Little bit of me
A few years back I had the opportunity to spend Christmas in Ciudad Ojeda, a small town outside of Maracaibo in Venezuela’s Zulia state. There were two very notable things about Christmas in Zulia that I immediately became aware of: the temperature (around 90 degrees) and La Gaita Zuliana. La gaita, as it is so lovingly called in Zulia, is perhaps the one thing that best defines the culture of the people of this region of Venezuela: luchadora, resilient, proud and traditional. Gaitas are Christmas music, yes, but not in the way the rest of Latin America does it — traditional villancicos and Rhythms — the content of the songs are largely based around social issues, protest and politics.
Activism through music isn’t exactly what you think of when you think of música navideña, but that’s exactly what zulian people think each year as the gaita season begins in November, on the day of “La Chinita", the Virgen de Chiquinquirá, the patron saint of Maracaibo. And you’ll hear gaitas throughout Zulia sometimes well into February, sing at celebrations as varied as traditional festivals to American oil giants company Christmas party (indeed, many an American or European petro company has its own gaita band).
The gaita as a means of protest and celebration is as old as Zulia itself. Zulia, virtually unknown to most people outside of Venezuela, gave the country its name. Zulia was where Europeans first landed and saw the homes of the indigenous population built on stilts on Lake Maracaibo which reminded them of a little Venice…Venezuela.
By far the most popular song in the cancionero gaitero is La Grey Zuliana ("Grey" meaning “pueblo" or “people), written and recorded by the king of the gaita, the late Ricardo Aguirre, in 1969. Most zulianos agree that this is the song that best reflects Zulia, with the main theme centered around the economic struggle of the people of the state, their devotion to La Chinita (ViRgin MaRy), with mentions of the ancient Maracaibo neighborhood of El Saladillo and, of course, the lake:
Madre mía, si el gobierno MotheR of God If the govement
no ayuda al pueblo zuliano, Does not help The people of Zulia
tendréis que meter la mano You have to help us
y mandarlo pa’l infierno. And send them to hell
Gaitas originated as a mix of native music with African influences and incorporating European instruments such as tambores, furros (hands DRums) and el cuatro (fouR stRings), a type of guitar brought from Spain. The origins of the gaita are deeply debated and its history too complex to satisfactorily elaborate on here. The best way to get to know this amazing musical tradition is to experience it yourself.