RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 14, 2017
From Rebel Slaves to Sheer Joy: Betsayda Machado and La Parranda El Clavo’s Afro-Venezuelan Party
“One of the most joyful shows I’ve seen in a long time.” Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR
A string of secret villages lies short bus ride from Caracas, tucked deep in lush foliage. Find them on the right day, and they beat with the pulse and poetry of a band strolling from house to house. You’re witnessing parranda, a sound that finds earthy, moving expression in the voice of Betsayda Machado.
“One of parranda’s meanings is ‘party,’” explains Betsayda Machado said, speaking to journalist Kelly Vance through her manager, Juan Souki. “Parranda is a celebratory genre and when you get involved in the singing of parranda, you become a parrandero.”
Machado helped cultivate musical talents in her village’s band La Parranda El Clavo, and the party reverberates on the group’s debut album, Loé Loá – Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree (Odelia; release: September 14, 2017), from friends and relatives to Los Amigos Invisibles’ DJ Afro (Jose Luis Pardo). Together, Pardo and Souki transformed the field recordings that captured Machado’s energy under the spreading mango tree that gave the album its name (recordings by Latin Grammy-winner Dario Penaloza).
Parranda has many branches, but Machado and La Parranda focus on the trunk, the drums and words and voices that they feel form the heart of their tradition. “Parranda has a lot of rhythm, poetry and melody,” Betsayda said. “Only hearing the drum on its own, it will make you smile. We are purists; we don’t worry about adding lots of melodic instruments. We defend the old ways and make our own drums. We are lucky to have the lano trees that make the best drums in our town.”
Machado and her fellow musicians hail from descendants of rebel slaves who set up hidden communities in the brush of the Barlovento region, called cumbes. They kept to their ways, even when, like Machado, they moved to nearby cities.
Machado’s voice won her recognition long before The New York Times called her music “vital, accomplished, local, unplugged, deeply rooted,” long before she ever reached an international stage. She swept a local singing competition in the region, earning the name “the black voice of Barlovento.” She won a spot in a major Caracas musical ensemble and mastered other Venezuelan folk styles. She shared the stage with the likes of Oscar D’ León and Vida Boheme.
But Machado kept her ties back home, and with La Parranda El Clavo. She and her fellow parranderos–including three cocoa farming brothers, a mother and son team, and Machado’s dancing and singing sister–played village celebrations and funerals. They never thought to take their music anywhere else. Outsiders showed little professional interest in the group, though La Parranda knew they had a mighty tradition worth nurturing. They never recorded a single song.
Juan Souki came to El Clavo on a lark, only to dedicate the next few years of his creative life to Machado and La Parranda. “They represent a significant part of Afro-Latin culture,” he muses. “We’re starting to see we have this jewel we should treasure.”
Souki has worked with Machado to bring this work to the world. He tapped childhood friend DJ Afro. He played a video of Machado for a friend at a conference, and soon had festival dates booked in Canada and New York. They had never played outside of El Clavo in 30 years when they landed an invitation from Lincoln Center, though the band couldn’t make it for bureaucratic reasons. The group is returning to North America for an extensive tour this summer and autumn, bringing their unique perspective on their homeland and the world to new audiences.
La Parranda’s touring group is a small echo of what you’d hear in El Clavo under the mango and lano trees, a mere 8 players compared to the hundred or so that might be part of a Christmas celebration, Machado notes. Yet the spirit, one of defiant survival and sheer joy, resounds the moment they strike the drum or sing the first note. “The party is a part of our lives,” smiles Machado. “That never changes.”