Alí Primera’s ‘Necessary Song’

Ali Primera, Venezuela’s own Silvio Rodriguez, was long-discarded to the official cultural sin-bin. But his popularity never waned and now his voice is being resurrected by the establishment that once scorned him.
Hazel Marsh

In murals that depict a bearded man with an afro and a cuatro (four-stringed guitar) in his hands, in lyrics painted on bridges and walls, at rallies and demonstrations where the public collectively sing his songs and at street stalls selling bootleg CDs and amateur DVD recordings of his live performances, the voice of a singer that  ‘remained faithful to the people,” is alive everywhere on the streets of Caracas.

Though discarded for decades to the cultural sin-bin because of his grassroots following and leftist leanings, Alí Primera is now being given the official label as the country’s first and greatest artist of the nueva canción (new song) movement. New Song emerged in Latin America in the 1960s when, following the Cuban Revolution, artists and intellectuals throughout the region began to meet and discuss the role culture could play in effecting revolutionary change in their societies. Cuba’s Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes had the freedom to lead the way. Most, like Argentina’s like Mercedes Sosa or Brazil’s Chico Buarque were persecuted by the dictatorships of the 1970s. Some like Chile’s Victor Jara and Violeta Parra, were murdered by them. All have become legends.

In Venezuela in the early 1970s governing elites viewed the African and Indigenous majority populations and their cultural practices as ‘inferior’ and ‘primitive’, and official policy encouraged the ‘whitening’ of the race and the imitation/importation of Anglo-European cultural models. The very sight and sound of local folkloric instruments were in themselves a powerful message of resistance to elite rule and, coupled with meaningful lyrics, an affirmation of identity for the marginalised and impoverished masses that would inevitably be seen as a threat.

Primera himself had experienced poverty and marginalisation at first hand. He was born into rural poverty in the harsh, wind-swept Paraguaná peninsula on the Venezuelan coast, and his father was killed when he was only three years old. The young Alí worked as a bootblack and a boxer to help support his family. The town where he spent much of his childhood, Punto Fijo, was built around the foreign-owned oil refinery, Amuay, whose employees lived in luxury while Primera’s family, and many others, struggled to get by in virtual segregation in the barrios. In an interview he gave in 1982, Primera attributed his political activism to these early experiences:

“In the oil zone I had contact with the gringo and the worker. And there, in that refinery belonging to a transnational company, through seeing the realities of exploitation, the desire to fight for change began to grow in me.”

‘Humanity’ has been referred to as the first example of Venezuelan new song. Primera wrote the song while he was being detained by the political police in Caracas in 1967, following a police raid on the Central University of Caracas (UCV) where he was studying chemistry. It is a song which uses direct, vernacular language and a simple cuatro accompaniment to denounce urban and rural poverty, the Vietnam War and the subordinate position of African-Americans, and which unequivocally attributes poverty, inequality and racism to imperialism.While maintaining close ties to the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) and to the newly-formed Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), Primera always insisted that his song did not belong to a single political party but to all people. In 1978, Primera founded and took on the role of national co-ordinator for the Committee for the Unity of the People (CUP), an organisation which worked to overcome sectarianism and to create links of solidarity between all leftist parties through the uniting of people around cultural events. Primera combined elements of Marxism, Liberation Theology and the philosophy of Simón Bolívar with popular wisdom to create a revolutionary, anti-imperialist ideology which he communicated via his songs.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Primera faced increasing persecution from State authorities who perceived him as a ‘subversive’ who encouraged ‘non-conformity’. His flat was broken into and searched, and he reported attempts on his life. On February 16th, 1985, as Primera was driving home after working on his latest album, an oncoming vehicle collided with his. He was killed instantly.

Many Venezuelans saw Primera after his death as a martyr who died fighting for his ideals. His songs were played at demonstrations, rallies and meetings. The anti-IMF uprisings of 1989 (the Caracazo), an expression of popular discontent (poverty levels had reached an estimated 80% of the population), were brutally repressed, with the military being ordered to open fire in shantytowns. Lyrics such as ‘The police are always efficient when it comes to the poor!’ were re-interpreted in the light of these events and acquired prophetic associations.

In 2005, on the twentieth anniversary of Primera’s death, Ali Primera was officially recognised as part of the nation’s cultural heritage, by the government of Hugo Chavez. As many Venezuelans told me, Alí Primera is a precursor of the Bolivarian revolution: ‘the socialism being built today has its roots in the process born out of Alí Primera’s songs’.

Hazel Marsh, University of East Anglia