Afro-Venezuelans - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. In Venezuela, Catholicism provides the basis for a nationally shared religious tradition, yet, as in many Catholic countries, there is much variation in specific religious practices. The syncretic cult of Maria Lionza, based on indigenous legends, reflects the most widespread fusion of local and Catholic practices. Depicted as a trinity with Negro Felipe and the Indian chief Guaicaipuro, the mythic figure of Maria Lionza has become an iconic representation of Venezuela's tripartite indigenous, African, and European cultural heritage.

Afro-Venezuelan religious practices have been adapted to Catholicism. Drumming and dancing, which figure in the celebrations of patron saints' days and other religious ceremonies, bear a close resemblance to various forms of African ancestor worship. Because the slave population was so heterogeneous, no single African religious system dominated in this syncretization process, as it did for example in Cuba, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, in Trinidad with its Yoruba tradition. There has also been some intersection with indigenous cosmological systems. Figures such as duendes, familiaries, and encantados are types of spirit beings connected with the dead or forces of nature, which act as intermediaries between the parallel realms of physical existence and that of the spirit world. It is through contact with these beings, usually dwelling in deep riverine pools, that curanderos (healers) derive their power and divine the future. These beings are also responsible for the deaths and disappearance of various people. Such beliefs are articulated in the oral traditions not only of Afro-Venezuelans but of indigenous and mestizo peoples as well.

The influx of Cuban immigrants after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 has encouraged the establishment of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería among Venezuelans of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although this is a predominantly urban phenomenon, African influences in Venezuela continue to evolve through a dynamic and continuous migration of cultural practices and forms.

Religious Practitioners. Organized as they were around patron saints, Black cofradías were not simply social organizations, but also religious ones. Some cofradías were subdivided into separate "societies" that had distinct responsibilities. Sojo (1986) reports that in Barlovento, for example, each day of Holy Week had a separate society that was in charge of maintaining the holy images and ritual ceremonies associated with the respective day. In preparation, members would practice celibacy, abstain from consumption of alcohol, and perform various ablutions before "dressing" the saintly image.

Since colonial times, magico-religious societies have also existed, employing various forms of brujería, or "witchcraft." In Afro-Venezuelan communities, as in the rest of Venezuela, there is belief in brujos (sorcerers), who can cast spells and cause various forms of daño (harm). Fear of mal de ojo ("evil eye") against children is particularly common. Curanderas are sought for their knowledge of herbal medicines, which are used both in combatting illness and counteracting daño. In Barlovento, healers are sometimes called ensalmadores and are particularly respected for their ability to divine the future as well as to find lost objects and people.


Ceremonies and Arts. Afro-Venezuelan ceremonies have been primarily linked to the Christian calendar, and many Afro-Venezuelan music, dance, and costume traditions are associated with specific church celebrations. The Nativity, Holy Week, Corpus Christi, the Cruz de Mayo, and patron saints' holidays are central to Afro-Venezuelan expressive culture throughout the country. The Día de los Inocentes (Feast of Fools, 28 December) is also celebrated and is particularly important in Barlovento, where "governments of women" are set up parodying male authority with absurd decrees and other actions such as cross-dressing. Carnival celebrations (the week before Lent) are significant, especially in eastern Venezuela, where in communities such as Güiria and El Callao there has been a large Caribbean influence. During saints' feast days, promesas (promises) made to the saints in return for personal favors are fulfilled. Correct observance of ritual activities such as offerings, drumming, dancing, and the feeding of all those present are essential to satisfying these promises.

In various regions of Venezuela, different religious holidays have emerged as important local celebrations. Around Lake Maracaibo, the fiesta of a Black saint, San Benito, (26 December to 2 January) is prominent and is celebrated with the playing of chimbánguele drums. In Cata, Chuao, Cuyagua, and Ocumare de la Costa (Aragua), Naiguatá (Distrito Federal), San Francisco de Yare (Miranda), and Canoabo and Patanemo (Carabobo), the Diablos Danzantes (organized into cofradías) are the centerpiece of the Corpus Christi celebrations, performing in particularly vivid costumes and masks that incorporate African imagery. In Barlovento, the Fiesta of San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) has been of singular importance since slavery. The three days of San Juan (23 to 25 June) were the only three days of the year during which slaves were given a rest from hard labor and were permitted to gather freely. During the holiday, not only would slaves celebrate with drumming and dancing, but also plot insurrection and flight.

