Sporting a baseball cap and sunglasses, I did my best to look inconspicuous as I ascended the wide stairway leading to Venezuela’s national library. It was early 2015, and while seeming more tranquil than I had been led to believe, Caracas must at all times be treated with a double dose of caution. Once within the impressively large library compound, however, I tempered my wariness and took in the view. To the right, the towering El Ávila National Park looms over the large plaza that forms the library grounds. Boasting an impressive 819 square kilometer range, the great mountain park and the feat of eco-preservation that it represents are best appreciated at night, when it appears as a massive swath of darkness in a seemingly endless field of incandescent lights.
Across the plaza stands Venezuela’s Panteón Nacional. As the final resting place of Simón Bolívar it is one of the most compelling symbols of Venezuelan nationalism. Coming this close to El Libertador seemed fitting given that I had come in search of a collection of Latin American field recordings that owed their genesis in his vision of a league of American republics which, in its way, laid the foundation for the creation of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948.
The project was funded by the OAS and officially dubbed the Proyecto multinacional de etnomusicologia y folklore (Multinational Project of Ethnomusicology and Folklore). Its goal was to document the traditional cultures of many of the member states. This extraordinary undertaking took place mainly throughout the 1970s and developed into a very large collection of musical instruments and documentary materials, especially field recordings from some eighteen countries.
I first became aware of this collection through an obscure 1975 Panamanian report uncovered by my colleague and fellow Panamanianist, Nodier Casanova. The report provides a description of the Panamanian portion of the collection. What excited us most was an eyebrow-raising inventory of 68 reels of audio recordings in addition to film, photographs and extensive fieldnotes (see Hassán de Llorente 1975). All were said to have been deposited in Caracas at the Instituto Interamericano de Etnomusicologia y Folklore (INIDEF), which is now known as the Centro de la Diversidad Cultural.
In contrast to its size and significance, as of 2015 the collection seemed to have all but faded into oblivion. When attempts to locate it online proved unproductive I decided to take advantage of a 24-hour layover in Caracas to visit the Centro’s main office, a showpiece country house in the middle of the city. Here, however, my inquiries were met with puzzled expressions. One person nonetheless recalled a large number of recordings having been stored away in a room many years earlier. This news was both promising and discouraging. The collection may still exist, but what would be the state of the reels of acetate tape after 40 years of tropical heat and humidity? My search having stalled, I decided to try my luck with a team of Centro researchers who, I was told, worked out of an office in the National Library. With closing time fast approaching I hopped into one of the many “official” cabs—in my experience the safest way to get around the city—and was soon making my way into the library building.
Entering the Centro’s library office, the visitor’s eye falls upon a variety of folkloric and research artifacts, including a retired Nagra IV-S. I took the presence of this portable recording machine, once a popular part of a fieldworker’s kit, to be a good sign. On the walls are pictures of Luis Felipe Ramón y Rivera (1913-1993), Isabel Aretz (1909-2005) and other legendary Latin American folklorists and ethnomusicologists, a reminder that INIDEF was also, at one point, an elite school for students who aspired to work in these fields. In the absence of the office’s director, I quickly launched into my by-now well-rehearsed pitch to the first person who greeted me. I admit I was completely surprised when my interlocutor, Humberto José López, confirmed that there was indeed a very large collection and, better yet, much of it had been digitized and was currently in the process of being catalogued. No doubt sensing my excitement, he offered to give me a tour.
The collection is located just behind the main entrance. While the absence of cataloguing makes it hard to know just how many hours of archival material it contains, its sheer physical presence provides some indication. 24 ceiling-high metal shelves arranged in groups of four hold rows of compact disc jewel cases positioned next to larger age-worn magnetic tape reels. Filing cabinets line the walls of much of the room. These, Humberto informed me, hold the many sheets of slides that make up the collection’s photographic component.
Humberto standing next to the collection (Caracas, 2015)
Slides from the collection (Caracas, 2016)
As closing time was already upon us and I had a flight to catch the next morning, it was clear I would not be able to actually listen to any recordings on this trip. Summoning whatever patience I could muster, I bid the friendly staff goodbye and promised to return as soon as possible. And I managed to make good on that promise the following year, returning to Caracas for one week in August, 2016.
