Rhythms of Latin America: Gaita Zuliana

The gaita is one of the most important components of Venezuela’s musical heritage, as it has been representing since decades two very distinctive elements: the Zulian culture as a whole and the nationwide celebration of Christmas and the New Year’s Eve.

As is the case for other Latin-American genres, Zulian gaita’s history began as a dynamic fusion of European, African and Indigenous instruments and melodies; specifically, the ones found since Colonial times around the Lake Maracaibo basin, at the center of Zulia state in Venezuela.

This music style was created as a way of conveying Zulia’s oral traditions. That is why, since the nineteenth century, the themes of a majority of gaita songs have revolved around family, friendship or even the way society works, but with an emphasis on the exceptionally venerated Virgen de Chiquinquirá, aka La Chinita, the patroness of Zulia.

Sometimes, the Zulian political and social identity—and the frustration towards Venezuela’s political situation—will be given the spotlight through gaitas.

Given the particular way of expressing their folklore through music, Zulians made gaita known throughout the country since the 1960s as a key element of every December’s holiday season, and not just as the most important expression of regional cultural identity of their state and the state’s capital, Maracaibo. As a result, the greatest gaita hits will be heard in every household and social gathering almost 24/7 from November to January.

How is Gaita Like?

Having a 6-by-8, 6-by-12 or even a 8-by-16 rhythm, gaita shows a characteristic way of singing: a soloist will always perform the song’s verses (always made of four lines) and a chorus will perform the refrain (composed of four, six or even eight lines).

This genre relies heavily on percussion instruments (furruco, different types of tambora, charrasca and maracas) and just one string instrument: the Venezuelan cuatro. Nonetheless, today’s gaita songs may add other accompanying elements, like electric bass, synthesizer or flute. Of course, a chorus composed of band members and other vocalists is essential for any good gaita.

Gaita’s landscape has been offering an array of songwriters and composers that have become tantamount to the genre itself. One must first mention singer and conductor Ricardo Aguirre (1939-1969), known as “Gaita’s Father” or “el Monumental” as he composed what is considered as the official hymn of gaita: “La grey zuliana” (“Zulian flock”).

Other famous names forever bound to the gaita movement:

  • Astolfo Romero (1950-2000), singer and songwriter with a number of famous gaita groups, like Los Cardenales del Éxito, La Universidad de la Gaita, and Gaiteros de Pillopo.
  • “Neguito” Borjas (1956), main vocalist of Gran Coquivacoa group.
  • Betulio Medina (1949), singer and bassist, founder of Maracaibo 15 group.
  • Ricardo Portillo (1943), singer, author of “Amparito”, “María la Bollera”, “Venite pa Maracaibo” and “Mi ranchito”.

Top 5 of the most famous gaita songs 

“Faltan 5 pa’ las 12” by Néstor Zavarce.

“Sin rencor” by El Gran Coquivacoa

“Viejo año” by Maracaibo 15.

“Sentir zuliano” by Cardenales del Éxito.

“La Grey Zuliana” by Ricardo Aguirre.

Practice your Spanish skills listening and singing along this cheerful music and, of course, don’t forget to wish ¡Feliz Año Nuevo! at midnight 🙂

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