When pianist, composer, and improviser Gabriela Montero left her native Venezuela at the age of eight, she was motivated by the piano, not politics. Her family moved to the United States “for me to continue my musical studies,” she said in a recent interview. “At that point, my teacher had left and I didn’t have anyone I could work with. That removal from Venezuela — not only from my lands, from my culture, but also from the rest of my family — was a very painful separation.”
The current political climate in Venezuela has made it difficult for Montero to return, and she now lives as an expatriate in Madrid, Spain. “I always thought I would return to Venezuela. I always thought I would raise my kids there. And even though the career of an international concert pianist doesn’t make it very easy logistically, I thought I would be able to somehow have one foot there and one foot out of Venezuela,” she said. “With what’s happened, I really feel like that possibility’s been taken away from me. My dream will never be.”
“There was an innocence about Venezuela.”
In the nearly four decades that have passed since Montero first left Venezuela, the country has changed. One of her fondest memories of growing up in the capital city of Caracas is of “the sounds of the crickets at night with Venezuelan music in the background from improvised parties or musical soirees like they used to have in 18th-century Europe. I don’t remember any kind of division or any kind of polarization. I remember everybody wanting to help everybody else. There was an innocence about Venezuela.”
“The natural beauty is staggering. You find every possible climate and every possible landscape in Venezuela. It’s incredibly diverse and lush. Everything grows in Venezuela. In Caracas — an urban, concrete city — if you’re walking down the street and there was a big mango tree and you wanted a mango, you picked a mango and ate it. The extremes of this society — of having such a powerfully luscious natural environment and at the same time this mad metropolis of creativity — give you a lot of energy. I do hope that someday, and in some way, we can restore that.”
A Country in Crisis
In recent months, the cries of Venezuelan protestors have been heard around the world. But those just turning their attention to Venezuela may wonder how events in recent decades have caused current crises.
Venezuela’s collapse, Montero explained, has been gradual. In 1998, Hugo Chávez was democratically elected. “The Venezuelan people were looking for a Messiah, somebody that would fix the problems that we had, especially of corruption.”
Chávez became president in 1999 and in the years immediately following, Montero said, “Venezuela was a country that still worked. It functioned. Hospitals were being built, universities were being run, businesses were thriving. There was not the absolute collapse we have seen gradually happen in my country in the last 18 years.”
Since 1999, more than 250,000 people have been murdered in Venezuela. In 2016 alone, almost 29,000 people were killed.
Venezuela was once one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America, but a focus on oil production over agricultural production has been factor that has caused the economy to spiral out of control. The inflation rate is currently over 700%, CNN Money reports. Since a bag of rice costs more than the average monthly salary, Venezuelans are literally starving.
Though Chávez died in 2013, he chose his successor, Nicolás Maduro, to continue his policies.
“You can imagine the levels of despair and the levels of absolute decay that the country’s people find themselves in. Morale has been very low,” Montero said. “People have taken to the streets, fed up with so much abuse and so much corruption and so much manipulation. They have declared that they will not stand for any more of this.”
Composing for a Cause
Montero, who is not only a busy musician but also a busy mother, devotes so much energy to raising awareness about suffering in Venezuela that she said, “sometimes I don’t have enough time to practice.”
In 2015, Montero was named one of Amnesty International’s first Honorary Consuls. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum and was nominated by the Human Rights Foundation for Outstanding Work in the field of human rights.
Not surprisingly, the virtuosa has found ways to combine music and activism. “I think that artists have such power in their hands. We can appeal to people to help create change, to help create empathy. The worst part of being a victim is to feel invisible, and we as artists can actually make them visible.”
In 2011, Montero composed a piano concerto, Ex Patria, to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. “It is an act of dissent. It is an act of protest,” she said. “I wrote it because I felt, as an artist, I needed to take a photograph of what Venezuela is like…It’s a piece where you’ll hear gunfire, you’ll hear oppression, you’ll hear the military. It’s a very powerful piece, but it’s a powerful piece because it’s an intense situation where people are suffering very much.” (Montero spoke at length about Ex Patria during a previous interview with WFMT. Watch Montero perform Ex Patria below.)
