A Personal Narrative in a Crisis
Saying Venezuela is going through rough times is an understatement. Due to controversial politics promoted by deceased president Hugo Chávez and his successor and current president Nicolás Maduro, the country has deteriorated to unprecedented levels in the last 15 years. It only takes a quick look at Venezuela-related news headlines, where the country is claimed to have the second highest violent crime murder rate in the world, and also to hold the current highest worldwide inflation rate record. The news about basic necessities shortages, and images of people in long lines outside supermarkets trying to find them, have traveled around the globe.
So, how can an artist thrive in a context like this one? For many of them, the answer is simple: they can’t. Venezuela is witnessing its highest emigration flux in decades, and that means hundreds and thousands of people are fleeing the country because of its political, economic, and social situation. Among the long list of names formed by artists from all disciplines that have left the country in search of more opportunities to grow in their already tough area, is singer/songwriter Ulises Hadjis.
So, how can an artist thrive in a context like this one? For many of them, the answer is simple: they can’t.
Born in Maracaibo to a Greek father and a Venezuelan mother, Ulises Hadjis has been involved in music since his teen years, previously playing in ska band “Julia” and, since 2008, releasing music under his name. The Latin Grammy Award winner’s brand of indie pop sounds effortless and pristine. His songs are often infused with Latin music and rock, though he manages to retain a signature composition style he can proudly call his own. Prior to 2015, he had released two albums: Presente (2008) and Cosas Perdidas (2012.) They are both filled with precious stories where, while fueled by his personal experiences, he manages to keep himself out of the equation so he can let his imagination run. He talks about love and everyday life in an endearing and relatable way.
But for his latest album, Pavimento (2015), he dared to let his recent experiences be in the spotlight for the first time. Hadjis, who used to teach at LUZ (Universidad de Zulia), wrote most of the album in his hometown Maracaibo in the middle of events that accelerated the country’s deterioration, peaking in February 2014 when a demonstration in Caracas ended with three students killed by paramilitary groups affiliated with the government. That event unleashed nationwide protests known as guarimbas, or street barricades, which ultimately led to more street violence. All of this, mixed with the issues suffered by the population, pushed him to move to Mexico City in late 2014.
The songs on Pavimento overflow with dark emotions, where he shares his point of view as if he doesn’t have a choice. The apocalyptic images paint a vivid picture of what it’s like for him to have lived through crisis in Venezuela, and what it’s like to live as an immigrant today. We chatted with Hadjis to know more about the album, his inspiration, and the artists’ societal role.
CHEKY: Pavimento is your third record, but it’s the first where, in some way, you deal with political and social issues on your lyrics. What encouraged you to do it? Was it a conscious decision or did the songs simply permeated with what you were experiencing when you wrote them?
ULISES HADJIS: As a public persona, I’ve always had a political posture on social media and interviews. I’m an artist, but before that, I’m a human being, and it’s my duty not to keep myself disengaged like (Gustavo) Dudamel or Oscar D’León, under premises like “I’m here to unite people” or “music is my voice,” something I think makes musicians seem like a dumb and careless/insensitive specie.
I didn’t make political music before that because didn’t know how to do it well. Silvio Rodríguez and Desorden Público do it very well. Whenever I tried, the songs turned out horrible and I used to adhere to Vargas Llosa’s idea that you shouldn’t let your political affiliation permeate your work.
The thing is that after (Henrique) Capriles’ second electoral defeat, Venezuelan politics flooded my life entirely: since the moment I had to wake up at 6:30 am to collect water on buckets on the only 15 minutes of running water we had per day, until after dark, when I had to go up 11 flights of dark stairs because of the power shortages, afraid of getting robbed. Even though on Pavimento I deal with political issues, I do it from a personal narrative, and not a collective one.
Even though on Pavimento I deal with political issues, I do it from a personal narrative, and not a collective one.
You are very opinionated on your interviews and internet interactions, as opposed to those artists you mention and more, who always try to portray themselves as neutral. Is it the right time for a Venezuelan musician to be publicly apolitical? What do you win and what do you lose by sharing your opinions about those issues?
As I previously said, I think it’s careless. But I’ve never have lived 100% off music, so I can “afford” to be banned by the Government circuit. Other artists I know live 100% off that circuit and I understand that if they gave their opinions, it would lead them to misery. But I know about other artists who have money outside of that circuit and they don’t take a stand out of commodity. I think that, before artists, we’re citizens, and that carries a responsibility.
Can you please explain what it means to you to be an artist in Venezuela nowadays?
It means to be an outcast. In Venezuela, artists live from 70% institutional shows (State-organized events), 15% from private parties, and barely 15% from shows with a cut from the ticket sales. If you’re not chavista, or if you’re anti-chavista like I am, you don’t have access to that 70%, plus if you don’t make music that’s danceable or suitable for radio airplay, you probably won’t play in a lot of weddings or quinceañeras.
On the other hand, there’s a great Venezuelan music scene. There’s good level and critical sense.
Failure and feeling like a loser are topics you deal with extensively on Pavimento, which are topics that people frequently consider too somber and shy away from them. What nurtured those feelings in you? What made you embrace them instead of rejecting them?
After reflecting on it for a long time I realized that the music I enjoy the most plays the role of making me feel less lonely. Right now, music (in general) is very focused on that millennial/phallic power aspect: look at all the people who come to my concerts, look at all the “plays” I have on Youtube. Honestly, I was never attracted to that. (John) Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” or The Magnetic Fields’ “With Whom to Dance” are songs where they portray themselves as vulnerable and that makes me feel less lonely in this world. On Pavimento I feel… Insufficient.
You currently live in Mexico City and are, as many young Venezuelans in the last couple of years, an immigrant. That’s something that is reflected on the album title and songs like “Janna.” What can you say about that song’s message?
Although I hate nationalism, there’s a big part of me that feels emotionally attached to Venezuela. My goddaughter Janna (daughter of Venezuelan musician Jan Pawel) now also lives in Mexico. I imagined the song as a gift for her, as a picture of what we were all living but she won’t remember, and as a promise that she could recognize again the country which gave her her passport.
“Amuleto” is a song that not only separates from your previous works, musically, but it also paints a picture of what it was for you to experience the guarimbas in Maracaibo, around February 2014. Why plasma those dark times on your work? What do you feel or relive nowadays when you sing and hear those lyrics?
I remember one night when nine people had to sleep in my apartment because of how agitated the streets were. I remember that you could see from my balcony students running away and police officers firing guns. I relive a feeling of defeat. When I went to demonstrations, I realized that at my 31 years of age I was an old man and that my generation and its ideals already had passed, and now these 19 year old kids had taken the wheel on the opposition matters.
When I went to demonstrations, I realized that at my 31 years of age I was an old man and that my generation and its ideals already had passed, and now these 19 year old kids had taken the wheel on the opposition matters.
What other messages related to your discomfort with the current situation in your country are hidden on the songs of Pavimento?
All of them (have to do with the situation). Even songs like “Tan Perdedor,” which are romantic in appearance, are tinted with that sense of insufficiency left on my by those times in Venezuela. As I said, it was a flooding. Politics drenched everything.
Nina Simone once said: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Do you relate with that notion?
Yes and no. I’m not a generational artist. When I was a teenager, I never had the same opinions as the rest, neither was I interested in the same things. Artists like Kurt Cobain, La Vida Boheme, or The Clash, they are generational, and their work naturally reflects the symbolic map of their moment. I reflect my times, but I don’t have the ability to reflect “the times.” I wasn’t given that gift (laughs.)