Machado's powerful voice shines in this celebration of Afro-Venezuelan culture
Before we start reviewing the album properly, we must address the earworm in the room. The song Oh, Santa Rosa will be stuck in your head for hours and hours, possibly days and days, if you choose to listen to this album, and in the end, you’ll almost grow to hate the song – it’s that catchy. It’s a guaranteed fact. The only known cure is to listen to Dil Dil Pakistan by Pakistani pop merchants Vital Signs, but equally, after doing that, you’ll be humming that particular catchy chorus for days too. That said, it would be a shame to ignore the song, because then you would be missing out on what is a magnificent and joyous song on a fascinating album, one that traverses Venezuela’s complex and unique history of slavery, colonialism, and the African diaspora. Santa Rosa, also known as Rose of Lima, was a Peruvian of mixed-race origin who, after veneration in the Catholic Church, became the patron saint of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as well as of escaped enslaved peoples, which had obvious resonance for the African-descended inhabitants of El Clavo where this album was recorded.
“The result is a heady mix of African rhythms and a singing style that we would associate more with Latin music, and is thus a real mix of the culture and traditions the black inhabitants of El Clavo have managed to cherish and keep, as well as influence from the Hispanic and indigenous communities that surround them. In that sense, it is truly representative of both its people and its place.”
Betsayda Machado herself comes from the aforementioned El Clavo, a small village situated on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, and it is a town that shares a history with many others across the Americas. It was formed by the descendants of black people forcibly brought over to Venezuela and enslaved to work on cacao plantations. The most well-known examples of such towns are Brazilian, where they are called quilombos, but they exist across the Americas, and El Clavo is one such Venezuelan example of this, and it is a seat of Afro-Venezuelan culture, particularly music. The specific style of music that the album extolls is called tambor, descended from the musical styles of West Africa, and it is simply intense percussion combined with choirs and a lead singer, initially designed to take the listeners and dancers to an almost spiritual plane of existence. On Machado’s own website, she says the music is said to ‘make dancers float’, which is a lovely metaphor for the way in which getting lost in the music can make you feel.
Machado left El Clavo in the 1980s to make a name for herself as a singer in Caracas, and after years of success in the capital, she eventually decided to return to her hometown to make a record in the style of music she had herself grown up hearing. The ‘Parranda el Clavo’, or the Party of El Clavo are made up of musicians and singers in her hometown who accompany Machado’s swaggering and charismatic vocals. The result is a heady mix of African rhythms and a singing style that we would associate more with Latin music, and is thus a real mix of the culture and traditions the black inhabitants of El Clavo have managed to cherish and keep, as well as influence from the Hispanic and indigenous communities that surround them. In that sense, it is truly representative of both its people and its place.
And yet, in a strange way, the closest genre in terms of the style of music to this album is not another Latin album, though of course you will hear plenty of similarities to Latin and African music here, but rather Pakistani qawwali music. Qawwali is often deceptively simple instrumentally as it often only employs the use of the human voice, tablas, and harmoniums, like tambor music only using voices and percussion, both make great use of backing choirs that use call and response, both tend to have a lead singer with a powerful voice, and both are intended to take the listener into an ecstatic state, although tambor is not religious music like qawwali often is. While I find qawwali speaks to me on a personal level, one cannot deny that there is a potency to this music as well, and that it has those similar qualities. Machado is a fantastic singer, and the authenticity of her singing and her Parranda make for a wonderful musical experience. It isn’t the sort of album where one song is far better than any other (though one is far, far, FAR catchier) but rather it coheres as a whole, and you find it easy to imagine you’re there, hearing them in a live setting. The album itself is more than that, however. It is also a fascinating cultural document, a recording of a living and breathing culture that remains little known in its’ own country of origin, let alone around the world, and thus Machado and her friends in El Clavo are marvellous ambassadors of Afro-Venezuelan music and culture.