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Venezuela’s political winds may shift, but Simon Diaz remains the voice of the plains.
Few artists embody the popular spirit of their countries as completely as Venezuela’s Simón Díaz. For over 50 years the versatile entertainer has been a fixture of Venezuelan radio, television and film, working as an actor, comedian and presenter. But Díaz is best known for his music. A legendary singer, composer, and arranger Díaz is one of the most popular artists in Latin America, and has written hundreds of songs celebrating life in his beloved Venezuelan llanos (high plains). His compositions are striking for their gorgeous melodies and the homespun genius of his cowboy poetry. They’re also some of the most enduring entries in the Latin American songbook.
Like a Venezuelan Willie Nelson, Díaz has often had his humble music interpreted by greats - from Celia Cruz to Placido Domingo. His greatest folk tune, “Caballo Viejo,” was the basis for the Gipsy Kings’ worldwide smash “Bamboleo” – taking his music to many fans that had never even heard his name.
Now Simón Díaz is bringing his prodigious store of songs and stories directly to American audiences for the first time, with the May 10th release of Mis Canciones/My Songs, on World Village/Harmonia Mundi USA. The American label debut features all-new recordings of 15 of his most famous songs including "Luna de Margarita," "Flor de Mayo," "El Alcaraván,” "Clavelito Colorado," and "Caballo Viejo." Díaz will also tour the States with dates in Boston’s Berklee Performance Center, New York’s Carnegie Hall and Miami’s Gusman Theatre (with more to follow later in 2005/6), and he couldn’t be happier.
“I feel very honored for these things to be happening in my life, at my age,” says Simón (pronounced See-MONE). “To play Carnegie Hall in my seventies, this is a blessing that I never expected.”
Indeed, it’s a long way from the small Venezuelan village of Barbacoas where he was born and raised. Born in 1928, Díaz was steeped in both music and rural ways throughout his childhood. Barbacoas was a cattle town, and like anywhere that cowboys gather, it reverberated with their songs and folklore – and young Simón took it all in.
“In Barbacoas people got together to sing and tell stories at night,” Díaz recalls. “That’s where I began to learn music. I learned how to improvise listening to men sing coplas (competitive verses) and tonadas (folk ballads). This música llanera (country music) was very important for me. It was the beginning of my musical education.”
Díaz’s education continued at home, where his father taught him the basics. Says Simón: “My father played the cornetin (small cornet) in the village band. He was a natural musician and encouraged me to learn and develop. I learned how to play the cuatro (the small, four-stringed Spanish guitar) as a boy and I started to compose and sing my own boleros.”
By the age of 17 Díaz was performing regularly with the Orquesta Matamoros in nearby San Juan de Los Morros. He began as an assistant and soon worked his way up to principal singer, performing boleros, tangos, guarachas and other popular styles of the era. He was successful enough, but the ambitious young man wanted more, and in 1949, at the age of 20, Simón Díaz set off for Caracas – joining a massive internal migration that would change the face of modern Venezuela.
In the capital, the young man from the llanos took a day job as a clerk in a bank and enrolled in night school at the Escuela Superior de Música, where he furthered his musical education. “I studied for six years there under Vicente Emilio Soto, the most famous music teacher in Venezuela,” he recalls. “After five years, I began crafting my own compositions, tonadas and Venezuelan merengues. Sometimes people would ask me why I wanted to dedicate myself to music from the country, but that is where I am from, and that is the music that I felt inside of me. It was always a part of who I am. I’m inspired by the people, the work, the land; by the raw materials and the truth of nature; by the simple things that were once important. Those tonadas that I composed as a student were later used to teach other students about composition. So I like to say that I’m not the creator of the tonada, but that I am its defender.”
Academic success was just the beginning of Díaz’s long career. By the mid 50s,
Simón Díaz was already a familiar presence on Venezuelan radio; a comedian whose countrified charm and deep store of songs and stories made him a comforting presence for the rapidly urbanizing nation. His program, El Llanero (The Plainsman), developed his enduring persona of the canny country-boy in the city. Díaz’s sly humor and unabashed sentimentalism struck a chord with newly-arrived city dwellers, and his success mirrored their own, so that his recordings and radio appearances became the soundtrack of a young nation on the move.
Díaz would go on to parlay his radio success into a career in cinema and even theatre, with leads in 5 films (not to mention countless supporting roles), and several plays. Yet it was television that made Simón Díaz a household name in Venezuela. Díaz’s television career took off in 1960, with the hit show La Quinta de Simón (Simón’s Home). In it, he reprised his llanero character for even larger audiences, launching a 40 year small screen odyssey that spanned 12 highly rated series – almost all of them devoted to promoting Venezuelan music and folklore.
One of these shows, Contesta por Tío Simón gave Díaz his nickname: “Uncle Simón.” The program, which ran for 11 years in the 70s and 80s, taught children about Venezuelan music and folklore, and was one of the most popular and influential of Díaz’s career. “I’m so happy to have touched so many people with my music,” Díaz says. “When younger musicians tell me that I’ve inspired them to learn more about Venezuelan music, I know that I’ve done something positive.”
With his long and distinguished career, Díaz has inspired more than a few artists to cover his material. So many in fact, that his best-loved songs, such as “Tonada de Luna Llena,” are sometimes mistaken for traditional folksongs. The list of his interpreters is long and impressive, reading like a who’s who of international music: Mercedes Sosa, Caetano Veloso, Ruben Blades, Ivan Lins, Cheo Feliciano, Joan Manuel Serrat, Tania Libertad, Ry Cooder, Ray Coniff and the aforementioned Celia Cruz, Gipsy Kings and Julio Iglesias. But if there’s one performer who Díaz feels most honored by, it’s Placido Domingo. “I love Placido not only for his recordings, but because he came to Venezuela to sing with me in 1991. That was one of the great moments of my life.”
In fact, Díaz has been showered with accolades, from honorary doctorates from Venezuela’s two leading Universities to being the only artist ever awarded the “Liberator’s Order” – the highest recognition conferred by the Venezuelan government. His music has been used in films by Pedro Almodóvar and in choreography by Pina Bausch. Last year the television network A&E Mundo profiled his career with an hour-long biography that aired throughout Latin America. Yet Díaz downplays his achievements with characteristic modesty. “I’m not the most important Venezuelan composer,” he states flatly. “I’m just one of many. For example Hugo Blanco, Aldemaro Romero, Luis Laguna, Inocente Carreño, Juan Vicente Torrealba – they’re all my colleagues. What’s important to me is to represent Venezuela.”
“I’m very happy to come to the United States, but the happiness isn’t only for me, it’s for my country, too. I am who I am, and I can’t separate myself from my music or my heritage. I wan to give my audience – both the English speakers and Venezuelans -- a reflection of the love, brotherhood and solidarity that built Venezuela. I’m proud of my country and I’m proud that this will be the first time a Venezuelan harp and maraca program will be at Carnegie Hall. I’m making history.”
"The music of Simon Diaz is more than just the feeling of the Venezuelan countryside, his voice and his melodies are an entire state of mind. Besides that, he has created songs that have traveled all around the world".
Julio Briceno, singer for Los Amigos Invisibles.
“Simon Diaz has direct contact with what is pure. His songs are full of light”
“Simon Diaz is one of the great geniuses of Latin American music”