When I Think of Venezuela I Think of My Mother: An Interview with Devendra Banhart31 October, 2019
I’d been wanting to speak to Devendra Banhart for many years about his Latin American roots – Banhart’s mother is Venezuelan and he lived in Caracas from the age of 2 until 14 years old; he has also often spoken highly of many Latin artists. With the release of his latest album, Ma, it felt like as good a time as any to finally have that chat. Never one to hide his Venezuelan past, on his latest it felt as if he was getting closer to that past as at any time before. The track “Abre Las Manos” clearly carried echoes of a recent trip to Venezuela, “Carolina” was his first track in Portuguese, a doff of the cap to his Brazilian idols, while “My Boyfriend’s In The Band” and “October 12” are both sung in Spanish, with the latter the closest to a bossa nova he’s surely ever performed.
Our conversation passed through a real mix of Latin American musical royalty (Simón Díaz, Caetano Veloso, El Polen and Eduardo Mateo) while also confronting the reality of dual identities, Banhart being a child of a Venezuelan mother and American father, and how the current situation in Venezuela has actually brought him closer than ever to feeling Venezuelan. It feels as if Banhart’s new album, Ma, which conceptually is an album addressing a child from a mother’s perspective, could easily find parallel in Banhart’s own relationship with Venezuela, his mother country. Here’s our conversation:
Let’s start at the beginning. Do you have early musical memories of your time in Caracas?
I do, but mainly salsa, merengue, cumbia, vallenato. They’re all extremely ubiquitous to the point that you can’t even avoid hearing that music spilling from the streets. It literally feels that way, or it felt that way then. It actually doesn’t feel that way at all any more. It didn’t feel that way two years ago when I went to Venezuela before things got worse than I could have ever imagined. But joropo, tonada, salsa, cumbia, merengue and later, to a much smaller extent, samba. I’m talking about just leaving your house to go get some groceries with your mum or going to school or going to visit your grandmother, going to the park, from cars as you’re walking down the street, from the store as you’re shopping, as you’re walking down Sabana Grande, the music is ever present, it becomes a part of your fabric because it’s just part of the colloquial existence: salsa, merengue and joropo, and the sound of the cuatro, which is the indigenous 4-stringed instrument.
Did you play any music at that time?
I did, I played the cuatro. Every family has a cuatro, usually hanging on the wall, covered in dust but at some point, the family cuatro happens to everyone and you learn how to tune it which is a fun little song which goes ‘tam-bor-tin-ton’, you learn that song and you learn how to tune it and then you maybe learn a Simón Díaz song, but you don’t even know who Simón Díaz is. You definitely don’t think he’s a musician because when you’re a kid growing up in Venezuela Simón Díaz is so iconic, he’s such a part of popular culture, you think of him as the president, he’s like Uncle Simón, he’s a family member, he’d be on TV doing long monologues, comedy, hosting shows, playing songs, but that was just a small part of it. It wasn’t until much later than I realised he was perhaps the greatest writer of all-time and most beautiful singer I’ve ever heard in my life.
I read an interview with you where you named Simón Díaz and Caetano Veloso as your two biggest singing influences. Is that right?
100%, those would be in the top two who influenced my work, 100%.
And when did you start singing, especially your own songs?
Maybe in high school. I actually wrote a song when I was nine and I sang it to my family and they hated it, they asked me to never do it again. They were horrified. So I thought, this is great, I’ve got this cool thing where I can just freak people out, like a super power, I can immediately suck the air out of the room and depress everyone, wow. But I wasn’t allowed to perform after that, because this song, the chorus was “we’re all going to die because” we had plastic surgery and all this stuff, and I loved it, I was really into it, but they hated it so I think that was the first song, and then of course I moved to America and I wanted to be in a ska band and I picked up the trumpet, but I was terrible at that, so I picked up the guitar. ‘I can play the cuatro, let’s play the guitar’, so I got into guitar and writing songs that I felt were my songs, that was after college in San Francisco, when I was around 18. That was when I met Noah Georgeson [who has produced many of Banhart’s records, including Ma], and Joanna Newsom and Vetiver and all the people that would become my chosen family and still to this day my family. But my first songs have no Latin feeling I don’t think, but it must be a part of me, of what I do.
So do you think that the influence of Simón Díaz and Caetano Veloso on your singing was subconscious then?
Simón was subconscious. And ironically because he was so ubiquitous and such a huge benevolent mother figure for Venezuelans while he was alive, just this pop cultural figure, I didn’t realise how incredible his poetry was, how incredible his musicianship was. So Matteah Baim, my American friend and an amazing songwriter and artist, when we were in our early 20s, she goes ‘check out this Simón Díaz guy from Venezuela, his songs are called tonadas‘, and it completely blew my mind because I just didn’t know the artistry and the depth of Simón Díaz’s poetry and how incredible and divine it was, and his voice is just the greatest, he’s up there really with the greatest singers of all-time, and then Caetano it was actually in high school that my dad brought home this compilation that was called Beleza Tropical that David Byrne put together on Luaka Bop, I think there’s like two or three volumes [in fact, there’s two volumes of Brazil Classics, the first subtitled Beleza Tropical]. The first one had Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, everyone that I later fell in love with, but the main thing that really blew my mind was Caetano and it was “O Leaozinho” the song. I was obsessed with bluebeat [a name for early Jamaican pop] and I wanted to somehow tie it in to skateboarding and wanted to be like a rudeboy and skateboard in a suit and that’s what I wanted to do, but I also wanted to learn guitar, but then when I hear Caetano’s “Leaozinho” I knew, that’s it, I just want to do this, that’s exactly what I want to do. So Caetano wasn’t just an influence, it was very much an, ‘oh, this is what I want to do with my entire life’. But then it’s amazing because then I discover Simón, and then I find out that Caetano had covered a Simón Díaz song. Caetano had celebrated the artistry of Simón Díaz, he does a beautiful, beautiful version of “Tonada de Luna Llena”, it’s on a live album and live DVD. So I thought that was so beautiful to see that go in the full circle kind of way.
