Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The VNote Ensemble - Bringing Venezuelan Music to Contemporary North America

It is probably natural that the Bay Area’s multicultural climate has nurtured the development of the VNote ensemble, a lively and soulful group that blends traditional Venezuelan and jazz forms. Led by two women who came to music a continent apart, VNote is the latest group to record an album with the support of the Maginus Project.

We spoke with one of the ensemble’s co-leaders, Donna Viscuso, who learned a bit of piano, guitar, and flute in her home state of Connecticut, but has been largely self-taught through the years. It was not until she reached the Left Coast that she began to connect to the musicians and influences that have shaped VNote.

The VNote Ensemble
When asked to compare the two coasts in terms of their receptivity to multicultural music, Viscuso declares a clear winner: “You rarely notice the blending of musical styles on the East Coast. I think here [the West Coast] the various cultures just pour into the music. It’s a veritable feast out here — you can hear music from everywhere.”

While Viscuso brings the jazz to VNote, Jackeline Rago provides the Venezuelan soul. As a multi-instrument performer specializing in the Venezuelan cuatro and Afro-Venezuelan percussion instruments, Rago is capable of extended, rapturous solos. With VNote, Viscuso and Rago have played many of the leading concert venues around the Bay Area.

Rounding out the ensemble are two rhythm section Bay Area musicians, percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz and the bassist Dan Feiszli, who give VNote a swinging platform that is equally at home on uptempo Afro-Venezuelan influenced tracks like “Venezuela Venezuela” and more lilting and pensive ones like “Llamado de San Juan.”

VNote has added several guest performers for the album. Soul singer Betsayda Machado, known as the “voice of Venezuela,” performs on several tracks. Betsayda was passing through the Bay Area on her recent North American tour just in time to make some of the sessions at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. Also contributing to the project are percussionist Jonathan Gavidia and the vocalist Anna Maria Violich.

Viscuso and Rago met in the 1990s when their individual bands closed out a festival session. They connected with the Maginus Project through Jazz in the Neighborhood, a Bay Area organization dedicated to organizing affordable concerts and paying musicians fair wages. JITN’s founder Mario Guarneri introduced the women to Phil Lewis, and the album project was born. As of the publication date of this piece, the project is heading into the studio for mixing.

More familiar forms of Latin music like Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, and samba have been established in the US for decades. Not so for the rich Venezuelan musical traditions which remain little known in North America. However this situation is poised to change. The country’s present upheaval and economic collapse has forced a growing number of Venezuelans to flee their native land, including a great deal of the country’s best musical talent. What’s bad for Venezuelans is good for the rest of the world. Venezuela’s previously insular musical culture is reaching new audiences throughout the world. In particular the US and Mexico have received immigrant Venezuelan musicians with pedigrees in many genres, including native folk, classical, and rock.

Viscuso notes that one of the great things about Venezuelan music is that it does not discriminate. “You never notice the blending,” she says, “it is just a natural thing.” For someone who began her career in the musical hinterlands of West Haven, Connecticut, fronting an eclectic, jazz-influenced Venezuelan ensemble required a journey to the more musically enlightened western edge of the US.

After linking up with bandleader Rago in 2001, the two performed with the all-female group Wild Mango, which led to appearances in some of the leading festivals in the country: Aspen, Montreal, and the Playboy Jazz Fest among them.

Using Rago’s Venezuelan roots as a springboard, Viscuso infused VNote’s original compositions with her jazz and R&B influenced upbringing. The pairing of her jazz flute and saxophone with Rago’s Venezuelan cuatro creates a vibrant sound that can go in many different directions.

VNote’s Maginus Project recording is a natural extension of its frequent club and public appearances. Guataca, a New York based international music public relations firm will likely be handling the ensemble’s future concert promotions, and VNote itself will focus on promoting the album when mixing is completed in September.

Venezuelan music, from its publicly-funded El Sistema classical music program for children to the modern day talent diaspora, is as diverse as any country in the world. For listeners, VNote’s new album is a perfect departure point for hearing how Venezuela meets the rest of the world.

- Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog

No comments:

Post a Comment