Although we didn’t get a chance to mention it our program, “The Cumbia Diaspora,” Venezuela plays a pretty big role in the cumbia story.
Sitting right next door to Colombia’s coastal region, it was natural that cumbia caught on in Venezuela quickly, reaching Caracas perhaps even faster than cities in the Colombian interior like Medellin and Bogota. Colombian bands from the 50s like Lucho Bermudez played frequently there, and Venezuelan bands came and played cumbia in Colombia, some with considerable popularity. Part of the reason is that Venezuela had the resources and the market to support a vibrant nightlife and music industry.
According to our top cumbia scholar Hector Fernandez D’Loeste:
“During that time Venezuela was experiencing a boom from the oil industry. Through that boom that had imported tons of American technology, and a lot of bands emerged and started playing music for the middle and upper class in Venezuela, who which were cash rich from oil.”
One of the most important early bands in Venezuela was called Los Melodicos (in the picture above), founded by Renato Capriles in 1958 and still running a version of the band as of 2008, amazingly. Their sound is really fantastic – less rich rhythmically than what Lucho Bermudez was doing across the border but with these really rich big band arrangements that surpassed what Bermudez was doing, full of 4-part saxophone soli and horn shouts. There’s almost equal parts American swing and Colombian cumbia present here in “Ojos Verdes”:
Venezuelan dance bands like Los Melodicos didn’t play cumbias exclusively – they were all-purpose groups played Cuban music, American foxtrots, boleros and ballads, as well. Another important band of the time was Billo’s Caracas Boys, run by a transplanted Dominican from the Cibao named Billo Frometá:
According to Hector Fernandez-L’Hoeste, Billo’s band was well received in Bogota and Medellin, and his stripped-down and simplified sound was part of what contributed to the rise of the style known as chuco-chucu.
The other Venezuelan bandleader worth mentioning from this period is Pastor Lopez. To my ears, his music sounds closer to the Colombian aesthetic, less whitened and jazzed-up. Indeed he lived the majority of his life in Colombia, and passed away in Bogota just this last December. This song, “Llora Mi Corazon” is really great:
Coming up: M is for Mexico