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Venezuela ska band reprises protest songs for new age

Roland Lloyd Parry

Agence France-Presse

Caracas, Venezuela  /  Tue, March 5, 2019  /  01:01 am
Venezuela ska band reprises protest songs for new age

Percussionist Oscar Alcaino, vocalist Horacio Blanco, drummer Danel Sarmiento and bassist Jose Luis Chacin, members of the Venezuelan ska band Desorden Publico, pose during an interview with AFP in Caracas on 6 August, 2015. (AFP/Federico Parra)

When he was 14, Horacio Blanco wrote an angry song: "Paralytic Politicians". Now, aged 50, audiences still yell for him to sing it -- an anthem of protest for Venezuela.

Inspired by British bands like The Specials, but with a dash of Venezuelan "fiesta and rage", Blanco and his band Desorden Publico are Venezuela's best-known ska-punk act.

Now, still dressed in ska style with quiffed hair, jacket and skinny black trousers, he is perhaps one of the few big-name Venezuelan rockers not to have left the country due to its economic and political crisis.

"So many music bands have broken up in this country. That is one of the painful things about what is happening," he told AFP inside an old wood-paneled studio in central Caracas.

Venezuelan singer Horacio Blanco, leader of ska music group Desorden Publico, gestures as he speaks during an interview at a recording studio in Caracas, on March 01, 2019. Venezuelan singer Horacio Blanco, leader of ska music group Desorden Publico, gestures as he speaks during an interview at a recording studio in Caracas, on March 01, 2019. (AFP/Ronaldo Schemidt)

"The musical world has been emptied of talent. The technical side has emptied out too, all the sound engineers and everything. Many have left and many have sold their equipment."

Battling bureaucratic delays to get passports, and scraping together foreign currency to buy equipment, Desorden Publico keep on touring and recording as best they can.

"We agreed we would put no expiration date on our project, whatever we had to go through. And we have developed thick skin and been through a lot," he says.

"In 2017 and 2018 I had a great deal of work touring abroad ... but the truth is I am Venezuelan and I love this place. I want to be involved, as a musician, in the changes that will have to come. So we always come home."

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The song remains the same

In the mixing room, Blanco dances and nods along while in a glassed-off compartment percussionist Oscar Alcaino, 60, rattles a sand shaker in front of the microphone.

Dressed in a pork-pie hat and earrings, Oscarello has laid out all manner of instruments: conga drums, maracas and tribal rattles made from big dried seeds that look like pasta shells.

With this multi-percussion section he will give a special Venezuelan flavor to Desorden Publico's ska sound.

Joined by several younger musicians, these two founding members are recording new versions of Desorden Publico's 1994 album People's Song of Life and Death, for a 25th-anniversary tour of North and South America.

Desorden Public formed while Blanco was still at school in the 1980s and recorded throughout the 1990s -- a decade of political instability that ended with military commander Hugo Chavez coming to power.

Chavez died in 2013; under his protege and successor Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has descended into a deadly economic and political crisis in recent years.

"A lot of the things we were singing about 25 years ago are absolutely relevant to what is happening today," Blanco says.

"A lot of the vices of society and the mistakes by those in power end up repeating themselves cyclically, so the songs have new-found relevance."

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The old songs are the best

A close cousin of reggae, ska originated in Jamaica in the 1950s and later spawned the politically-charged ska scene of Margaret Thatcher's Britain in the 1980s. The tension of its syncopated beats fused with the anger of punk.

Latin America, Blanco says, was fertile ground for the rebellious spirit of ska.

"I wish those in politics were really paralytic!" he sang in his early teenage song. "Then they couldn't rob us and run away."

Now, he says, "it is one of the songs that the audience most often requests at our concerts."

Another old favorite is "Tetero de Petroleo" ("Petrol Baby-Bottle") -- a take on Venezuela's overreliance on oil dollars which is partly blamed for today's crisis.

In Venezuela, with what Blanco calls its mix of "fiesta and rage", ska was a way for Desorden Publico to denounce corruption and abuse of power.

"Desorden is a small sample of Venezuela's idiosyncrasy," Blanco says.

"We are a country of fiestas ... but that does not mean we are cut off from the harsher things that we have to face. That is where the rage comes in."

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