FirstWorksRI, one of the state’s premier cultural organizations, is bringing a series of unique events to Providence over the next month. The Frontier Series is a celebration of music and art from around the world.

The series began March 11th with a panel talk and will be followed by a performance March 14th from Tibetan Bardic performers Qyrq Qyz/Forty Girls. It continues March 18th at the RISD Auditorium in Providence with singer Betsayda Machado known as “the Voice of Venezuela.”

Betsayda Machado, the “Voice of Venezuela”

Machado leads a multi-generational band of musicians and dancers, La Parranda El Clavo, all native to the Venezuelan village El Clavo, where their music has been at the center of parties in the town square for over 30 years. These performers have called new attention to the Venezuelan Afro-Soul style known as tambor.

They’ve gained critical acclaim in recent years, touring widely and appearing on trend-setting programs like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert and on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

We connected with Machado in an e-mail interview, where, among other things, she described tambor, her band’s musical style. The rhythm-based genre evolved from Africa, with drums and other percussive instruments in the forefront.

“Tambor has similarities to African music but it is Afro-Venezuelan. We are from Barlovento, called the land of the ‘mina’ (a very long drum, played in groups). In our repertoire, we have all types of Venezuelan drums, from different regions. We have the ‘Aragua’ drums that are from the coast and the ‘Cantos de Faena’ (songs for work) which are from our region,” Machado explained.

“The dancing for these rhythms is very different, for example, the ‘culo e puya’ (pointy ass – literal translation) is an elegant courtship dance that comes from the slavery times when slaves had their ankles tied to chains and couldn’t move much. The ‘aragua’ drum dancing is more frenetic with more hip movement. The genre or rhythm that really represents us is the ‘parranda’ and it has to do with the festive celebrations like Christmas, but in our lyrics we try to evoke all our mixed backgrounds from Europe, Africa and America.”

Machdo has become an international sensation, but before a few years ago, she was only known in her hometown.

“Where I was born, everybody was a musician. Barlovento is known to be a very musical area and I grew up there. In middle school, I won some singing competitions and was crowned the “Black Voice of Barlovento”. My father was a talented trumpet player and musician, and, having a very big family, we always got the party and the ‘parranda’ started at our house.

“I worked on an institution called ‘Popular Cultural Workshop’ where I learned about the different types of ‘joropos’ (folkloric genre of Venezuela), drums from the different regions of the country and even about what was the agriculture like in our region and others.

Machado’s home country has been in the news of late, with government corruption and a crumbling economy making international headlines. We wondered if conditions there had an impact on her touring. She acknowledged that there have been challenges.

“Daily life is more difficult every day, but we keep on doing music and parranda. We hope that with the U.S. shows and presentations we are doing, we’ll manage to travel in and out of our country freely to keep spreading our culture. We have the dream to go to Africa and reconnect to our roots and we just hope it can become real.”

From humble origins, Machado appreciates international support she’s received thus far.

“It fills us with joy… even when people don’t understand what we are singing about, they understand our music and our message, and really enjoy the shows. We can fell those positive vibes. This has been an incredible experience and we are very grateful for everything. Everyone who has been to one of our concerts has a place in our hearts and every one of the presenters that have believed in us and opened doors for us, thank you very much, this wouldn’t have been possible without them.”

For details of this concert and other FirstWorksRI events, click here.

Check out their NPR Tiny Desk Concert below.

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Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.