Venezuela’s Uprooted Musicians: Bands Struggle to Survive
The rock band Los Mesoneros were filling Caracas’ principal Alfredo Sadel Square with thousands of fans, earning four Latin Grammy nominations for their 2011 album Indeleble, and climbing to the top of their country’s music charts with pop-rock songs about love and infidelity, before they left Venezuela and started in Mexico from scratch.
On a recent Saturday, the band is taking to the stage at a beer garden in central Mexico to win new hearts. Shortly after 9 p.m., a floor manager at Jardin de Cerveza Hercules in the city of Queretaro looks out at the crowd and estimates about 250 people are eating at picnic tables, and another 100 or so are standing closer to the stage. Many, it seems, are not expecting live music, but appear pleased enough by the outdoor venue on a cloudless night. Luis Jimenez, the lead vocalist, leans into the microphone. “For those of you who know us and those of you who don’t know us, we’re Los Mesoneros,” he says in Spanish. “We’re from Caracas, Venezuela.”
In Venezuela, bands such as Los Mesoneros, if far from superstars, are widely adored within the modern rock genre. But as the country continues to slip into political and economic chaos, such musicians are fleeing en masse to places like Mexico, a longtime music mecca for Latin American performers. And here, they are now facing a hard truth: When moving from one country to another, former triumphs do not guarantee musical success. Fame is relative, and hard-won status can be easily lost. And even if bands have immigrated intact, forging a new career in Mexico is near-unanimously demanding of patience and time.
“At one point, we didn’t know if it’d work,” says Andres Belloso, the bassist of Los Mesoneros. “In Mexico, we went back to playing in bars, like we were 18.”
The same holds true for Sebastian Ayala, drummer for Latin Grammy award-winning La Vida Boheme, who came to Mexico in 2014. “The first two years, it was like hell,” Ayala says, noting the band struggled to make contacts. Rapper Mcklopedia, who also moved to Mexico in 2014, recalls gang members in his West Caracas neighborhood shooting at one another for hours each day before he emigrated. “There was a point when it ended because they had all killed one another. And that day there was silence,” he says. “Instead of moving to a better neighborhood, I left the country.”
musicians are only a small fraction of the estimated 2 million Venezuelans now
living in 90 countries around the world. In total, more than 40,000 Venezuelans are currently believed to reside in Mexico, while nearly 6,000 have become permanent or temporary residents in the first seven months of 2017, higher than any other Latin American nationality. “It’s astonishing,” says immigration lawyer Miguel Angel Méndez, noting he sees officials turn away Venezuelans almost daily at the airport.
That’s a radical change from the past. A few decades ago, kids who would grow up to become Venezuela’s musical greats immigrated had themselves immigrated from other locales during years of uninterrupted economic growth. Pop artists Yordano and Franco de Vita moved from Italy, singer Ricardo Montaner came from Argentina, and composer Ilan Chester from Israel. Venezuela’s unabated oil wealth, trickling down to nearly every industry, helped spur record labels like Universal and Sonografica to open up shop and sign a wave of talent.
But a generation of Venezuela’s millennial-aged musicians – many of whom have largely only known the political regimes of Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro – are now leaving the country. Uprooted performers in Mexico currently include solo acts such as Mcklopedia, Algodón Egipcio, Ulises Hadjis, Akapellah and Laura Guevara; studio musicians such as Orestes Gomez, Freddie Adrian, and Lester Paredes; and members of Los Mesoneros, La Vida Bohème, Okills, Rawayana, Majarete Sound Machine and Famasloop – all of whom have moved to the country in the last five years.
This wave of artists, some say, was partly born from crisis. “They were kids when initial confrontations between opposition supporters and the government took place in tough years from 2000 to 2004,” says Raul Sanchez, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, adding that Chavez inundated their households on television, radio, and news outlets as he consolidated power. “It’s an authoritarian context that became more and more overbearing,” he notes. “I think that influenced the vision of some of these musicians.”
in addition to other creative people – actors, dancers, artists and stand-up
comedians – now bring to mind moments in Latin American history when the arts survived during times of
political repression. Under Brazil’s military regime, when electric guitars
were seen as a foreign threat to the purity of national music in the late
1960s, Os Mutantes guitarist Sergio Dias played homemade instruments with
built-in distortion. During Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, musicians developed a new musical genre called rock nacional. “Hardship breeds beauty for some reason,” says Timothy Wilson, a professor at Blackburn College in Illinois, who has studied music and identity in Latin America. “You commiserate, communicate, through the music.”
