Interview with Rennea Couttenye, Co-Director and Writer of Arpa, Cuatro, Maraca y Tambor

Copy Edited and Posted by Jessica Gibbons

Tell us what Arpa, Cuatro, Maraca y Tambor is about and why you think we need a film about Venezuelan music today.

Arpa Cuatro Maraca y Tambor is a movie about the music of Venezuela from the point of view of four musical instruments. It follows the instrument’s journey from the hands of the artisans that make them until the moment they reach international audiences and international attention. You see first how the instruments are created and how they are played in the region, whether that’s in the local restaurant or at a house party. Later on, you watch them make their way into the hands of innovative, talented musicians who take Venezuelan folklore, re-create it, adapt it, and re-invent it into a new version of musical expression.

Venezuela has many regions and pockets of folklore, and each has a distinct personality. There are at least three Venezuelan cultural expressions that are now considered as an Endangered Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. The world may be familiar with Venezuela’s is musical programs that focus on the interpretation of classical music. One program called El Sistema is world-renowned for teaching music to children, and many talented musicians have learned through it, including Gustavo Dudamel who is the Director of the LA Philharmonic and Edicson Ruiz, the youngest member since the XIX century, and the only Latino to be admitted at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Yet, there is little on film or any media that shows the music of Venezuela in all its varied expressions, the autochthonous richness, the beauty of song and dance, or the real instruments and local people performing this inspiring music.

Rennea Couttenye

This is your first film, although you have spent decades working as a musician and educator. What inspired you to tell this story about your homeland from behind the camera?  

I raised three caring human beings, and they are out raising my four lovely grandkids and doing good in the world today. That has been the highlight of my resumé, aside from being a teacher, a textile designer, and a musician. Today, I have a chance to reinvent myself, and I have been trying to see what that would look like. As an artist, I usually find inspiration everywhere I look, but on my last visit home, I found something visceral and unstoppable. I was reminded of the passion I have to connect with Venezuela—my family, my culture, my people.

My family in Venezuela.

I left Venezuela when I was 20, and the spirit of the country was, at least from my teenage view, “everything is possible.” Before leaving, I traveled around Venezuela, saw people full of energy, and created a new community with a group of forward-thinking people in the Amazonian region of Gran Sabana. Fast forward thirty-something years and the same spirit of “everything is possible” is there, intact, although the circumstances have changed completely with the country’s two-decade long economic and political crisis. This gives me even more of a raison d’etre because my home country could use the hope this film can bring. I can provide a glimpse, from behind the camera, into the people’s lives through the country’s music. Fantastic things are happening, and highlighting them could start a movement towards the mindset of “let us improve this country” instead of “let’s get out of here,” as many Venezuelans are doing in response to the crisis.

But that is not all. There is also the awe that I feel when I recognize the musical expressions of the Venezuelan people. I would like to share this music with the world because it is something unique and authentic that most of them have not seen before.

Learning to play arpa.

You are co-directing this film with your husband, Maurizio Gigola. How does being a couple enhance your creative partnership? Are there ways in which it complicates it?

Maurizio saw and felt my inspiration. He opened the door to a possibility I had not envisioned. Once I considered this possibility, I knew exactly what I needed to do. My vision was so clear! I knew immediately what film needed to be made, shared it with him, and here we are, on this path together.

He is a man of big ideas who is powerful, action-driven, and has a just-do-it style.  I am methodic, reflective, and ponder decisions from every angle before I take a step. All that to say we are opposites in how we approach things.

What we have in common, though, is a reverence for aesthetics, beauty, quality, and profound meaning. We both see the importance of our work, the relevance or influence of what we’ll contribute to the world. We have navigated our relationship with such openness to learn from each other that, although it is certain that we will bump heads, we will proceed and continue honoring each other’s strengths, which, in the end, will make this a much richer film.

Cuatros and maracas, two of our typical instruments.

For this film, you feature four traditional musical instruments from Venezuela, and you tie them to the region and the culture where each of the instruments is made. What gave you the idea of working through that structure, and how do you think it will enhance the film’s storytelling?

It is interesting how the instruments became the protagonist on this movie. I started working on storytelling and creating options and points of view that would give a certain structure to the film. I thought of Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom, one of my favorite movies of all times, where no narration is used. I also wanted to stay away from featuring a particular person and have egos attached to who was featured or who wasn’t. Once I decided to highlight the instruments as the main guide, it opened a world of opportunity. For example, it is beautiful to show how the same instrument, a cuatro (four-stringed instrument), is played all over the country, yet the style and the singularity of how it is played is completely diverse. This variance comes strictly from the personality and the region of the player.

