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Venezuela: Preserving the Oral Traditions of the Plains

This is the third and last post about a special series on Los Llanos (the plains) and its culture. Click this link to read the first post, and click this link to read the second post in this series.

The oral traditions of the plains (Los Llanos) are brilliant protagonists of the culture that has spread to other regions of Venezuela. These oral traditions are mostly a mixture of indigenous and Spanish cultures, which represent the base of language and traditions in Venezuela.

Nowadays, many people from these Venezuelan regions use social networks and other Web 2.0 tools to spread, highlight, and preserve these traditions. Hence, the Internet has become a database supported by many contributions, ranging from detailed academic work to personal notes about the changes and the influence of urban culture on the people from the plains, the llaneros.

Hence, the blog Letras de Cojedes [es] shares some detailed work about oral literature in the plains, with studies on popular sayings, jokes, short stories and traditional stories of the region. In this blog, the Cojedes state is in the spotlight, since this state is considered the “heart” of the Venezuelan llanero spirit.

Spirits and apparitions

Oral tradition in the plains is also comprised of stories of spirits and apparitions. Mitos y Leyendas de Venezuela [es] (Myths and Legends of Venezuela) describes the most famous legend characters used to scare children and adults equally, and dedicates several posts to the characters of the plains. El Silbon (a person who whistles a lot) and La Sayona are two of the most popular characters that have spread to other regions. Their stories can be found in this blog, like this version of the El Silbon Legend [es]:

El Silbón se presenta a los borrachos en forma sombría. Otros llaneros le dan forma de hombre alto y flaco. Usa sombrero y ataca a los hombres parranderos y borrachos, a los cuales chupa el ombligo para tomarles el aguardiente.

La tradición explica que al llegar el silbón a una casa en las horas nocturnas, descarga el saco y cuenta uno a uno los huesos; si no hay quien pueda escucharlo, un miembro de la familia muere al amanecer.

El Silbon appears to drunken people in a gloomy way. Some people from the plains describe him as a tall and thin man. He wears a hat and he attacks both partygoers and drunken people, sucking their navels to drink liquor.

This legend asserts that when El Silbon gets to a home at night, he turns over his sack and then he counts the bones one by one. If no one hears him, a member of the family will die at sunrise.

The blog also includes this part of the La Sayona [es] legend:

Esta aparición materializada en la figura de una mujer delgada, alta, de uñas largas y muy elegante, es considerada como una señal castigadora y reprobatoria de la mala conducta e infidelidades cometidas por los hombres.

Esta leyenda originaria de Los Llanos, data de la época colonial; sin embargo, hoy en día, todavía se escuchan “cuentos” de personas asegurando que han sido interceptados en algún camino por esta gélida y espantosa mujer.

La Sayona tiene la particularidad de “desdoblarse”, esto quiere decir que puede presentarse como un perro, un lobo o como la mujer antes descrita.

Así que si eres uno de esos hombres, que disfrutas pensando que puedes tener varias mujeres, no te descuides, porque puede que un día de estos La Sayona decida hacerte una visita…

This spirit takes a thin, tall, long-nailed and elegant ladylike form. She is considered as a punishment sign condemning men's misbehavior and infidelities.

This legend from the planes dates back to colonialism. However, nowadays you can hear people's stories about a cold and dreadful woman who has blocked their way.

La Sayona is distinguished for “transforming” into many things. She can appear as a dog, a wolf or the woman who was previously described.

So, if you are one of those men who enjoys thinking you can have many women, be careful because one of these days La Sayona might visit you…

Contrapunteo (dueling joropo music)

Besides spirits and apparitions, there is another tradition: the Contrapunteo, a type of joropo music that is played in other countries in Latin America. The Contrapunteo is very important in Venezuela and Colombia. In her blog Orinoco Padre Río [es], Elba Romero Lopez describes its basic features.

Contrapunteo. Picture by Flickr user Sr: aChe. All rights reserved, used with permission.

El contrapunteo puede ser a una sola rima (libre) o enlazando la rima del penúltimo verso, es decir, versos coleados. Esta forma de cantar demanda agudeza mental, conocimiento del llano por parte de los participantes, además de la chispa que caracteriza al llanero venezolano.

The Contrapunteo can have one (free) rhyme, or the rhyme can be mixed with the  penultimate verse, that is to say mixed verses. Singers need a sharp mind, as well as knowledge of the Venezuelan plains, and the wit that distinguishes Venezuelan people from the plains.

Moreover, in the blog Cantantes Vallepascuenses [es], Carmelo Gonzalez explains Contrapunteo's main features:

El contrapunteo constituye la expresión musical por excelencia de los llanos centrales de Venezuela y Colombia. Se presenta cuando dos cantantes deciden improvisar versos tratando de demostrar la gallardía ante el adversario. Consiste en una discusión que se realiza al ritmo de la música, y que requiere de agudeza mental y conocimiento del llano por parte de los participantes, con el fin de contestar de forma armónica y coherente.