Los Mesoneros formed in 2006, when its current full-time members – Luis Jiménez, Juan Ignacio Sucre, Andrés Belloso and Carlos Sardi – were eighth graders in Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, in the middle-class Caracas neighborhood of Chacao. When they were 18, Hector Castillo, a Venezuelan producer who has worked with Bjork, Beck and Phillip Glass, among others, helped steer their debut album of 11 songs, boosting them to Venezuelan stardom.
In a twist, they and other musicians partly credit early success to a national law passed in 2004 that required half of all songs played on radio and television to be Venezuelan – undermining freedom of expression, but lending native musical talent a boon. A generation got their start playing on radio stations like Caracas’ La Mega 107.3 FM, and at concerts and festivals where foreign performers were required to give equal stage time to national artists. On the black market, dollars ruled all, with complex currency controls enabling people in the music industry to hustle greenbacks and splurge on backline equipment and shows.
But as oil prices plummeted following the death of Chavez in 2013, Venezuela has imploded, with inflation shooting higher than any other country in the world. When Maduro won the presidency in April 2013, the Venezuelan currency traded for roughly 24.18 per dollar at the unofficial exchange rate. One hundred dollars deposited in bolivars then, would now be worth about 5 cents. Bills themselves have become worthless, forcing people at supermarkets to weigh, rather than count, stacks of cash. At the same time, violent clashes in the streets have resulted in more than 100 deaths, as political protests have raged against Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government.
“Politicians became the new entertainers, so they took our jobs,” says Rudy Pagliuca, a Venezuelan music producer who watched the music scene capsize and left the country in 2014.
Concert tickets priced around 100,000 bolivars, or the equivalent of about $5, are now out of reach for many, and music tours a near impossibility, as the country faces dramatic food shortages and one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Censorship lingers. Gustavo Dudamel, musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar of Venezuela, saw his U.S. tour with the country’s National Youth Orchestra canceled in August after he criticized the government, while other musicians say they have been inexplicably turned away from venues. The presidential press office did not respond to multiple phone requests for comment.
Los Mesoneros, however, do not pen highly politicized lyrics. Instead, they primarily attribute their own exodus to the country’s insecurity and economic woes, which meant fewer and fewer venues in existence and a rapid decline in profits. By 2011, the band members calculate they had grossed some $100,000 playing shows in Venezuela. Two years later, they hemorrhaged thousands of dollars as their savings depreciated by more than 50 percent. Event producers, sponsors and venues slowly disappeared. “As soon as money came into our account, we had to change it to dollars,” Jimenez remembers. “The feeling was at first rage, sadness, and then helplessness because sometimes, for example, if you were a little slow, you´d already have lost money.”
The recording studio where they completed most of their second studio album, Caiga La Noche, shut down periodically as tear gas seeped inside during clashes between the government and opposition groups on nearby Avenida Libertador. And then in 2015, it closed forever as making records became unfeasible. “We were in the main area [of Caracas] so it was very susceptible to anything that was going on, and that would affect the session,” says Carlos Imperatori, co-founder of Tumbador, the recording studio. “It was really sad when everything started to fall apart because I was feeling like, ‘OK, I could do this forever,'” he says, noting that rock musicians began to come in at 9 a.m. because of safety concerns. “You’re here doing records, and it’s not a bad situation at all. But it didn’t last.”
Los Mesoneros went from performing about 30 concerts a year, to fewer than 10, leading the band members to make a decision. “If we want to live off music, we need to leave,” Belloso says, recalling what the members of Los Mesoneros were thinking at the time. “If not, we’ll need to split apart because we’ll need to do other things to survive.”
So like many of their fellow citizens, they packed up and left. The airline baggage policy dictated the things they left behind: A bass and piano, electric guitars, synthesizers, amplifiers, clothes and a drum, which has yet to be replaced.
In Mexico City, where the band landed in April 2016, they began reassembling their musical careers as they settled into new lives, looking for apartments and day jobs. Guitarist Sucre, who estimates he had personally saved about $3,000 for the move, took a job at online retail website Kichink; Sardi, the band’s keyboardist, as a computer programmer at BBVA Bancomer, Mexico’s largest bank.
Simón Hernández, who plays with the band as a session drummer, says he moved to Mexico with his wife and now four-year-old son, and that his priorities upon arriving were finding and furnishing an apartment. “The basics, the essential, to be able to live,” he says, noting he has found a normalcy to life in Mexico. “I say normal because in Caracas, the things you have to do to get basic goods is not normal,” he says. “Or I mean, at least we can go to the store and buy what we need so our kids have food and we have food.”
At the same time, he and other Venezuelan musicians – who collectively count tens of millions of YouTube views from their young careers in Venezuela – are enamored by a wealth of professional opportunities in Mexico, saying they now have a chance to try their luck abroad. “The creative process is different,” adds Sucre, noting the band is working on new material. “The inspiration can come from living experiences abroad, seeing things differently, living in a way that we didn’t notice before.” The band released their latest album Caiga La Noche this May, after a three-year delay partly borne of Venezuela´s chaos.
