This Orchestra Somehow Kept Going Through Lockdowns, Floods, Power Outages, And The Madness Of Today’s Venezuela


Published January 21, 2022

15 min read

Caracas, VenezuelaIt’s almost 5:30 p.m. as the sun sets in the capital. El Avila, the mountain that soars over the city, serves as a backdrop to the intruding racket—alarming honks from impatient motorists, scandalous screeches from macaws, jolting sirens from ambulances that seem near then fade into the distance—an audible journey across the disorderly reality of urban life.

On this November evening, the noise is replicated for an audience gathered on the rooftop of a luxurious hotel situated in the hills on the city’s eastern side, far from the overcrowded slums and traffic jams. Here the sounds of chaos are made by trumpets, trombones, and French horns carried by members of the Orquesta Sinfónica Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho.

This particular performance marks the debut of a new album, Sinfonía Desordenada (Disorderly Symphony), recorded during the pandemic by 75 musicians from diverse backgrounds who blended elements of classical music with Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

With vocals by Horacio Blanco, the lead singer of the iconic local ska band Desorden Público, the group puts a new twist on decades-old lyrics that remain relevant during a complex era—laments of corruption, inflation, social inequality, deadly violence.

Social and economic issues have been exacerbated under the leadership of Nicolás Maduro, who assumed the presidency in 2013. Since then, hundreds of dissidents have been jailed or forced into exile, an economy wracked by years of hyperinflation has taken a dive, made worse by the pandemic. And the rate of extreme poverty has spiked to 76 percent, resulting in an exodus of more than six million Venezuelans—the largest in the history of the region.

Message behind the lyrics

In the opening tune, a jumping beat accompanies the sharp words belted out by Blanco on how little worth life can have in Caracas, one of the deadliest cities in the world.

Dibujaron su muñequito de tiza en la acera ¡qué pena! (They outlined his body in chalk on the sidewalk. What a shame!)

Violinist Reneiker Ríos, 30, is familiar with the violent dynamics engulfing the toughest barrios, having been raised in one of them. For her, music provided an escape and she says this new arrangement forced her to pay attention to the message in the lyrics.

“I used to see their [Desorden Público’s] music as pure bochinche [boisterous fun]. I never really paid attention to the lyrics. Now when I listen to them, I get chills,” says Ríos. “I recognize my neighborhood in them. When he [Blanco] sings ‘vivo en un valle de balas, mi ciudad está brava’ [I live in a valley of bullets, my city is mad], he’s actually referring to the homicides that occur here every day.”

When she plays the violin, Ríos is swept away by the music. Her instrument and the orchestra have been there for her, especially last year, when pouring rains flooded her home and fellow musicians helped her make the repairs.

“Music is everything to me. It has saved me in many situations,” says Ríos, a mother of two.

Genesis of disorder

In early 2020, the orchestra saw a streak of packed concerts and had a handful of projects underway, but COVID-19 abruptly halted that momentum and kept most artists from rehearsals and public performances.

Though the Sinfonía Desordenada collaboration was originally intended to be showcased as a live concert, it morphed into an album—created not in a studio but through virtual sessions. Despite weak internet connections and frequent power outages, the musicians managed to record eight arrangements within three months.

“After we understood the pandemic would last longer than we had expected, we decided to carry on with Sinfonía Desordenada,” says Blanco. “I felt that we had a lifeline there in the midst of boredom and fear.”

Directing musicians via Zoom was a challenge for 36-year-old Elisa Vegas, the only woman in Venezuela currently serving as a chief conductor for a large orchestra. Since she took the role in 2017, Vegas says she has tapped into the orchestra’s versatile spirit to engage in bold projects with a message.

“When I decided to stay in Venezuela, I told myself I wanted to make visible those who are making the present better,” Vegas says. “This is not pretend hope. There are many people who are echándole pichón [putting their heart and soul into it], and we want to channel that hope.”

The Ayacucho orchestra has a history of defying protocol. Instead of the traditional formal wear and somber dispositions typical of classical concerts, members of this ensemble wear colorful sneakers and stomp their feet when they play at outdoor venues across the city—a spirited display at a time when the arts are often criticized as elitist.   

When it was formed in 1989, the orchestra was tied to a state-funded music education program for disadvantaged youth known as El Sistema—which recently achieved a Guinness record by gathering 12,000 musicians to play simultaneously. But El Sistema also has been the focus of controversy, including politicization and allegations of sexual abuse. Persistent funding cuts to cultural programs prompted Ayacucho to part ways in favor of private funding and developing its own character. The autonomy has allowed the orchestra not only to assemble an album delivering a social critique but also diverse sounds, which help with reaching a broader audience.

“I’m a big fan of Desorden Público, and I like hearing their music played by an orchestra. It’s not what we normally hear,” says Yermeli Navarro, 30, who attended one of the free concerts held in her barrio with her son and nephew. “There aren’t many cultural spaces like this in the city.”

Rooftop performance

Back at the hotel rooftop, the performance is swinging. The frantic beats from the opening tune have evolved into an epic melody that slowly builds up to introduce a melancholic, reggae-infused ballad dedicated to the Venezuelan diaspora and the separation of many families.

Los que se quedan, los que se van, algún día volverán: Those who stay, those who leave, one day they’ll return.

Many in the crowd hold up their cell phones to record the live show featuring all of the musicians. During the lockdown, the artists performed alone as they recorded their piece at home. Cellist Gisbel Asención, 21, recalls her mother using a bed sheet to cover the exposed brick walls that served as a backdrop at their house. After she posted the video, Asención’s solo swept across the neighborhood’s other tin-roofed shanties.

At the time, Asención quietly struggled with depression and even thought of quitting the orchestra. But staying connected to music and adopting a pet helped her get through.

“I’m feeling like myself again and I’m glad I didn’t quit. I now feel that everything fits. Everything feels in the right place,” she says just before jumping on stage.

At another juncture of the concert, an energetic tune suddenly unfolds into a pasodoble, which since the 1960s has become a standard during Venezuelan celebrations—aptly titled “Música de fiesta (Party music).

El cariño verdadero ni se compra ni se vendetrue love is neither bought nor sold.

The tune is particularly appealing to the audience, now on its feet and in motion. This one also has a special meaning to trombonist Aaron Cabrera, 24, who worked on the orchestral arrangements that brought the album to life.

“It’s a song that reflects on the love of your people, of your family and friends. A love that’s rooted here, in Venezuela, and will be here for you regardless of where you go,” he says.

After nearly two hours of music, the bochinche is in full force. Afro-Caribbean beats pulsate as the final song kicks off.

Vivo entre gente que tiene paciencia y esperanza, que sabe que las cosas buenas llegan, pero suelen ser las que más tardan: I live among people who have patience and hope, who know that good things always come but usually take the longest to arrive.

For Cabrera, the piece is about people entrusting themselves for their future.

“The country doesn’t want to be divided by politics, race, or class any longer,” he says. “We want to be a normal country. We want culture and humanity.”

Based between Venezuela and Germany, Julett Pineda has covered a wide range of issues including human rights violations, political upheaval and public health constraints. In 2018, she won second place in the National Investigative Journalism Contest of the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela for a joint investigation into corruption at the Orinoco Mining Arc.

Ana María Arévalo Gosen is a Venezuelan photographer currently based in Bilbao, Spain, who uses visual storytelling to advocate for women’s rights and environmental issues. She is a National Geographic Explorer and a member of Ayün Fotógrafas. See more of her work on her website and on Instagram.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Ana María Arévalo Gosen’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers working to inspire, educate, and better understand human history and cultures.

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