Cuando se improvisan coplas al pie del arpa en modo de contrapunteo, el lenguaje suele ser picante y desafiante a su vez, con temas que tratan sobre la amistad, el llano y sus costumbres, preguntas y respuestas. Algunos contrapunteadores utilizan temas ofensivos y que tienen como fundamento hacer que el contrario se sienta amenazado y al mismo tiempo hacerlo quedar en “jaque mate” ante el jurado calificador y el público.

The Contrapunteo is a type of music that distinguishes the central plains in Venezuela and Colombia. Two singers decide to improvise verses to prove his opponent his braveness. It is an arguing by using music and it requires sharpness and knowledge of the plains in order to answer rhythmically and coherently.

In Contrapunteo, when copla (a popular folk song) is improvised at the foot of the harp, language tends to be both spicy and challenging with topics ranging from friendship, the llano and its traditions, to questions and answers. Some singers use offensive topics, so the other singer feels threatened and, and at the same time, to put him in a bad situation in front of the judges and the public.

In this video, Alcides Padilla and “El Moroturo” provide an example of Contrapunteo:

The language of the plains

Day-to-day language in the plains also provides some clues to discover this culture. In the blog Historiografías [es], Jeroh Huan not only gathers some of the popular sayings of the region, but he also explains their meaning. In his post, Jeroh writes about his conversation with a school teacher from the region and he reflects [es] on the influences of language and how the penetration of urban life in the plains has brought about the disappearance of many traditions:

Muchas veces el llanero de cierta edad habla con nostalgia de lo que era el llano en tiempos pasados. Observan cómo las alambradas y potreros acabaron con las vaquerías que era el trabajo que enorgullecía al hombre de a caballo. Las motos y las bicicletas están remplazando al caballo, el burro y la mula. Los motores fuera de borda hacen lo mismo con los bongos, curiaras, canaletes y palancas; y el aluminio remplaza a la madera, y así por el estilo, todo va desapareciendo, lenta pero inexorablemente.

El problema radica en lo siguiente: en la medida en que se “va acabando el trabajo fuerte del llano”, como tal, también están desapareciendo de la picardía del llanero esos dichos, refranes, chanzas, comparaciones y versos.

Sometimes, the old llanero talks with nostalgia about what the plains were in the past. People from the plains observe how wasted lands and wire fences have destroyed dairy farms, a work that makes horse riders proud. Motorbikes and bicycles have replaced the horse, the donkey and the mule. Similarly, outboard motors have replaced curiaras (a typical boat), paddles and levers; aluminum replaces wood and, thus, everything is disappearing slowly but inexorably.

The problem lies in the following fact: since hard work in the plains is disappearing, the llanero cunningness in sayings, jokes, comparison and verses is ceasing to exist.

The blogger also highlights several nature images from the plains in which animals and their behaviors are always included as metaphors of human behavior.

To conclude, we share some of the sayings and explanations provided in Dichos y refranes del llano en vías de extinción (Popular sayings from the plains that have become an endangered species):

· “Un solo palo no hace leña”. Para indicar que una sola persona no bastaba para hacer o mantener algo.

· “Me vieron la oreja blanca”, o “a fulano le vieron la oreja blanca” Para decir que le vieron la cara de tonto. (Esto porque el tigre tiene la mancha amarilla y el cunaguaro blanca).

· “Fulano es como el pavo real, bonito pero no canta” Es lo mismo que el anterior [que el individuo a quien se refiere no convence a nadie] y también se usaba para señalar que un hombre era homosexual.

· “Arrimar la canoa”. Significa ayudar a alguien, casi siempre, económicamente.

· “Ser caimán de un mismo caño, pozo o charco”. Para indicar que los personajes a quien se están refiriendo son de la misma calaña, y no se puede fiar de ellos.

Nota: Se ha tratado de escribir las palabras respetando la pronunciación de los hablantes, tal como se desarrolla una conversación en el llano.

·“Un solo palo no hace leña” (“One stick doesn't make the firewood”). It indicates that one person is not enough to do or maintain something.

·“Me vieron la oreja blanca”, or “a fulano le vieron la oreja blanca” (“They saw my white ear”,  or “they say his/her white ear”). It means people took him/her for a fool. (The reason for this saying is that the tiger has yellow stripes, whereas the ocelot has a white stripe).

· “Fulano es como el pavo real, bonito pero no canta” (“He/she is like a peacock, beautiful but doesn't sing”). It means the same as the previous one [a person who does not convince anyone]. It was also used to refer to homosexuality.

· “Arrimar la canoa” (“Bring the canoe closer”). It means helping people, mostly, in economic aspects.

· “Ser caimán de un mismo caño, pozo o charco” (“To be an alligator from one pipe, one well or one pond”). It indicates that the people you are referring to are similar and that you can't trust them.

Note: Words [in Spanish] have been typed according to the speakers’ pronunciation, just like a usual conversation is held in the plains.

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