August 7, 2022

Music Breaks Walls: A Conversation with Sandino Primera

Sandino Primera is a committed artist who weaves poetry with down-to-earth commentary into his cultural production. Years ago, this caused him to sever his ties with the commercial music industry. Like his father Ali Primera, Venezuela’s foremost singer and songwriter, Sandino Primera strives to build bridges between peoples. In this interview, he tells us about his own music and reflects on the work of Alí Primera who was born 80 years ago.

Part of Alí Primera’s legacy is the fusion of politics and music. How do you pursue this goal in your own life and cultural work?

When I was 8 or 9, something special happened to me when I listened to Víctor Jara. His music touched me a lot and brought tears to my eyes. Later, when I was 11, I discovered the history of the Chilean singer and understood that in his voice, politics and music were one. In other words, it was not my father who fused music and politics for me: it was Víctor Jara.

Of course, when I was a child I knew my father was a political activist, but the connection between his songs and his politics was not immediately obvious to me. I didn’t understand this until years later.

For Ali, there was no barrier between music and politics. Later, when I understood this, it left an imprint on me. But I was also inspired by César Rengifo [Venezuelan playwright and painter], Violeta Parra and Roque Dalton, among others. Composition, melody, harmony and poetry … When everything is combined with political participation, with ideology, then the cursed poets and the singers of the people emerge.

I belong to a continental or even global movement of committed musicians. The movement is quite powerful in Venezuela, and it fed me.

The role of the singer engaged in society is often complex. Most of us are opposed to the status quo, opposed to existing regimes. Ali was no different: he opposed the corrupt political leadership of the 4th Republic [1958-98], and he was a thorn in the side of established power. Of course, this is not always so: many Cuban singers joined the revolution and were able to sing about the victories of the people.

Things are complex for the singers engaged in Venezuela today. We have a government which generally pursues a revolutionary project: a peaceful revolution and 21st century socialism are part of its discourse. However, we live in a capitalist reality and it must be said. This is why my music tries to navigate the contradictions of our reality, while pointing towards a horizon of full political participation which should be rich in poetry and beauty.

That sums up my project as a musician. However, when it comes to frank politics, I have also had the chance to participate in spaces of political representation. In 2017, cultural producers and friends of social movements encouraged me to run for the Constituent Assembly elections, even though I am not affiliated with any political party. It allowed me to enter spaces of formal politics.

My tenure in the Constituent Assembly taught me that pressure can be exerted from these spaces. However, formal politics have limits, votes are often censored. The time I spent there was enriching, but above all it helped me understand the importance of music as a social resource. This further strengthened my commitment to culture with revolutionary autonomy.

The government is with the revolution, but at the same time, the logic of capitalism permeates everything. On the other hand, culture, and especially music, can reach every corner as well. That’s why I do what I do, and I do it with a deep commitment to life itself.

To escape the restrictions of the cultural industry, Alí ​​Primera has created his own music label. You also have a background in commercial music but have broken with it. How did you manage to generate a space of greater autonomy for your music?

Ali created Cigarrón, but it was not registered or formalized as a label. Cigarrón was more of a symbolic gesture to bring musicians together and encourage activist and socially engaged artists to organize and participate politically. However, Ali released most of his albums with the Promús commercial label.

From 1997 to 2001, I was part of a powerful commercial label called “Hecho a mano”, but the rules of the industry game made me lose my freedom: the interests of the market did not allow me to grow musically. That’s why I left the label in 2001.

In Venezuela today, there is no record company producing albums with the kind of content that we produce. In fact, there are hardly any record companies! It forces us to look for ways to produce and fund the whole process – from pre-production, recording and editing to live concerts and music videos (which are very important these days).

We had to learn a lot of things, from technical sound production to instrumental performance, video and photography, to sound and visual effects, etc.

These are difficult times for those of us who do not follow the precepts of the music industry, but I have had the support of many friends, institutions, private initiatives with social responsibility. All of this is very important, but it is also fleeting … That is why we are constantly fighting for economic independence.

