” he says. “But it does not prevent me to play.”) Now he teaches music, with a guitar missing a knob, to a group of kids in a youth center in Petare that belongs to the Catholic Church, hoping that by providing instruction in music he will help keep young people away from the violence all around them. “I feel like all my life I’ve had a calling to do music; it is what I am passionate about,” he says. “Music is everything in my life.”

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Andrés Cartaya, a musician and teacher, with one of his students, playing joropo, a type of traditional Venezuelan music.

Andrés Cartaya, 28 Music teacher

Despite the difficulties of working in arts education in one of the most economically volatile countries in the world, Cartaya tries to stay upbeat. “We have many obstacles, but Venezuela is still a country of possibilities,” he says.

Andrés Cartaya, 28, and his student Gabriel Parrier, 14, sit in a backyard to play joropo, a Venezuelan music genre and dance influenced by European, native Venezuelan, and African melodies and known for its 3/4 tempo and lyrical earthiness.

Cartaya works as a private instructor and also teaches traditional music at UNEARTE, where he became the first graduate in bandola, a type of mandolin, and in the Sistema Nacional de Orquestas, the Venezuelan national orchestra system. Despite his low salary as a music teacher, much of which goes to transportation to and from lessons, Cartaya takes great pleasure in teaching. Many of his fellow teachers have long since fled Venezuela, thanks to the political turmoil and hyperinflation. “No one should be going through so much work as we are,” he says. “A college professor with a PhD, a master’s degree, and 20 years of experience should not be earning little over minimum wage.”

Update, 6/4: An earlier version of the story misstated the age that María José Castéjon began playing drums. It was 16. We regret the error.

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