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How Cusica Fest is trying to rebuild the Venezuelan music industry

Devendra Banhart grew up in Caracas in the '90s, but didn't perform his first show there until 2022.
Andrés Rodríguez
Cusica Fest
Devendra Banhart grew up in Caracas in the '90s, but didn't perform his first show there until 2022.

Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Devendra Banhart remembers flipping on the television and watching the failed coup attempt led by Hugo Chávez in 1992.

"There it was, these two people holding [firearms] and saying, 'We're taking over the country,' " he says.

Banhart moved to the U.S. not long after, and went on to become a musician and visual artist dabbling in psychedelic folk, tonadas llaneras, synth rock and salsa — some of which, he says, is a satirical interpretation of variety shows like Súper Sábado Sensacional, which he watched on TV as a child and included lots of "syrupy strings and people in tuxedos covered in sweat and makeup."

While Banhart leaned into his creative pursuits away from his home country, the situation in Venezuela took a turn. In 1998 Chávez was elected president, a position he held — except for a brief period in 2002 — up until his death in 2013. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, is still backed by the Venezuelan military today; though more than 50 countries, including the United States, recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president in 2019.

The political instability has contributed to a socioeconomic crisis of food and medicine insecurity, violence and deteriorating public services that's pushed more than 7 million Venezuelans to leave the country, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Banhart, who still has family living in Venezuela and would visit throughout the years, paints that reality earnestly in his music. In the song "Abre las Manos" from his 2019 record Ma, he sings:

"Mira la fila, veinte mil horas" (Look at the line, twenty-thousand hours long)

"Ahí está mi tía esperando su pan" (There's my aunt, waiting for her bread)

"Qué porcentaje de gente con hambre" (What percentage of people going hungry)

"Es necesario pa' que algo cambie" (Is necessary for something to change)

It's a situation that's impacted all Venezuelans and made things difficult for artists trying to keep a creative scene in the country alive.

"My experience is that it's been over 20 years, and every year, we're playing Caracas," says Banhart. "And it gets really close, and right at the last minute, it falls apart."

That is, until this past December, when he took the stage at Cusica Fest. "My experience [in Venezuela] was survival," he says. "And what I saw on this trip was celebration."

"For us, it's simply about making the music industry in Venezuela grow," says Cusica co-founder Maria Fernanda Burbano.
Andrés Rodríguez / Cusica Fest
Cusica Fest
"For us, it's simply about making the music industry in Venezuela grow," says Cusica co-founder Maria Fernanda Burbano.

Cusica Fest welcomed over 10,000 attendants on the campus of Universidad Simón Bolívar, nestled in between Caraca's misty mountains, on Dec. 17 and 18.

But the festival actually originated in 2014 first in the form of an e-commerce platform in bolívares — the local currency — when people struggled to buy music on iTunes in Venezuela because of a fixed-exchange rate regime. (Spotify didn't begin operating in the country in 2021.)

"We basically created an e-commerce portal so people could legally support national bands," says Cusica co-founder Maria Fernanda Burbano.

Soon, Burbano and her partners launched Cusica+, a website publishing music news and reviews; not long after, they started operating a venue in El Hatillo. As they produced more and more live shows and their following grew, they knew they wanted to eventually launch a larger-scale festival. In 2019, that dream came true with the first iteration of Cusica Fest — but they were forced into a pandemic hiatus until 2022.

"What we wanted was to give that knock on the table like, 'Hey, we're here. Venezuela is still a spot, even though the situation can be complicated,' " Burbano explains. "We're still here, and always thinking of the artist and audience first."

Their strategy has several main goals: first, to bring Venezuelan artists who built their careers abroad, like Banhart and Simon Grossmann, to play on their native stage. Burbano says she feels like oftentimes, it's hard for artists in that position to grasp just how much support they have back home, and that it's crucial for Cusica to provide a space where they can actually see and experience that connection with the audience firsthand.

For Banhart, that audience included much of his family watching him play live for the first time ever — so he did so wearing a dress.

"I started singing that way in Caracas. My mom would leave and I'd put on one of her dresses and sing," he remembers. "And so to sing again that way ... I think little 8-year-old me would've been proud of me."

"People were going crazy," Beto Montenegro laughs of the crowd's reaction at Rawayana's set, pictured here with Irepelusa. "That's the truth."
Andrés Rodríguez / Cusica Fest
Cusica Fest
"People were going crazy," Beto Montenegro laughs of the crowd's reaction at Rawayana's set, pictured here with Irepelusa. "That's the truth."

Also performing alongside Banhart at Cusica Fest was Rawayana, a band with a melange of rock, reggae, funk and Caribbean rhythms in its music.

Rawayana started as a bit between a group of friends in Caracas over a decade ago, says lead singer Beto Montenegro. They posted ironic songs as a joke on MySpace that went viral throughout Venezuela and the band started to take music more seriously, eventually sharing stages with renowned pop acts like Chino & Nacho and Servando y Florentino.

In 2015, around the height of the crisis, Rawayana's members made the difficult decision — like so many other Venezuelans — to leave the country, relocating between Mexico City and Miami. But the bureaucracy back home still affects them, says Montenegro, adding extra hoops to jump through for things other artists might not struggle with as much, like obtaining visas and passports needed to tour.

Rawayana's music grew internationally alongside the mass exile of Venezuelan citizens, he explains, because people took it with them to the places they moved to. In diaspora, Rawayana's shows become a way to reconnect with other Venezuelans.

"In Spain, for example," he says, "A Rawayana concert is like an excuse to meet your community."

The band's music also became more political in nature. Its 2021 album, Cuando Los Acéfalos Predominan, takes a direct shot at the polarization taking hold in Venezuela and much of the rest of the world, eschewing the right-left dichotomy so many systems are caught up in.

"For me, there's no reason to be one side or the other because it's very clear that going to the extreme left or extreme right — it's not the way," says Montenegro.

So he says he feels a bit on edge, given the politically charged environment of the country, when he's back in Venezuela to perform publicly for the first time in six years, at Cusica Fest.

But he knows it's worth it when a young fan approaches him, the day after Rawayana's set, and gushes about how he has a band that can hopefully play with Rawayana in a few years. It's a reminder, he says, that big festivals like Cusica are showing younger generations of Venezuelans that there's still a creative path forward — that they can still express themselves regardless of the country's situation.

"In a way, that's our responsibility," says Montenegro.

Burbano feels that commitment, too. Under the guidance of bigger Latin American festivals, like Estéreo Picnic in Colombia, she hopes Cusica can turn Venezuela into a destination for live music again, not just for national bands but for international acts, too.

"It's double the work," she says, of putting together a festival amidst an ongoing socioeconomic crisis. "But it's always about moving forward and making things better."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.