Sunday, May 18, 2014

Aloha Venezuela I

Working backwards cause it has  been busy! But amazing....

I am a week behind on the blog so I will try to catch up on all the fun that has transpired in Venezuela. I hate being so far behind because it ends up being a listing more than a description.

Well, for starters Keola, Moana and Jeff arrived in Caracas early in the morning on May 7.  They had traveled for 2 days to get down here, so spent the day resting.  We all met up later for dinner at an amazing restaurant called Maute Grill.  It was incredible.  They have grills placed right next to your table as to provide you the freshest cooked meats.  They presented us with the cuts to inspect, and then grilled away.  Then they placed the fresh-seared meats on cutting boards for us to devour.  It was a feast.

The next day we started a bit later, and headed over to the unoccupied U.S. Ambassador's residence in the hills of Caracas.  Venezuela and the U.S. have not sent ambassadors since 2010, so the home is used for occasional programs like ours.  We were having a jam session with Eduardo Betancourt y su grupo, a Venezuelan joropo group.  Eduardo was an incredible harpist.  We were also joined by the C4 Trio, which was actually a quartet of cuatro players. The cuatro is a cousin of the ukulele, as both were descended from the Portuguese braganza.  We were also joined by two Venezuelan alumni of the sibling cultural diplomacy program OneBeat.

Anyway, the jam session was absolute MAGIC.  The bands quickly bonded over adept plucking and music styles.  The room was abuzz with incredible music and real people-to-people connections over thecollaboration.  I had to shake my head at the irony the the empty diplomatic residence was being put to such good use for public diplomacy.

We were joined by the Chargesd'Affaires for the event, the highest ranking diplomat at the Embassy in absence of the ambassador. 

Meanwhile the CAO Neal, who is originally from Hawaii and has been the main driver behind this program, had organized the Venezuelan equivalent of a pig roast. The piggy was roasting in a wooden box for hours with coals on top of the box cooking it through.

After they jammed and jammed, all the artists sat out on the patio to feast on the pig roast. Neal introduced us to his favorite rum, Diplomatico which was the best rum I have ever tried in my life. It was more like cognac that rum, it was fantastic. It was an incredible start to the program.

After the lavish lunch and jam session, we headed over to the Fundacion Bigott, a cultural center in the pastel historic colonial center in Pet. At the Center, we set up and had an a demonstration first of Venezuelan music. It was fascinating to see the evolution of the Braganza and Oud, and how those Iberian and Middle Eastern instruments would later influence both Venezuela and Hawaii. I had not fully connected the Oud to Braganza and Ukelele prior, but it was clear when hearing and seeing it together.

And the Venezuelans danced for us. I wish I had such rhythm.

And the Ambassadors of Aloha shared their Hawaiian music and culture. The Venezuelans were fascinated by the music, and more importantly the story-telling through Hula. That is always the X-Factor of this program. It is such a tangible way of connecting into the Hawaiian culture, and always brings everyone into the programmatic fold in a very oblique fashion.

After the Hula lesson, the Venezuelan dancers gave us another demonstration. Moana remarked about the similarities in the Polynesian styles of dance.

The program was fantastic, and really connected the audience to Hawaiian music and culture.

After the program, we headed to a restaurant called Leal. Restaurante Leal is a Venezuelan fusion restaurant. No sooner had we sat down, we were greeted by the famous chef Eduardo Leal. The affable chef cracked jokes and recommended dishes. I had a Cazuela de Corvina (a delicate white fish caserole) that was good. The restaurant was Caracas chic, with all the beautiful people about.

The next morning we visited the old colonial town of El Hatillo- a pastel historic part of town. We did a little shopping at a store that had crafts from across Venezuela. After the shopping and coffee-sipping, we were to El Cine- a futuristic sushi joint strangely out of place in the historic neighborhood. The place had ipad menus, and fusion sushi. It was delicious.

As we were driving from lunch to the next program, the skies opened up and started pouring. The streets began flooding, and motorcyclists pulled under bridges and overpasses to stay dry. We slowly drove through the rivered streets.

Eventually, we reached the Centro de Accion Social por la Musica (CASPM)- the headquarters of the vaunted El Sistema program. We worked our way from top to bottom on a tour of the famous Venezuelan classical music program. The program has been a huge success both in Venezuela and in other places as a way of connecting kids to classical music and thus creating them more connected to culture. We received a very in-depth tour of the building, although politics dictated that the tour was a bit at arms length.

But it was still quite interesting. We heard about El Sistema work with teaching music from neo-natal care on through connecting young students to different instruments and beyond. We saw the different studio spaces and concert halls, and got to see and hear a student practice session.

The real highlight came as we got to attend the Friday evening concert of the top student youth orchestra. We got to listen to an incredibly talented youth orchestra play.

After the concert, we waded our way back through the evening traffic. Moana was not feeling well, so Jeff, Keola and I went out on our own to a restaurant a block away. It was a good local place, and introduced them to Arepas Reinia Pepeiadas (The Queen of Arepas). We were tempted by a plate of grilled carne and got a sizzling platter that we split over a lot of red wine and some good rum from the establishment. After we shut the place down, Keola went to sleep and Jeff and I caught a little jazz and cumbia at establishment next door.

On Saturday, we had the concert. We did the morning sound check at the futuristic concert hall just around the corner called Teatro Cultural Chacao. The giant futuristic orange structure made a good concert hall.

After soundcheck, I ducked out to meet a friend of a friend for lunch named Ileana. We had tried to meet the year prior but had been unable because of the tour cancellation.

The concert went extremely well. Neal had done a tremendous amount of outreach to the Deaf community (“Inclusion Diplomacy”) and had a large contingency of Deaf people at the show. While unable to hear the music, they connected with the Hula dancing, and the sign language interpreter even interpreted the music- moving his hands with the tempo and style of the music.

The concert was quite a success, and the crowd loved it. Especially the collaboration pieces at the end, when the Hawaiians joined in to play Venezuelan joropo music and the Venezuelans played Hawaiian music.    

That night, Keola, Elena, Neal and I went to a cool restaurant with a 360 degree view of Caracas from up on high.  And we got a nice intro to Caracas.  As we got out of the taxi, we heard a loud boom, and saw smoke rising. It was a tear gas canister fired just 15 feet from us. Post-haste, we ducked around the corner and into the hotel to get some pizza.  Amazing that from up on high, the city can seem so peaceful and oblivious to the distress below.

I can't say that I was exactly sad to leave Caracas....

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