I have no doubt that Ali would have supported the Bolivarian Process. However, I also think he would have been critical if necessary. What is the role of a singer-songwriter engaged in a political process like ours, with all its virtues and contradictions?

I agree: Ali would be with the Bolivarian revolution, but he would not be complacent with anyone. I think that among musicians, what should be common is solidarity and commitment. All of this should come without fear of the consequences that might result when we speak frankly about internal contradictions.

For me, it is important to stress that the state is one thing and the government is another, and also that the dominant system in Venezuela is capitalist. When we criticize, we are criticizing the system and the injustices the state continues to do.

I believe that one of our tasks is precisely this: to promote down-to-earth thinking. When we say that it is capitalism, not socialism, there are people who are shocked … However, we are not talking about ideas, we are pointing the finger at a reality!

It is important to dispel the shadows of idealism, but not to get rid of our ideals. We have to understand where we are and accept the reality in which we live in order to transform it. All this must be framed in a context of fraternity and commitment.

In these times, almost everything remains to be done: very little of what has been done is useful to us. It is necessary to foster the creation of a new temporality and to create another culture – it is important to compose, paint, write, sing, speak and build the new.

I believe that the main commitment of a singer today should be to create new music to accompany the emergence of a new form of thought. We need to stimulate a conversation and not point fingers at each other. On the contrary, it is up to us to think together. At the end of the day, we are all part of the same problem.

There is a need to encourage new ways of thinking with music of any style, any genre. The important thing is to stimulate thinking. This is one of the singer’s most important roles today.

What were Alí Primera’s main musical influences, and how do they overlap (or differ) from yours?

Rancheras [Mexican music] were the most important influence on Ali, including those of Pedro Infante and Pepe Aguilar. In the 1940s and 1950s, in small Venezuelan towns, Mexican cinema and music had a great impact.

Later Ali came to Caracas and started listening to boleros and salsa, and he was also influenced by Atahualpa Yupanqui. Ali has always been very sincere in his creations. Many artists influenced him, but his songs were very much his own.

As I mentioned before, I was influenced by Violeta Parra and Victor Jara among others, and when I was 14 I started listening to Bob Marley. I listened to rock, but Ali didn’t have rock in his collection. Maybe we would have had rock differences, I don’t know. The same goes for hip hop, which left an important mark on my production. However, the music Alí listened to and his music are important to me.

You often say that one of your goals is to “organize the enthusiasm”. Can you explain what you mean by this?

The idea of ​​organizing enthusiasm is Ali’s, although it has left its mark on many of us. I would say that the Watuyusay collective in Paraguaná [Falcón state] is great for organizing enthusiasm.

I’m a musician and agitator, someone who wants to overturn existing paradigms and idealistic bullshit. I work to tear down walls, to bring people and ideas together, to build an independent and sovereign homeland, both politically and culturally.

Of course, it is very important to organize enthusiasm. There are a lot of people who want to do things but abstain out of fear, because we come from so many historical tensions. On the other hand, many are worn out or even depoliticized …

This is why we seek to channel this power that comes from enthusiasm. I want to be useful in building an independent and sovereign Venezuela. That’s why I want to break down idealism and build real bridges, allowing us to recognize ourselves. We are all part of the same problem and therefore we must come together to find the solution.

Today, 80 years after the birth of Ali, and beyond his extraordinary musical talent and his political commitment, what do you think is his main heritage?

I believe that his main heritage is his unwavering endurance and his creative and constructive capacity. Ali was a very prolific being with enormous talent, and he put his talent at the service of the people.

In his discography we discover our history, our ancestors, and the struggles that bring us together. Ali teaches all of this in a very simple and intimate way. He managed to synthesize the rich and long history of Latin America and Venezuela, and he did so with extraordinary poetic capacity.

Its energy is felt in every note. His legacy is linked to his political coherence, his generosity and his solidarity, even though he was – like all of us – an imperfect human being. But again, Ali’s legacy is above all linked to his commitment and endurance.