As the one time of the year given to Blacks, the Fiesta of San Juan became associated with reversal of the social order as well as with cimarronaje, particularly in Curiepe, the town that has come to be most strongly associated with San Juan festivities. Two different drumming styles are associated with San Juan, linked, respectively, to public and private aspects of the fiesta: the large mina drum is played in tandem with the short, upright curbata in the central plaza, whereas the smaller, cylindrical culo e'puya drums are played directly in front of the saint during the velorios performed in private houses. Although attempts have been made since the late 1940s to incorporate the celebration of San Juan into a larger national tradition, the holiday remains a symbol of Afro-Venezuelan culture and is consistently used to reaffirm the values associated with it.

Another important Afro-Venezuelan ceremonial form is the velorio. Held during funerals and on the eve of saints' feast days, a velorio typically features a small party that travels from house to house performing drumming and dancing before the image of the saint. Other velorios, however, such as that for the Cruz de Mayo, remain stationary and are held in one place. Funerals for children who died before being baptized are called mampulorios and are considered happy occasions: the children, being innocent, are believed to ascend directly to heaven in the form of angelitos (little angels). The traditions associated with Christmas parrandas and with the Cruz de Mayo fulia songs are also important in Afro-Venezuelan culture, particularly in the central coastal regions. During Christmas, parranda (merrymaking) groups go from house to house singing songs to the accompaniment of small drums. During the Cruz de Mayo celebrations, fulias offer a forum for competitive singing as performers try to outwit each other through improvised verses or with poems organized in the strict ten-line decima structure. Fulias are accompanied by the tambor criollo (a drum), as well as cuatros (four-stringed guitarlike instruments), and maracas. Gaitas are another form of Christmas music, although most commonly associated with the western region of Zulia and Isla Margarita.

Afro-Venezuelan musical expression is characterized by a great diversity of drums. Most are of African origin and many bear direct resemblance to the drums of Bantu-speaking and West African groups. Generally, drums use specific rhythmic patterns to accompany specific song or dance forms; hence, drums, rhythms, and stylistic forms may all be designated by the same name. In turn, this stylistic complex is usually associated with a specific fiesta or celebration.

In Barlovento, the culo e'puya drums are important, as are the mina and curbata, which are played together. Quitiplas are also prominent in Barlovento. These are fashioned from hollow bamboo tubes and played by striking them on the ground. (They are similar to the Trinidadian "tambou bamboo" that gave rise to steel-drum styles.) Along the central coastal region, the cumaco is widespread, used in San Juan celebrations as well as the secular bailes de tambor (dances). The tamunango is found in Afro-Venezuelan communities in the interior. To the west, in Zulia, the chimbángueles are used to accompany San Benito festivities, and a friction drum called furruco is commonly played during Nativity celebrations and the singing of gaitas. In the eastern coastal regions, influence from Trinidad is evident in the performance of steel-band ( estilban ) music. Maracas (seed-filled rattles) are prevalent throughout Venezuela and are commonly used to accompany drumming, as is another indigenous-derived instrument, the conch.

Other small percussion instruments, such as the charrasca, a small notched scraper, are also used as accompaniment. Less common instruments found in Barlovento and along the coast include the marimbola, a large bass "thumb-piano" derived from the African kalimba; the carángano, a musical bow similar to the Brazilian berimbau; and the marimba barloventeña, a large mouth-bow (Aretz 1967). As in other parts of Venezuela, the four-stringed cuatro is extremely common.

In addition to musical, dance, and costume traditions, oral lore forms an important part of Afro-Venezuelan expressive culture. Some of the best-known tales in Afro-Venezuelan oratory center around the exploits of Tío Conejo (Uncle Rabbit), who manages to outwit Tío Tigre (Uncle Tiger). In the twentieth century a small body of Afro-Venezuelan literature has been established, including the works of novelist and folklorist Juan Pablo Sojo and the poet Manuel Rodrigues Cárdenas. Theater and dance groups, which have a long history of performance in Barlovento, have become progressively more important with the appearance of such groups as the Centro de Creación Teatral de Barlovento-Curiepe, the Teatro Negro de Barlovento, and Madera.




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