After an absence of a year and a half, the city seemed familiar, yet also quite different. As before, the capital’s security problems, serious no doubt, did not appear as extreme as many Venezuelan expats had led me to believe. I could still get around with (official) taxies, take the metro to certain destinations, and even walk through many parts of the city. Many caraceños I met were keen on showing me around, with some expressing dismay at the dismal view their friends and relatives abroad had of the city. Yet life in Venezuela had certainly not become easier. Rapid inflation and a critical lack of basic goods resulted in a steep increase in the cost of living. In order to avoid the prohibitive black market prices for traditional staples such as harina pan (cornmeal), rice, and sugar, most caraceños had to wait in long lines for a chance to buy their quota of government-subsidized goods. These tense gatherings, now a familiar sight throughout the country, compounded what was already a very difficult situation.
I was excited to revisit the collection and finally get a chance to listen to the material. Accessing the recordings, however, proved unexpectedly complicated and time-consuming. I was not allowed to handle the CDs directly, but had to wait for Humberto to convert them into MP3 files—a task that took up the entire first day. This unusual system, Humberto explained, was his idea. It was meant specifically to keep researchers from handling and potentially damaging the CDs, as these were commodities that were becoming increasingly difficult to find in Venezuela. The care with which he managed the archive was impressive, underscoring its priceless nature and ultimate fragility. I promised to bring a stack of blank CDs on my next visit, which, indeed, would be a welcome gift from any other researcher who would hope to access the collection.
To my joy and considerable relief, the large majority of recordings I listened to were of good quality—that is, they were audible with minimal pitch fluctuation and static. They bore a close resemblance to the field recordings made by Alan Lomax, in that they featured mainly informal performances that encompassed a variety of traditional forms including music, game songs, storytelling, and oral histories. Also included are observations by the researchers, as well as ethnographic interviews (many focusing on performance technique and instrument construction), which, along with detailed fieldnotes, provide a greater understanding of context.
Accompanying fieldnotes (Caracas, 2016)
The fieldnotes indicate that the researchers included representatives from both INIDEF and local institutions, the latter likely arranging the introductions and providing translations when needed. In the Panamanian case this collaborative approach yielded some interesting results; for example, the collection is much more inclusive of non-mestizo-identified traditions than would be typically the case, featuring a large number of performances by indigenous groups as well as Panamanians of African descent. The greater degree of ethnic diversity fits well with broader Latin American ideas of mestizaje, often based on the tri-ethnic mixture of African, indigenous, and European peoples, even as it differed from established national folk canons. George Amaiz, the Centro’s Collections Coordinator, reminded me that inclusivity had its limits, pointing out that the collection was restricted only to OAS member states. Cuba, for example, was notably absent in the original collection—a lacuna subsequently filled by a collecting expedition sponsored by the government of Hugo Chávez.
Throughout my stay, the Centro’s staff members were always on hand to answer my questions and help to locate materials. Through our many conversations I learned that several were also active as researchers and collectors, traveling with some frequency to specific research sites throughout the country. Although the staff members seemed very active in their various research projects, I couldn’t help but notice that the Centro received very few visitors. There was little doubt in my mind as to why this was the case. Venezuela’s precarious political situation makes for one of the most challenging fieldwork destinations in the Western hemisphere today. And indeed, the concern for one’s personal safety and the challenges outsiders face with respect to mobility and access to basic necessities (not to mention technologies), it should be emphasized, do not only apply to foreigners, but local researchers as well. Venezuelan academics, in fact, are faced with the additional problem of having to negotiate a politically charged environment where the choice to work with a particular musician or musical community, for example, can have political repercussions that may affect their livelihood and careers.
Based on my own experience, I would say that these challenges should not deter others from visiting the library and making use of the excellent resources available there. In spite of what we read about the complex difficulties that the country and its people face todayVenezuela continues to be an active and productive site for various forms of musical research—for how long remains to be seen.
Centro personnel: (front row) George Amaiz, Rosangela Barrios, Noemi Gonzalez, Irama Matheus, Kelina Campoverde Franklin Meza, (back row) Sean Bellaviti (author), Humberto José López, Juan John and Omar Pérez (Caracas, 2016)
Hassán de Llorente, Coralia. 1975. “Proyecto Multinacional de Etnomusicologia y Folklore auspiciado por el Instituto Intermericano de Etnomusicologia y Folklore (INIDEF) y la Direción Nacional del Patriomonio Histórico: Informe parcial de las investigaciones realizadas en Panamá entre la población afro e hispano indígena.” Patrimonio Histórico, Vol. 1, No. 4: 125-135.
Sean Bellaviti received the Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Toronto. He is currently an instructor at Ryerson University. His research focuses on Panamanian popular music and salsa, and extends to themes of nationalism, regionalism, political economy, and genre studies.