Venezuela: Tocuyito, Nov. 1

Dear All,

After driving six hours for what should have been a two hour trip (god bless the traffic) Margarita and I arrived at Tocuyito. Tocuyito is an astounding place to many Venezuelans. Every time I time I mentioned this prison (regardless of whether I told them I am visiting or not) people responded with gasps and an occasional “pffffhh”. In general, Venezuelan prisons are known for the unusual amount of power the internos have. The general population is often armed with unconcealed firearms, have open access to whatever drugs are desired, and have frequent visits from prostitutes. All this is paid for by the surprisingly large amount of money circulating inside. The guards seldom meddle in the affairs of the internos and especially avoid the pran, or the criminal ringleader of each prison. At Tocuyito the most famous pran of Venezuela, Wilmito, is currently running the show. I’ve heard rumors that he earned up to two million dollars last year alone.

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Tocuyito has 3 separate prisons (cameras not allowed inside). The women’s prison was the only one that had been scheduled for me to visit. For reasons unknown till later I was told there had been problemas at the men’s prison and it wasn’t a good idea to enter. The other two prisons were for men, separated by maximum and medium security.

From the outside the maximum security prison is like nothing I’ve seen. The barrios I wrote about earlier seem like resorts compared to the complexes of la maxima. However, as I looked closer, passed the crumbling walls littered with bullet holes, I began to see air conditioners and many, many satellites poking out of windows. It turns out DirectTV is benefitting quite a bit from these hombres. In the maximum penitentiary I am told that even the guards don’t enter, much less an invited international musician that maybe be worth a large ransom.

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Disappointed that the 6 hour drive kept us from spending more time at the women’s núcleo I began to insist in entering into the men’s medium security prison. After all, I came all this way to Venezuela, why get cold feet now?

Let me flash forward a few hours. After leaving the men’s prison I ask Margarita what problemas there were in the prison. “Well,” she says reluctantly, “a little while ago the music professors we kidnapped. But not for that long.” Now things were starting to make sense.

I didn’t see any guns while I was working with the medium security men but I did notice a surprising amount of independence. Guards hardly looked at the internos and the visitors and professors were dressed no differently from the rest. In fact, I often confused many of the internos for professors.

While INOF revolved around the symphony orchestra and Barinas around the Venezuelan folk music, Jaropo, Tocuyito was all about the Salsa. Loud Salsa. Somehow this núcleo had managed to attain a PA mic’ing system, brand new drum set, trumpets, trombones, congos, and a slew of microphones. “Unlike the other three núcleos,” margarita whispers to me, “these internos buy their own instruments. And they tell the professors that they want to learn.”

While there is certainly some heavy handed, under-the-table financing happening here, one thing is clear, these musicians exude pride in what they have created. Over and over again I was asked, “So, we’re the most impressive núcleo you’ve visited in Venezuela, right? Right??” The truth is, for as stunning as their musicianship is and as organized, clean, and decorated (yes, decorated with abstract art and colorful slogans with their band name “Son de Libertad,” Song of Freedom) their núcleo was just as special as everyone else’s.

It just so happens I had immediately come from Tocuyito’s women’s center which had the fewest resources and darkest environment I had seen yet. Dark rain water dripping from the walls into stagnant, green puddles, heaped trash surrounding every door, and rusty barred windows. Yet here in this center I witnessed the most powerful vocal performance of my life. After the entire group had performed a number of uplifting love songs and Christmas carols (Christmas cheer comes especially early in this part of the world), one woman, 5 months pregnant, came to the fore. Clearly nervous and emotionally charged she began to sing “Al Final” along a synthesized keyboard accompaniment. I made out the lyrics as I could, it was a song of fear and uncertainty for her unborn child. Every chorus swelled with the most potent emotion that knotted my throat into a tight first. As she belted through the final chorus I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep my cool. Yet, the moment she finished the room leapt to their feet and the singer burst (in every sense of the word) into tears. Never have I seen anyone withhold so much emotion and channel it into a most powerful emotional performance. This was truly a once in a lifetime musical experience.

Then they wanted me to play for them. After THAT. I did my best. But NOTHING could come after that.

So when the men at Tocuyito solicited a response that would bolster their self-promoted program, I really couldn’t tell them it was the best. It was great, but they were all great. They were all life changing moments for me.

* * *

I was scared to come to Venezuela. The people that were with me before I left had to deal with a very, very anxious Nathan. I didn’t know whether to be terrified, excited, or nervous. I was everything at once. I didn’t understand what I was preparing for. Still my mind is processing all of the experiences I’ve had:

The luxury of being an American in an inflated economy thirsty for dollars, profound music making day after day that is powerful enough to change the world, some of the largest slums in the western hemisphere, one of the most luxurious country clubs in South America, a resented government, crumbling infrastructure, breathtaking nature, riveting folk music, delicious food.

It has been a journey of extremes and inspirations. Now the time comes to convert this inspiration into a program that will help the incarcerated people of America. Thank you again for your motivating support. As I have been alone on this trip to Venezuela it has been unspeakably uplifting to receive your messages. I will keep you all updated with the developments of Musicambia and will continue to need your generous emotional and social support. Thank you.

With love,