Sweet Sounds from Venezuela

When it comes to Venezuela, it’s easy to lose sight of its rich musical heritage. More often than not, its busty beauty queens and homerun hitters grab the headlines. But Venezuela’s output of unique music styles and noteworthy musicians is significant. Consider the fame garnered in recent decades by such singular artists as composer Aldemaro Romero, salsa singer Oscar D’ León, big band leader Andy Durán, and jazz pianist Ed Simon, among many others.

Finally, a Caracas-based label has been created to creatively package and make internationally available recordings of some of Venezuela’s finest contemporary musicians. Cacao Música takes its name from the country’s most prized agricultural product, and fittingly the company’s logo is cup of steaming hot chocolate. The two men behind it, drummer and radio station owner Omar Jeanton and Major League Baseball star Bobby Abreu, are passionate about getting out the word about their nation’s bounty of great music. Their interest in every detail of the label’s output is obvious from the artist roster and repertoire to the imprint’s distinctive image.

Perhaps not since the glamorous gatefold LPs of the famed CTI label of the 1970s has so much attention been paid to the details of packaging and artistic design. Cacao Música’s CDs are cuddled in a sturdy, spiral-bound portfolio of heavy paper that includes a bilingual (Spanish and English) booklet that runs to 70 pages, adorned with original artwork, riveting color photos, and essays by musicians and producers. Even before the music pours forth from the speakers, the visually arresting CD packages have made a bold impression.

The label’s most recent releases reflect the wide diversity of Venezuela’s music heritage, from folkloric-oriented to cutting edge Latin jazz. Otro Llano (Another Plain), by composer and vocalist Vidal Colmenares, captures the rustic beauty of such indigenous styles as the 6/8 joropo and the stately pasaje. When Orlando Montiel, Cacao Música’s director of artists and repertoire, first heard Colmenares in 1966, he was stunned and surprised to learn that such an accomplished singer and composer was virtually unknown. Otro Llano is the his first album in over a decade and shows the unaffected rural style that is one of Venezuela’s signature music genres.

La Patilla is another release that focuses on rhythms that have evolved along Venezuela’s long Caribbean coast. It features guitarist and composer Aquiles Báez, an internationally renowned artist who has performed with the likes of Cuban saxophonist Paquito D‘Rivera. The expressive Báez describes himself as a member of the magic realism movement who “needs to dance at least once a week.” His music is rhythmically brisk and joyous in spirit---an invigorating blend of folkloric and avant-garde influences. Clarinetist Anat Cohen, a rising star on the New York City jazz scene, is perfectly fitted to the exotic blend of music idioms that Báez has fashioned for this exceptional release.

An elegant chamber music tone is created on Suelos, by the Cuarteto De Clarinetes De Caracas, on such works as Aldemaro Romero’s “Preludio y quirpa,“ Colombian composer José Revelo’s “Fantasía en 6/8,” and the legendary Cuban composer Ernesto Lacuna’s “Danza negra.” They also turn to jazz and Brazilian music for interpretations of D’Rivera’s “Monk-tuno” and Hermeto Pascoal’s “Bebê.” The adventurous combination of classical and popular works, all performed with astounding virtuosity, makes the album another standout for the fledgling label.

Another noteworthy release is Coincidencias by singer and composer Luz Maria. The dark-voiced beauty is showcased by acoustic arrangements that make sparing use of strings and horns, creating a restful and intoxicatingly romantic program of ballads that’s best described as timeless tropical pop, enlivened on several tracks by a splash of jazz and salsa.

One of the country’s certified jazz greats, the well-recorded vibraphonist Alfredo Naranjo, headlines El Guajeo, which features such guests as Nuyorican trombonist Jimmy Bosch. Two other titles star Cuban instrumentalists who are revered in Venezuela. Telegrafía Sin Hilo by percussionist José Luis Quintana “Changuito,” ranges from hard-hitting salsa to avant-garde Latin jazz with boasts a band of Venezuelan instrumental greats. Italuba II, by drummer Horacio Hernández “El Negro,” an all-Cuban quartet outing with a softer edge, features trumpeter Amik Guerra and keyboardist Ivan Bridón Nápoles.

By Mark Holston