TRAVEL / South America: journeys to the edge: Peter Culshaw, intrepid party animal, travelled into the Venezuelan jungle to participate in a three-day orgy of drumming, religion, drinking and music

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The Independent Travel
There seemed to be only a couple of non-Venezuelans in Curiepe. There was Brad, a young American whose father worked in a bank in Caracas, who wore a 'Fight To Party Dude' T-shirt; and there was Lise, a Canadian ethnomusicologist.

We were all in this small town in the jungle (semi-tropical rainforest, if you must) a couple of hours east of Caracas in Barlovento province, for the San Juan Festival, a three-day orgy of drumming, religion, drinking and music. Brad had heard that it was the wildest midsummer party in the world. Lise, like many of her kind (including Hans Brandt, the author of a 100,000-word thesis entitled Three Drum Ensembles from Barlovento) was fascinated by the area's unique mix of Spanish, African and indigenous Indian cultures, and was doing a Ph. D on the roots of Salsa - although when she took me on a tour of hot Caracas nightspots, the locals were not surprisingly unconvinced that there could be such a thing as a Doctor of Salsa.

Just finding Curiepe on the journey from Caracas was difficult enough, but our driver, Alfredo, was more concerned about other hazards. He said we were in the heart of the worst bandit country - the most common recent tactic was to stage a realistic car accident, flag down passing vehicles, shoot the passengers and then rob them. What really worried Alfredo was the latest twist to this gimmick: several policemen had recently been kidnapped and the bandits were now dressing as policemen and flagging down cars.

The problem was that if you stopped for a policeman who wasn't one, you'd be shot, whereas if you failed to stop for a real policeman you would get shot for not stopping. You couldn't win.

The car and Alfredo were kindly provided by the British Council, on the slightly shaky pretext that a group of drummers from Curiepe, the Tambores de San Juan were to perform in London: lending us a car and driver for three days partying could be justified as a Cultural Exchange item. Also in the car was a diplomat, Reuben, who wanted to party as much as anyone, but saw his main job as stopping Alfredo drinking, and avoiding possible diplomatic incidents caused by rum poisoning, kidnap or compromising situations with the mayor's daughter. And there was Miguel, a strong arm guy who was there in case diplomacy failed.

This smacked of over-cautiousness to me, but when we reached Tacarigua De Mamporal, whose San Juan Festival is second only to Curiepe's in wildness, the event had been cancelled. Someone had been shot dead by a policeman after a difference of opinion over a beer bill, a riot ensued, and 20 people were put in jail - along with the policeman.

When we got to Curiepe, the atmosphere was exuberant rather than violent. It was 11 at night on the 23rd of June, 'The Vigil Of San Juan', and there was an all- night party which would usher in San Juan's day itself, the 24th. This San Juan is John the Baptist, associated with fire and water. The drummers were in full swing, a few people were in a trance, and at least a couple had already crashed out.

We tracked down the master drummer, Bernardo Sanz, leader of the Tambores de San Juan. He'd cut his hand making a drum, and wasn't able to lead the group. He said that the main drum, played by up to six people, is made from an avocado tree. 'We enjoy the fruit of the tree,' he explained lyrically, 'and then when we tap the tree, and can hear its heart is broken and it is about to die, we turn it into a drum.' This drum is called a Mina, and some drummers were drumming all night on it, while the leader of the ensemble kept the rhythm by conducting from a smaller drum.

The dance that went with the Mina looked like a rugby scrum on a new year's eve. The other ensemble was a trio called Cule Puya, which couples danced to surrounded by a circle of onlookers. The different rhythms triggered different dances such as the Guacamaya (where the couple imitate parrots), La Perara (where the woman has to make the man fall), and one called Maria Lava Lava, a dance inspired by the movements of a washerwoman.

The pivot of the whole festival is midday on the 24th, when the saint is said to have miraculous powers. After a church service where offerings are made to him (the drumming continues even in the church) the figure of San Juan is carried out - and then the whole town really starts to party. Except that at midday, a different, magical San Juan Festival is taking place.

My informant about this side of the festival was a woman called Maria Dolores. There is a plate with water and two pins: if the pins touch it means you will be united with your beloved. Messages about the future can be divined from the shapes of wax or egg yolk dropped into water. Lemon peel thrown over the shoulder will tell you if your next lover will be black or white.

Much can be divined from the way a cigarette burns, or how the ash falls. You have to be 'illuminated' to be a good tobacco reader. I asked Maria Dolores if she believed in this, and she said it was just superstition. However, her best friend was talking to Alfredo and said to him that Maria Dolores was one of the best known 'illuminati'.

At the San Juan Festival, there is also the reading of the 'Spanish Cards' - basically the Tarot without the Major Arcana. I got a Chariot, which portended a 'triumphant trip' (to be decided) and a two-faced moon, which said a friend would deceive me (true - my camera was nicked by a new amigo), in combination with gold - which meant I was spending too much money.

The origins of the San Juan Festival seem to lie in the convergence of the end of the local cocoa harvest, the Spanish day of San Juan, and an African midsummer celebration. According to revellers I talked to, its intensity lies in the historical fact that families of slaves were often split up and the few days' holiday they were given after the harvest was the only time they could meet. ('Some truth in it, but over-romanticised,' was the opinion of an anthropologist Carlos Garcia I met for breakfast at the Caracas Hilton.)

Certainly most of the songs are about families, separation and lost loves. And with the conditions of the slaves as they were, there was more than a chance that you would never see your family alive by the next midsummer. Curiepe was founded by a freed slave in the 18th century, and became a town of freed slaves, where families could live together, but the tradition of San Juan is as powerful as ever.

Everyone told me that the San Juan Festival lasts from the 23rd to the 25th of June. But after takinq Friday off to recuperate, there was another San Juan Festival at the weekend - more sombre, low-key, almost funereal. This is what they call the Festival of San Juan Congo. Whereas the figure of San Juan which lives in the church is a white child, the San Juan Congo is kept by one of the families in Curiepe and is black. It is the El Encierro (literally 'the enclosure') of San Juan, who dies to be reborn another year.

There were no diplomatic incidents. By the time we got back to Caracas I would have sold a few close relatives for a good night's sleep, despite the family-feeling engendered by the festival. But Lise had a night of Salsa planned, and I had a reputation as a party animal to uphold. We were flagged down by a policeman on the way back, but Alfredo drove on, magnificently.

(Photograph omitted)