I am Nelly Josefina Avila de Barriga and I was born on Nov. 20, 1958, in Maracaibo. We are very regionalist, and refer to our city, Maracaibo, as the first city of Venezuela.
My first visit to Miami was as a tourist, and it seemed very pretty to me here. It reminded me a lot of Maracaibo — the city is on a flat plane like Miami, it has a lot of beaches and the climate is similar to Miami. I told my family that when I was in Miami I felt like I was in Maracaibo. Of course Miami is a bit more organized than Maracaibo, but also very pretty like Maracaibo.
After my raising a family and growing a career in Maracaibo, my daughter had the idea to move here to Miami to live. It was because of the things that were happening in Venezuela at that time. My oldest daughter came here with her husband, but my second daughter is a journalist and she had to stay and cover the Venezuelan government.
I worked with children there and I didn’t want to leave it to come to Miami. My roots were there. My schools, my kids, my profession, everything was there. It cost me the world to leave and come here. But for the love of my daughters and grandchildren, I came to Miami.
I don’t regret the decision, and I have been well received here. I’ve found my group here, and now I am working with children, giving them music lessons. I am doing a part of what I did in Venezuela, thanks be to God.
In Venezuela, I started singing when I was 11 years old. At that time there was a priest who really liked music and sports, so he created a project with children. He saw that there were many music groups in the region where I lived, Zulia, but they were groups of adults. He decided to make a music group of children and see what came out of it. Then we gained attention. All of the children in Maracaibo wanted to participate in this group because of the importance it had.
He dedicated himself to teaching us music, but he educated us in other ways, as well. He taught us a lot of discipline. From then on, everyone who integrated into the conjunto all went on to become teachers. We taught music and we taught primary education.
At age 16, I went to a female group. When I finally joined the men’s professional music group, I was the only woman among 18 to 20 men. I was a principal member of this group. I have also been in big groups like Los Tucusones, Enrico Morales, Amor y Gaita, and others.
Later on, I met my husband and we formed our own group. My father was being difficult at that time, saying that since I have a boyfriend now I can’t follow the gaita folk music and band lifestyle.
Well, passion always wins, and so I married my husband, and we were in the same music group. People were concerned that we wouldn’t last, but now we have 30 years of being together and playing music.
From that experience, I learned that I wanted to teach children about gaita music. I wanted to have a school in Venezuela of gaita music like they have in Mexico for mariachi music. Everywhere in Venezuela the people love gaita, and it comes from my home in Zulia. I wanted the school, and so I sought the approval of the governor who approved the project.
Gaita music is with Venezuelans since birth. It is played all year long and heard all of the time on the radio. It’s as essential to Venezuelan life as salsa music is in Miami. We also listen to other genres, but in every Venezuelan house there is a gaita musician or singer.
In reality, the gaita was born as a protest. My mom told me that in her time, gaita music was the only form that the people could use to protest the government. I’ve heard some of these old recordings, and it’s amazing because the musicians recorded everything at these protests with one microphone. In today’s world, you need a lot of equipment to record gaita music well, and it’s a delicate process.
Famous musicians in Latin America come to Venezuela to play and record gaita music. These musicians comment about how hard it is to play gaita music, but for us it’s like drinking water. We are born with this music and tradition.
In many regions of Venezuela, they play gaita music during Christmas. Here in Miami they begin asking for it on the first of November.
I play gaita music socially and when the drinks are over and I have finished playing, I will take the music back to my house. That’s what most Venezuelans do here because it reminds them of home.
My husband is a musician, too, and it’s in the family. My granddaughter is learning by growing up in this tradition, and I have a grandson, her little brother, who has been passionate about singing gaita since he was a little boy.
We formed our group, La Gran Maquinaria, in 1989. We started as members of many different music groups. We knew each other from playing at functions, restaurants and discotheques. One day at a restaurant there were so many musicians gathered together at one common table that we felt the need to all play together. The next week we were playing at that same restaurant.
I have a lot of respect for my work; there are libraries in Venezuela that have my work, and I have won many prizes. My husband made a room for my trophies, but they don’t all fit.
I’ve been singing gaita for 46 years. It is incredible to see a Venezuelan crying over my gaita performance. They remember the market and the religion, their family, and moments that they’ve had. It is very emotional.
The government right now does not allow gaita for protest. It’s forbidden. Gaita music has been adaptable to other styles and played for romance, love, commercial use and other things. But it’s most important that it remain a protest and confrontational music because that’s where it came from.
Here in Miami, I am surrounded by Cubans, Colombians, and other Latins. We have very similar cultures, and Venezuelans are very sentimental, nostalgic, and we’re rooted in what is ours, our culture. We communicate with each other through our music, with the soul, and with our customs.
When I sing, they are already all my friends. This is what I value. Music is the language of the soul.