Even when Montero is not composing works explicitly dedicated to Venezuela, “the music of Venezuela is in my DNA,” she said. “It’s nothing that I’ve consciously thought of or planned for. I think maybe being Latina and Venezuelan gives me a certain rhythmical flexibility. Venezuelan music is very rhythmically complex. I’m a very rhythmical pianist. This is always the backbone of everything I do. I try and bend time with it as much as I can.”
One of her favorite ways to share her skills as an improviser during public events is to have audience members sing tunes — perhaps ones previously unknown to her — which she then elaborates upon. Even when improvising on say, the famous French song “Non, je ne regrette rien,” Montero cannot help but infuse the tune with Venezuelan rhythms.
“When I improvise, I could go into a tango, or maybe a milonga,” another style of dance and music from the Río de la Plata. “Then the music maybe goes into a Venezuelan waltz, which then might go into joropo,” Venezuela’s national dance, “and end in a ragtime. It gets very funky.”
Music as Propaganda
While Montero uses music as a form of political protest, she claims the government has also used music as propaganda. “Chávez was not a stupid man. He was very clever, very astute, and he knew very well how to manipulate the masses,” she said. “When you have so much money at your disposal, what you want to do is create an image of a government. Unfortunately, a big part of the government budget was also spent on propaganda.”
“Music has served as a propaganda tool to spread the message of Chavismo in the elite societies, in the concert halls, and in intellectual circles. The music played by orchestras has been very powerful in convincing the world that Venezuela was a musical paradise. People fall in love with the orchestras, and El Sistema in particular, and with this image they’re presenting.”
El Sistema is a publicly funded music education organization in Venezuela that was founded in 1975. Since then, El Sistema has served thousands of young people and has served as a prototype for similar organizations around the world. The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, one of El Sistema’s most visible programs, is composed of young Venezuelan musicians who have performed around the world at venues like Carnegie Hall.
When people learn about El Sistema or experience the orchestra’s performances, “they do not want to look further. They do not want to see what the real situation for all Venezuelans has been for the last 18 years,” Montero said.
“Even now, people consider Chávez to have been a savior of classical music because of the image that the orchestra has presented, when in fact, he is the man who destroyed our country, followed by Nicolás Maduro and everyone he left in place.”
Montero has publicly decried other Venezuelan musicians, including conductor Gustavo Dudamel, for doing too little, too late to raise awareness about ongoing problems in Venezuela. “When an artist has such a huge visibility, with that comes a huge responsibility,” she said.
“What you say, who your alliances are with, and all of your actions are watched. We can inspire other musicians and younger generations. But we’re creating stories. And with that comes a very strong duty to tell the right story. You have to paint a clear picture to the world if you have the opportunity, and we have had so little opportunity to do so that I think it is a hugely wasted opportunity to be silent,” she said.
For years, Dudamel was reluctant to speak publicly about Venezuelan politics, despite past public appearances with government leaders and El Sistema. On May 4, 2017, however, the conductor publicly denounced Maduro in a statement he published on Facebook stating, “I urgently call on the President of the Republic and the national government to rectify and listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people…It is time to listen to the people: Enough is enough.”
Grandes muchachos, viva Armando Cañizales, Viva Venezuela!!! pic.twitter.com/IvwIOkCnkG
— Eileen Derarme (@EDerarme) May 8, 2017
Dudamel issued the statement one day after a 17-year-old violinist named Armando Cañizales, who received training from El Sistema, was killed during protests in Caracas. Since, musicians have continued to take to the streets to protest and to commemorate his death. Some musicians have offered musical tributes, including Dudamel, who dedicated a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the memory of Cañizales.
Finding Solutions as a Global Village
Montero reminds us that events in Venezuela are “happening an hour-and-a-half flight away from the coast of Florida. What is happening in Venezuela should be very relevant to people in the U.S. because it will affect the U.S. I think we live in a global village. Our world has become so interconnected that there is absolutely no excuse not to pay attention to what is happening — near you or far away, it doesn’t matter.”
“The internet has provided an instant global patchwork of information,” said Montero, who uses the power of the internet to share information about Venezuela, as well as music dedicated to the people there. Below, hear “Una improvisación para nuestros héroes caídos” (“An improvisation for our fallen heroes”) that she posted May 7, 2017.
“I just ask that everyone please pay attention to what is happening to the poor people of Venezuela who have been suffering tremendously and will continue to do so unless we find a solution together.”