In reviews of the second album, critics noted the band’s style had matured, with more keyboard riffs, electronic beats and variety, in spite of lyrics deemed slightly irrelevant. But while Los Mesoneros and many other ex-pat musicians see their move to Mexico as a musical springboard, they are also only a fraction of Venezuela’s once-thriving music scene.
“In a sense, it’s a very reduced group that has come far enough to be able to keep their projects afloat while immigrating to a new place without family, savings, credit, anything because it’s not their country,” says Andrés Story, the Venezuelan drummer for reggae band Rawayana, who is now based in Mexico but plays with bandmates living in Miami and Puerto Rico.
“When many bands were forced to leave the country, they had no way to sustain themselves. So many dissolved, many stayed together as a band but moved to various locations, many got day jobs to pay for their lives instead of dedicating themselves 100 percent to music,” he explains. “For those that were lucky and started early and left, maybe it was a boost. But for those musicians that were right before their breakthrough, the truth is that it killed them.”
Such is a reversal of fortune from even two decades ago, when iconic Latin American rock band Los Amigos Invisibles was the only large emigrating from Venezuela – principally because they had outgrown the country’s market. That band, which started in 1991 and saw its first big swell with the 1998 LP The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera, left for New York in 2001 before later moving to Miami. Others from that period, including Sentimiento Muerto, arguably Venezuela’s most influential rock band, along with Desorden Público and Zapato 3, saw no reason at the time to leave a country that had helped them thrive.
To musicians of that era, the current wave of musical migration now appears unreal. “The number of Venezuelan artists in Mexico, the U.S., Argentina – the people that didn’t have a contract, but had to go anyway – it’s a crazy experience for me,” notes José Rafael Torres, the bassist of Los Amigos Invisibles. “It’s fallen on this generation to diversify, it’s fallen on them to be even more creative.”
“The challenge of re-inventing yourself is something without comparison,” he adds.
In recent weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump has added travel restrictions against certain government officials from Venezuela and their immediate families as part of his latest travel ban. The measures do not affect the country’s citizens at large, but have generally added to nerves over what will happen to Venezuela and its people.
Still, there is one break in the clouds now working in favor of Los Mesoneros and others: A large Venezuelan diaspora that is coalescing around its musicians as if it were a patriotic duty. “It’s like being in Caracas again with so many Venezuelans,” says Algodón Egipcio, an experimental pop artist from the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz who moved to Mexico in 2014.
María Elena Cepeda, a professor of Latino studies at Williams College, sees support for the idea that a large community of Venezuelans abroad will help internationalize the country’s music. Like Cuban artists who came to Miami and New York in the 1960s and 1970s and saw the genre of salsa boosted by fellow exiles, she also highlights international diva Shakira as “the product of Colombians moving through South Florida” in the 1990s, when
drug violence in the country raged.
But Simon Medina, A&R director at Universal Music Publishing, says that even if a mass of Venezuelan performers descends on Mexico, the market is so inundated that it could be hard for them to make their mark. “There is so much to listen to, so much to hear,” he says. “We’re flooded.” After listening to a short list of Venezuelan musicians in Mexico, he notes only two names that are familiar: Okills, who were signed by a division of Universal called Discos Valiente in 2016, and Los Mesoneros.
Once, he says, Los Mesoneros came to see him. “I remember them because I liked them,” he says, recalling the cover of their first album Indeleble, which has a graphic of a typewriter. “But it’s not a question of quality, it’s also a question of moment, of timing, of contacts,” Medina says, adding that the band had lost touch with him.
Los Mesoneros, like many other independent bands and musicians, say they are not singularly focused on finding a label, and the members tick off a list of achievements in the last year, like getting airtime on the radio and playing a sold-out show at Mexico City’s El Imperial. “Los Mesoneros have had a lot of luck, a lot of success, and now we’re attacking a new market,” Jimenez says, noting he often feels news articles about Venezuelan artists have an undertone of tragedy. “We’ve had a really hard situation with Venezuela, but the band is still standing and the band keeps growing, and it’s going to grow a lot more. And of that, I am sure.”
Belloso, the bassist, agrees that the band’s year in Mexico has been productive. “It shows us that being famous doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “It’s about the quality of the music you make and the places that it takes you and the people you meet.”
On a recent night in his apartment, he curses at a dog barking downstairs and plays Steve Lacy’s “Ryd/Dark Red,” before working on a solo arrangement with Sardi.
“An artist has to believe his story,” Belloso says. “If you don’t believe it, you won’t make it happen.”
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