Ambassadors of a
Andrew Gilbert, Globe Correspondent
July 9, 2006
Section: Arts / Entertainment
Calif. - When petroleum prices hit record highs last year, Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez made headlines by selling more than 12 million gallons
of home-heating oil to low-income Americans in the Northeast at below-market
Now Venezuela is offering Bostonians an option on another natural resource:
The Venezuelan Sounds 2006 tour, which includes concerts in Washington,
D.C., New York, Berkeley, and Puerto Rico, showcases some of the South
American nation's finest musicians. It comes to the Regattabar on Wednesday.
The Boston portion of the festival features two stellar bands led by Venezuelan
players who have settled in the United States. On the bill are multi-instrumentalist
Jackeline Rago and her band Snake Trio, based in the San Francisco area,
and Boston-based pianist Leo Blanco's jazz trio with bassist Peter Slavov
and percussionist Jamey Haddad.
While the heating oil program was widely seen as an effort by Chavez
to thumb his nose at the Bush administration (the blustery Venezuelan
president has been outspoken in his opposition to US economic policy in
Latin America) Venezuelan Sounds is a rather more sincere initiative to
increase awareness of the country's largely untapped musical riches.
"Venezuela is full of wonderful music and artists, and there are
more than 150 different rhythms throughout the territory, so we should
try to project our culture abroad," Berklee graduate and Venezuelan
cultural attache Patricia Abdelnour says from Washington. A violist and
recording engineer who graduated from Berklee in the mid-'90s, Abdelnour
has played a leading role in promoting Venezuelan music in the United
States since she launched the Venezuelan Sounds festival in 2004.
"Music can help build bridges with the embassy and the Venezuelan
community in the US," Abdelnour continues, "and between our
It's certainly true that the music of Venezuela is one of the great cultural
treasures of the Americas, a fabulously rich tradition in which the intermingling
of indigenous, European, and West African influences has yielded an array
of musical forms.
So why isn't it better known outside of South America?
One reason is that until recently, most Venezuelan musicians tended to
stay close to home.
"Venezuela is a country where people consume what they produce, including
music," says Rago in an interview after a Snake Trio performance
"Our artists are famous within the country, and we're really proud
of our musical roots. It's something like Brazil or Cuba on a smaller
scale. But meeting a Venezuelan musician outside of the country is rare,
because there are few of us here."
Rago, who was raised in Caracas, started playing mandolin at age 5 and
grew up performing in folkloric ensembles. She moved to the Bay Area to
continue her music studies in 1982, eventually graduating from the now
defunct Music and Arts Institute of San Francisco, where she majored in
Although she's a master of Afro-Venezuelan percussion, her main instrument
is the cuatro, the four-string national instrument of Venezuela that she
points out should also be considered a percussion instrument.
"It's a little Renaissance guitar from the Andalusian part of Spain,
and it's traditionally been used in Venezuela to accompany other instruments,"
Rago and Viscuso, best known as a founding member of the world jazz band
Wild Mango, founded Snake Trio in 1996 with the goal of blending traditional
Venezuelan forms and jazz. They produced and recorded an excellent album
in 2000, "The Dance of the Snake," but the trio took a deeper
turn during a 2002 trip to Venezuela, where it recorded rhythm tracks
with a battery of top Venezuelan percussionists.
The resulting album, "Light the Candle," captures the Snake
Trio's latest incarnation, which is built on the sinuous bass work of
Saul Sierra, a Berklee alum who hails from Mexico City. With a rhythmic
palette that encompasses much of Latin America, from Venezuela's joropo
beat to Dominican merengue, the group has developed a captivating repertoire
of original material and classic jazz compositions such as Wayne Shorter's
"Footsteps," Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat,"
and John Coltrane's "Mr. PC."
"We try to bring the different cultures together," Viscuso
says. "We don't play traditional music. I bring in my influences,
and Saul brings in his. When we played at functions in Venezuela, the
people were impressed. Jackie's one of the few musicians doing this kind
Rago's evangelical approach to her country's music made her a regular
presence at the Venezuelan embassy, where the culture-minded ambassador
has converted a wing of the building into an intimate concert hall. She's
performed in every Venezuelan Sounds festival and returns to Venezuela
often to continue studying folkloric styles.
"Jackie's prodigious," Abdelnour says. "She's in love
with Venezuelan music, rhythms, and traditions, and that comes through
whenever she's playing or talking."
Send e-mail to the Cultural Affairs Office
with questions or comments