May 1, 2007

Prof blends Venezuelan politics, music

T.M. Scruggs went to Venezuela expecting to find a story about music. Instead, he found a story about politics. In a U of C music department–sponsored talk Friday entitled “Africa regresa al Caribe” (“Africa returns to the Caribbean”), Scruggs, a University of Iowa professor, discussed how the ascent of Afro-Caribbean music mirrors the rise of the poorer classes in Venezuelan political and cultural history.

His many visits to Venezuela convinced Scruggs that music and politics interact in interesting ways in the country. “Music and concepts of ethnicity are so closely intertwined with trying to stop injustice and the push for change,” he said.

Venezuelan music is a useful lens for looking at the country’s history, according to Scruggs. Before the rise of Afro-Caribbean beats, Venezuelan music drew mostly from European forms and was intended for an elite audience. Those in power neglected Afro-Venezuelan music and relegated it to the category of folklore. As salsa and other Afro-Caribbean forms became popular, African influences returned to music, along with a larger role for the under-classes.

“There has been a general rise in consciousness about the African component of Venezuelan culture,” Scruggs said, adding his belief that music played a big role in this rise. In fact, the title of his talk is the name of a song describing the return of African influences by the band Desorden Publico.

The return of African-influenced music coincides with an increase in lower-class power, according to Scruggs. As an example, he described the music’s role in a Venezuelan election in which the public voted on whether or not President Hugo Chavez could stay in office.

The opposition to Chavez, which was mostly rooted in the middle class, shouted “Se va, se va, Chavez se va” (“He goes, he goes, Chavez goes”) to a slow beat that is characteristic of European musical forms.

Chavez’s backers—mostly members of the lower class—chanted “Uh-Ah Chavez no se va” (Chavez doesn’t go). This beat drew from hip-hop, had a quick tempo, and was from a song that Scruggs traced to an Afro-Caribbean band.

Scruggs saw the rise of both the lower classes and Afro-Caribbean music as part of a series of other changes, including the rising prominence of local radio stations. Around 350 new radio stations have opened in the last four years, which Scruggs equated to the creation of 4,500 new radio stations in this country.

To relate music and politics, Scruggs emphasized, requires an understanding that music and the radio play a bigger role in Venezuela than in the United States. “Keep in mind that radio looks much larger in their lives,” he said.