There is a group called C4 Trio that illustrates this. Three young musicians met at “La Siembra del Cuatro,” a cuatro contest, and each of them had a very singular way of playing. A marvelous thing came out of this event. They met, started playing together, and founded a trio, C4 trio. They began creating music so rich, varied, interesting, and borderless that they are applauded and keep gaining recognition all around the world. These are the kinds of stories I’m trying to feature in the film.

Tying each instrument to a particular region also gave me the chance to highlight Venezuela’s rich and varied geography. The diversity of ecosystems within the small country nests a wide variety of cultural expressions, and these are directly linked to their territory. The region-instrument connection was loosely made, bringing together the origins of the instrument and the land where it is hosted: maracas are indigenous, so there is a connection to lush, green jungle and the Orinoco River. The central coast of Venezuela is where most of our slave population settled, so our drumming tradition comes from there. When I mention “loosely” it is because the region-instrument connection is a device for structure, it is not an ethnological or anthropological fact.

Tambores, music and dance of our African heritage.

You are currently running a Kickstarter campaign for the film. What will the campaign cover?

Our Indiegogo campaign is called “Extraordinary Venezuelans: Something Good Is Happening,” which evokes the spirit of the message we’d like to convey. We want to showcase how music is an instrument of hope for Venezuela.

The campaign has two goals: to get some starting funds and to increase our audience. We have budgeted $21,000 for a short teaser, which will cover all of the equipment and professional fees including our producer and director fees.  We are also applying for development funds through grants and sponsors in conjunction with our crowdfunding campaign. We aim to have superb footage, create a strong teaser, and create interest so we can distribute and finance our feature film.

The crowdfunding campaign also informs me about our audience. Their input is invaluable to us because, in the end, this is a movie to move and inspire people. I’m looking at this not only from my artistic point of view, but from the the global community’s perspective. How does our culture enhance the world? How do we contribute to the world?

Although you have spent decades living in the US, you are collaborating with filmmakers living in Venezuela to tell this story. What are your strategies for collaborating with a crew across international borders?

Keeping our culture alive in San Francisco.

I have spent over 30 years in San Francisco, but I keep in touch with Venezuela, returning home every year. For this project, I will be spending longer periods of time at home starting in January 2019. I have been able to organize a team of filmmakers who are committed to working with me remotely. Next year, I will physically be there to organize, continue my research, connect in meetings with the team, travel with them, establish a solid connection with the people we will document, and so on. Maurizio will be joining us after I’ve done much of the prep.

Co-producing with a Venezuelan team is essential. I trust and rely on our Venezuelan producers’ expertise in navigating the challenges of filming in Venezuela. I also depend on the access and friendships that my musical advisors have with the music and dance communities there.

Venezuela is currently undergoing a staggering political and economic crisis. Do you think music has played a role in helping Venezuelans survive the crisis? Will this topic be addressed in the film?

Yes, I believe music has a role in helping Venezuelans. Music is food for the soul. For a child, a glass of milk will provide food for their body, but a song and a dance will nurture their spirit and a lullaby will provide comfort during difficult times. Music elevates your spirit, and making music with others breaks barriers. You enjoy the same song and dance no matter who you are, where you live, or what you do.

There is this beach town called Choroní. It is a lovely fishing village, and on any given weekend, there are all kinds of people who come to spend their time off there. I was there with Maurizio, and we enjoyed the drumming and the thousands of people partying together. I know for a fact that there were vast differences between people ranging from social class to political inclination, but for that moment, all those barriers melted away. After the party, we gathered and talked with some acquaintances. In this song and dance environment, I was able to share, let my guard down, and enjoy a frank conversation with people I have very little in common with. Music melted my instinctive hesitation and allowed us to find our common ground. This film is an instrument of hope for mutual understanding.

In the film, we focus on our common ground: how music pertains to all of us and how we can be stewards of our unique expressions.

Child with Venezuelan maracas.

What advice do you have for women wanting to embark on their first film like you’re doing now?

I’m a grandma of four, for God’s sake! What am I doing? Ha ha ha. But really, I have been modest in my power. Many times I defer to others, thinking that they may know better than me.  The fact is that I have a lot of wisdom and experience under my belt, which is something I have been slowly realizing. I am creative, purposeful, and talented, so why not go for something big?  I am a beginner as a filmmaker, and I hope that a year from now I will have completed a beautiful movie.

In the meantime, I get up every day and work with diligence and energy, and when I have doubts, I sit in a cushion and meditate those doubts away because the reality is more powerful: I can do it! ¡Si se puede! I know for a fact that staying the course and learning and collaborating with others will get me where I need to be and allow me to make another valuable mark in this world. But most importantly, if you have children as I do, this is the best lesson you can teach your child: live your life fully and develop your talents and your self. Your example will be followed.

You can learn more about the film on its website or Facebook page. Also, please be sure to check out the Indiegogo campaign. Visit Rennea’s profile to learn more about her. Learn more about Alexandra on her profile.