“Debería ser ron.”
That was one of the percussionist-vocalists of Venezuela’s Parranda El Clavo, on stage with remarkably accomplished, expressive singer Betsayda Machado in the Skirball Cultural Center’s Magnin Auditorium Thursday night. He winked impishly to the audience as his words were translated — “It should be rum” — by the group’s manager, Juan Souki. It would have been rum, had the show not been moved to this indoor room (no alcohol allowed) from the outside courtyard due to the monsoon that had swept through unexpectedly earlier in the evening, altering plans for the closing night of the Skirball’s 2017 Sunset Concerts series. Water would have to do for this occasion, that occasion being a little ceremony to bless a CD, that CD being the debut recording of Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo, that debut coming a full 30 years since the ensemble started performing at celebrations and ceremonies in its small, rural village of El Clavo.
It was big moment, a little solemnity following what had been an boisterous, exhilarating, audience-shaking performance of traditional songs going back generations. The first run of CDs had only arrived earlier in the day. The musicians were clearly moved and a little overwhelmed— not a shock, given that until last year, the ensemble had never performed outside of El Clavo. That’s right, 30 years in the village, and now on a North American tour of more than 30 cities, and a CD in hand, titled “Loé Loá – Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree,” all set for full public release on Sept. 14.
A little of the water was dripped onto a small statue of El Niño, the baby Jesus, his head poking out from the top of a flowing, regal red cone of a robe. He’d already been paraded around the stage a couple of times by Machado’s sister Nereida, who also sings and dances, but now his participation was requested to bestow grace and fortune on this cherished item.
We all had already been quite blessed with one of the most joyous evenings of music you could imagine, though many in the audience might have wished for some hydration too, not to mention some rum — though the latter hardly could have increased the party spirit, which was ramped up high from the moment the group made its exuberant entrance from the back of the room.
Most fans, many of them Venezuelan, were up dancing throughout the concert, seemingly half making their way to the stage to dance with the artists at one time or another, smiles as bright and broad as they could be all around. This is party music — party is one of the definitions of the term parranda.
It was at a party that Souki first encountered the group. The Caracas resident had been invited to El Clavo for a feast centered on sancocho, the hearty soup of the region, often experienced as a communal meal made in a big pot, everyone tossing something in to the stew, everyone sharing the bounty. Before the encores Thursday he told the tale to us, describing how he’d arrived in town, met some of the locals and then Machado (who was herself well known outside of town, a true voice of her people) and the group performed. And performed. About 25 songs in the ancient tambor style, he said, only stopping when called to from across the street that the sancocho was ready.
As they all ate, he asked where he could normally see this wonderful group perform. At celebrations and parties, he was told. No, not when, where? Do they do concerts? Do they tour? No, he learned. They had never performed outside of El Clavo! That, he was determined, would change. He worked with Jose Louis Pardo, known as DJ Afro of Venezuela’s star modernist group Los Amigos Invisibles, to capture the essence of the field performances and make it work in an album format. They did a great job, with several guests, but nothing intrusive, the album providing an impressive entry into their world, not to mention a captivating listen.
So here we all were this night, shaking and smiling, marveling at the phenomenal webs of rhythms — one particularly jaw-dropping bit came simply from musicians Adrian Gomez, Jose Gomez and Youse Cardozo tapping wooden cylinders on blocks as if pounding grain or something, but in impossibly complex patterns.
It only got more impressive when Diego Alvarez, a.k.a. El Negro, a percussion star from Venezuela living in Los Angeles, was brought on stage to join in. And at many points, the true center of the music was the low moan made by Blanca Castillo on the furruco, the “friction drum” played by stroking a wooden pole stuck into the head of the waist-high drum.
Souki also explained a little history, how the group wanted us all to understand that it represents a “hidden” history of Venezuela, that they are descended from slaves brought from Senegal, that in those days of slavery the masters gave them sticks to work the fields, but during the breaks the sticks were used to make music. Which, of course, ties this to much great music from around the world, the most human expressions, rooted in experiences of inhumanity.
And in the final part of the concert, attention was turned to the current strife and sadness in Venezuela, a nation full of conflict as the economy has collapsed and the government has gone from a modern socialist experiment to an ad-hoc dictatorship. That, Machado explained, with Souki translating, has made her and the group “accidentally famous” via their association with the song “Sentimiento,” a serious piece that commemorates the death and suffering in their nation. But it is also a song of hope:
“It is not impossible for things to get better in Venezuela and to be fixed,” she said. “And we are looking forward to a free Venezuela.”
And after that song, they closed with an ode to the country, waving flags and standing strong. It didn’t dampen the night’s party spirit, it added to it, gave it depth and meaning and context, a night that will loom in memories of those there, all who joined the musicians at the end in shouting, “Venezuela libre!”