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Gaita Music in Venzuela Celebration

December 24, 1998

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ When a radio disk jockey urged the public to stop listening to ``Gaita″ music last Christmas because he thought it was too rowdy, residents of the oil-rich city of Maracaibo boycotted the station and scrawled pro-Gaita slogans on their car windows.

The deejay quickly became persona non grata in Maracaibo, birthplace of the hip-swinging, foot-stomping music that is as basic to Christmas in Venezuela as ``Silent Night″ is in the United States.

``Christmas without Gaita isn’t Christmas,″ said Hereberto Molina, one of the kings of Gaita (GUY-tah) with 500 songs to his credit.

Long confined to steamy Zulia state, Gaita is spreading throughout Venezuela and to Colombia, Miami, Aruba and Puerto Rico. Songs have been published in English, Italian, Portuguese and the local Indian language of Guajira.

With its thundering African drums and irreverent lyrics, Gaita developed over the last two centuries partly as homage to the supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary near Lake Maracaibo.

Today, it’s a craze among young and old alike. Teen-agers attend Gaita concerts until sunrise. Their parents and grandparents dance to the music on tape or in clubs.

``We’ve got Gaita in our blood,″ said clothes salesman Henrique Serrano, 24.

In addition to the ever-present drums, Gaita musicians use maracas, a small four-string guitar and a strange instrument called a ``furruco,″ in which the player rubs a stick inside a drum for a deep, pulsing, heartbeat-like sound.

They’ve added organs and electric guitars in recent decades, creating a highly danceable salsa-like rhythm but infuriating Gaita traditionalists.

The lyrics are as important as the beat. Gaita songs are about corrupt politicians, Caribbean beaches, economic crises, saints, cities, love, jokes and even Lake Maracaibo, which sits atop one of the world’s largest oil deposits.

One song commemorates the crash of an Esso oil tanker into the bridge spanning the lake. This year, the song ``Viagra″ pokes fun at 82-year-old President Rafael Caldera.

Most Gaita songs feature protest themes in a country where more than half the population is mired in poverty. The classic Gaita anthem, ``The Zuliano People″ written by Ricardo Aguirre in 1968, says that ``Maracaibo has given so much it should have streets filled with stacks of gold coins.″

The origins of Gaita aren’t clear, but it may have come from traditional Christmas songs called ``aguinaldos″ brought to Latin America by the Spanish conquistadors, said Gaita expert Humberto Rodriguez.

It may have been given the name Gaita, which means ``bagpipe,″ because it evokes deep feelings in Venezuelans the way bagpipes do for the Scots, he said.

``If a Zulia resident is in the United States or Japan and you play a gaita song, he’ll cry,″ said Eduardo Fernandez, city editor of Maracaibo’s Panamora newspaper.

Many songs pay homage to ``The Virgin of La Chinita,″ the patron saint of Zulia. Legend has it that on Nov. 18, 1709, an old woman washing clothes on Lake Maracaibo’s shores found a plank of floating wood and took it home.

One day a brilliant light suddenly illuminated the plank, revealing the image of the Virgin Mary. Her face was similar to that of an Asian-looking Guajira Indian.

Many Venezuelans consider the event a miracle, though some believe the wood was stolen from a church by pirates who later tossed it overboard.

Today, the wood is preserved in a gold-framed glass case in St. John of God Basilica in Maracaibo. Every Nov. 18, the city of 1.5 million people comes to a halt as La Chinita is ushered through the streets by worshippers singing Gaita.

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