Raúl Monsalve y Los Forajidos is a septet that was founded in Caracas in 2007 and is now based in Paris. Though it is officially dedicated to a “deep exploration of traditional Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Venezuelan sounds,” according to its Facebook page, its use of afrobeat and jazz are more impressive. In Bichos (2020), the group’s third album, the septet collaborates with featured musicians to protest the bichos, which translates as “the bugs,” that rule the world. Los Forajidos produces masterful Spanish-language afrobeat along the way.
Raúl Monsalve is the band’s bassist and leader. Monsalve’s elan, the pulses of his creative awareness and being—as Maud Robart defines it—is focused on fusing Afro-Venezuelan musical traditions with other music. Monsalve found this style through his studies in ethnomusicology, and especially by playing in Caracas’s Sarría neighborhood, jamming with some of the city’s most talented musicians. In Sarría, musicians experimented with percussion not being an accompanying instrument, but instead as the core of a song, which has influenced Monsalve’s compositions since.
Monsalve’s first band, kRé, blended post-rock and Afro-Latin music. Their first album, Ruido Doméstico (2002), was superbly composed, entrancing in how kRé plays cycles of trumpet, drum, cymbals, guitar, and synth. Rubén D’Hers, on guitar, is especially impressive. Their second release, el radio está en la cocina (2005), is even more experimental. In it, the band is a lot groovier. In the song “entre 6 y 8,” Hugo Marmol’s drumming is a much more traditional sounding Afro-Latin style than usual, and the wind section explores afrobeat, not jazz. It is a prelude to Los Forajidos.
“Bocón,” from Bichos, is a much more developed version of what we hear in “entre 6 y 8.” Monsalve’s bass playing has gained potency and the grooves are deeper. The bass and the drums groove together in unison, a rainbow of talent and emotion. The wind section touches our sensibilities, further freeing the energies that the rhythm section is liberating. It’s impressive how the band makes afrobeat with a septet; Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80 was a 16-piece ensemble, not including vocalists, and Africa 70, the band that developed afrobeat under Fela, was a 12-piece. The song’s great achievement, however, is melding Luzmira Zerpa’s haunting Spanish-language lyrics and vocals with afrobeat.
Fela Kuti once said that without drummer Tony Allen, there would be no afrobeat. Allen added the hi-hat from the jazz music (Art Blakey, for example) that he loved and that Fela spun as a broadcaster. Together, and with others, they made music to liberate the energies first of highlife audiences, and then of a global audience. Monsalve’s explorations of drumming and groove in Caracas seems to be opening up another door for afrobeat. “Mosquito,” featuring vocalist Betsayda Machado, is even more entrancing. The trumpet solos beautifully before Machado’s grave call and response singing persuade us that afrobeat has a shining Spanish-language future.
The band’s previous albums, Mecha (2013) and Volumen Dos (2014), are a lot less polyrhythmic than Bichos. What’s Afro-Venezuelan about all three albums? The Afro-Venezuelan traditions that are embedded in Bichos are not easy to hear for the uninitiated, and neither are they in Mecha or in Volumen Dos. The style is much less famous than samba, cumbia, or rumba—Venezuelan music in general is not well known outside that country. Barlovento, Venezuela, is the capital of Afro-Venezuelan culture. Once both a slave port and rich in gold, it also hosted the palenques and the cumbes of maroons, the cimarrones being sung about in Bichos’s “Pa’ Los Maestros.” Unlike in Haiti or in Cuba, Afro-Venezuelan culture became mostly a Creole culture and not grounded in African retention; in music the community invented instruments such as cumaco, the culo e’puya, the chimbángeles, and the rhythms to go with them.
Back to the album, lyrically, “La Mariposa” is the most entrancing. Lya Bonilla’s vocal calling, and the responses that “ole lo le, la mariposa volando” may be simple but freeing, in the way that early rock song lyrics were. Instrumentally, “La Pulga” is the album’s best. The Congolese-sounding guitar and Monsalve’s bass playing amaze.
In an age in which Black urban communities have in large part turned to beat machines and away from live instrumentation for dance music, it takes countercultural dedication to accomplish such a thing. Monsalve is also a member of Insólito UniVerso, along with Maria Fernanda Ruette, who is featured on this album. Their only album, La Candela del Río (2018), is reminiscent of his earlier work. Raúl Monsalve y Los Forajidos seems to exist precisely as a countercultural dedication and the album Bichos is their best yet. Monsalve is a musician to keep a close eye on.