Why is it that amazing art seems to come from the most troubled places?
With its hostile socialist government, political and economic turmoil, Venezuela has become the new Cuba. And, judging from Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo, the music is terrific.
Deconstructing their entire name unpacks their history. After early success as a backup singer, Betsayda Machado returned to her tiny hometown of El Clavo, which means the nail — to launch a solo career with a village band. La Parranda has multiple meanings — party, spree or carol — that coalesce in the rural Venezuelan tradition of an epic floating new year’s party that moves through every house in town. That the music is rich in Afro-Cuban rhythms is no surprise. El Clavo is in Barlovento, literally “windward,” a subterritory on the Caribbean coast whose cacao plantations originally depended on African slave labor.
“It’s the most Afro area in Venezuela,” says manager Juan Souki. “Slaves started to escape and form rebel towns, like El Clavo.” Photos online show a modest village with houses and storefronts painted in bright, primary colors. “There are only about 5,000 people in the general area, and only 1,500 people in the central part of town. Although it is only about an hour away from Caracas, not many people visit.”
Machado launched her career at 17, after winning a contest as the region’s best vocalist: the Black Voice of Barlovento. But la Parranda was not so much a band she rejoined as one she was born into and never left. “Music,” says Souki, “is the mother tongue of the town. The band has mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, there are retired nurses, cacao workers, firemen.”
The songs are about love, political strife, traditional life with the repertoire honed by what is requested as they move from house to house in the local festival.
“This is a dreamer’s project,” says Souki, an expatriate Venezuelan theatrical director and entrepreneur who met Machado in another project, and has been with this band, if not from its beginning three decades ago, since its emergence on the world stage. “We have no team, no infrastructure. In the end, it was nothing that we could have ever achieved on our own.”
Their debut album was recorded under a mango tree in the town center. The first gig outside the village was at Lincoln Center. Their next performance is at the Richmond Folk Festival.
Betsayda Machado y la Parranda el Clavo performs on Friday, Oct. 13, from 8 to 9:15 p.m. at the Community Foundation Stage. They perform on Saturday, Oct. 14, from 6 to 7 p.m. on the Altria Stage and on Sunday, Oct. 15, from 5 to 6 p.m. at the Altria Stage.