On the album you sing in Portuguese, with a song written as a response to a Brazilian song…
“Carolina” is a song to a song, it’s a song to the song “Carolina” which is written by Chico Buarque and has been covered by everyone. Caetano does a very, very special version of it. Though my favourite version is by a Brazilian musician called Rodrigo Amarante. This song is to the song “Carolina” and by extension it’s a song to all Brazilian music and by extension is a song to all Latin Americans, and by extension is a song to all.
It seems interesting to me that Caetano Veloso recorded a couple of albums in English when he was exiled there, when you could say his English wasn’t perfect, and here you’re doing your own song in Portuguese, with a similar approach, not being too concerned about mispronouncing anything.
It definitely hasn’t held me back given that I have mispronounced almost every word I’ve ever said in every language, English included, but I really love the fear of mispronunciation, it’s a real fear and I live it, I live it with songs in Spanish. I speak Spanish and I mispronounce two words really badly on this record and it fucking irks me and it’s a real source of embarrassment for me, but you’ve got to just walk through and know that you’re going to mispronounce shit, I will always do that, and I’ve been doing it from the beginning. I have a song in German that I had a German friend telling me how you say things. I sing it all and then I play in Germany and someone’s like “what language is that?” I’m mispronouncing things to the point that they cannot know what language it is, even though I’m singing it in that very language. So the fear of mispronunciation is very real for me, because I have really butchered the shit out of every language I’ve tried to sing.
Where do you consider home? Do you feel Venezuelan or American?
I spent most of my life feeling like a Venezuelan in America and then like an American in Venezuela, and then things got so bad in Venezuela that I just felt really like a Venezuelan. For me, the migration became so huge, so many people started to leave that it felt like there was a real Venezuelan diaspora. I felt more Venezuelan because suddenly I was surrounded by more Venezuelans and this has happened in the last five years and has increased in the last year in a monumental way, in a catastrophic way, in an apocalyptic way, in a way that’s reminiscent of what happened in Tibet where everybody tried to flee because China invaded it. The same thing is happening in Venezuela right now, people are trying to flee from their own government actually, it’s not like someone else is trying to invade, it’s their own government. But I didn’t feel very Venezuelan until I started to meet so many Venezuelans that has escaped basically.
Do you still have family there?
Yeah, my brother’s there, my aunts, uncles and cousins are there, it’s pretty much all I’ve got left, everyone else has passed away. My mother is here though and that’s it.
Off the album, “Abre Las Manos” is one that is definitely about what’s happening in Venezuela right now, no?
It definitely is, but I don’t think it’s, hopefully you can apply it to other things as well, that’s what you hope when writing a song. I think a political song you want it to be applicable to some general things too, but yeah I think it’s the closest I’ve ever come to something that explicit, it’s a gentle protest song to some degree.
How does it fit within the narrative of this album, which is this theme of maternalism, is it then a song that is addressing a child and explaining to them what’s going on?
That’s very true, but the child does not exist, therefore it just becomes a metaphor for don’t trust anybody. That song may be inspired or informed by the situation in Venezuela but it’s general enough that it can be applied to any circumstance where people are being exploited for their religious beliefs or exploited by a different government or their government or starving or whatever their circumstances are, I think it’s vague enough. Although it is very personal because I’m talking about seeing my own aunt waiting in a line to get bread, but many, many people have experienced that, it’s not specific or special to me in any way, it’s hopefully something that someone else can identify with. And the child is just like a metaphor, the child doesn’t exist, it’s a record written for this child that I may never have, so it’s everything that I want to say to this child and, the theme is motherhood. Venezuela has very much been a mother to me and my mother is very Venezuelan and she’s been politicised by this situation, so not only is she suffering her own family but she’s more connected with Venezuela than ever, so suffering even more because it’s not just her family, it’s her entire country. So my mother is such a big part of Venezuela, so when I think of Venezuela I literally think of my mother, and so it’s drawing from that personal experience but I don’t think it’s specific enough that I have an answer for who this is for, but I think that’s a good thing.
Finally, I just really quickly wanted to ask you about Eduardo Mateo [a Uruguayan singer/songwriter] and El Polen [a Peruvian folk-rock group], who I know are two Latin American artists you’ve praised in the past.
First, let’s do Eduardo Mateo. I would say one of the greatest songwriters and greatest singers and greatest poets. A Uruguayan songwriter that people know about but I don’t think he’s as well known as he should be, so let’s celebrate Eduardo Mateo and I hope that more reissues come out and that more celebrations of his songwriting can occur. It’s impossible to talk about Eduardo Mateo without mentioning Diane Denoir, she’s a friend of mine and she’s an amazing human being, an incredible songwriter and singer and she is still in [Montevideo in] Uruguay and her records are fabulous. If you haven’t heard Diane Denoir please listen to Diane Denoir [a track by Diane Denoir and Eduardo Mateo featured on a record, Fragments, compiled by Banhart in 2019].
And El Polen, I’m going to say sure, they’re my favourite band of all-time. I mean “Mi Cueva”, I’m going to say “Mi Cueva” is one of the greatest songs easily ever written, it’s a masterpiece, that song I’ve heard it a billion times and something new is always revealed, it’s recorded so incredibly, lyrics are fabulous, and it’s one of those journeys, it’s an adventure of a song, you can get lost in it. And so, El Polen, wow, I’m so happy that you’re bringing them up. Yes, let us all please praise El Polen. So people that may not know they’re one of the big Peruvian bands, please check them out.
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