Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MUSIC-VENEZUELA: Simon Diaz, 70 and Still Going Strong

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Jul 21 1998 (IPS) - Venezuela’s musical icon Simon Diaz – the man who first sang “Caballo Viejo” (Old Horse), the most popular song in the nation for more than 30 years – turned 70 this month and has no thoughts of quitting the stage.

“Retirement has no set time, nor date in the calendar,” said the singer-songwriter whose famous tune has been heard world-wide, sung by voices as varied as those of Placido Domingo, Julio Iglesias and Joan Manuel Serrat.

Diez has been in show business for half a century and appeared in a four-day concert July 17-20 in Caracas which was dubbed “Canta 50 y cuenta 70” (Singing 50 and counting 70).

His songs have been sung by Caetano Veloso, Celia Cruz, Ray Coniff, Juan Gabriel and Mercedes Sosa, including “Tonada de luna llena” (Tune of the full moon), “El becerrito” (The little calf), “Sabana” (Sheet) and “La luna Margarita” (The Margarita moon).

“The only thing I haven’t done is the film of Caballo viejo,” said the man known as “Uncle Simon” in Venezuela, for his role in a children’s programme on television.

Diez’s music is closely blended in with the Venezuelan way of life and has installed him as an undisputed national symbol, although he likes to say: “I represent ‘Venezuela-ness’, not Venezuela. I am like the average Venezuelan, in how I love, as a machista, in the way I am attached to the land and the fervent defence of education for of the children,” Diaz told IPS.

This month also will feature the release of a double CD anthology, with Diaz telling the story of his more than 150 songs, singing a bunch of these in duet with the leading urban singers of the Venezuelan music scene in the eighties, other folk singers and personalities.

“Caballo viejo” is not Diaz’s most loved song, as he prefers “el tratado” (the treaty) built on the milking songs of the fertile Venezuelan plains immortalised by the writer Romulo Gallegos in his novel “Dona Barbara.”

Diaz has been associated with this song since 1979, when in verse to verse counterpoint he fought a young man for the smile of a young girl in a party in the plains town of San Fernando, writing the song the next day to tell of the experience.

With the histrionics woven with complicity and simplicity which envelops everything, Diaz told the story of how he started reciting verses to the girl which began more or less like: “How pretty is the girl who is here with us/ I mount on a colt to give her a kiss.”

But from within the group a “sort of boyfriend” appeared replying that the singer was too old for the girl, ending up saying: “a heart with so much strength/ a heart without any/ cannot swim along together/ two ducks on a lake.”

Diaz responded with the improvisation of the now famous verses, the party came to an end and “the next day I knew what I had in my hands was not the blow I received by being called old, but the song of my lifetime.”

“I didn’t get the girl, but I got the song,” he said smiling, recognising this is the song which earned him most profit and fame abroad, although in Venezuela he was already the main reference point of folk music when he composed it aged 51.

“Love has no set time/ nor date in the calendar/ when the wills come together,” sings Diaz, to the song of the harp, four- string guitar and maracas, the instruments of the vast savannah floodplains fed by the rivers of Colombia and Venezuela.

“The colt gives time to time/ because he has plenty of years to come/ an old horse cannot lose the flower they give him/ because he’ll have no other chance in this life,” sings Diaz, who wears a plains hat and traditional ‘liqui-liqui’ – dapper linen suit.

“Caballo viejo is a mixture of Lolita and City Lights, a universal tune which is there and which could have been composed by anyone, but the task fell to me, its lyrics and music are from the Venezuelan plains,” says Diaz.

The singer songwriter, the oldest of eight brothers and sisters from a poor plains family, worked the land from the time he was 12- years-old, in what had been a livestock breeding area for centuries. There the “joropo” festivals were celebrated with counterpoint singing between troubadours who maintained a fierce rivalry.

In Caracas he worked in many different jobs, including as a boxer and bank employee, before dedicating himself fully to music in the sixties, when he realised his brother, the comedian Joselo, was earning five times more than him working for television.

His greatest pride is that, thanks to his efforts with tunes like “El Becerrito,” mechanisation has not managed to do away with the tradition of the milking songs, the soft slow cadence improvised by the plains cowman to relax the cow and make her produce more milk.

In an election year, where the campaign for presidential elections in December starts smack on his birthday, on August 8, all the parties are seeking his support for their campaigns. And, just as everytime before, Dias, everyone’s friend, has rejected all the offers.

“My mission is to defend the Creole songs and any young people who want to go into these, not politics,” said Dias, whose dream as a child was to sing like Rafa Galindo or Carlos Gardel. But he ended up unlike either of of them singing in a style which many people see as symbolising an entire country.

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