The music of Ely Rafael Primera Rosell, better known as Ali Primera, became the soundtrack for the 1990s social unrest that led to the election of Hugo Chavez as the president that would forever change the political environment of Venezuela.
He was born on October 31, 1941, in the city of Coro, Falcon state, and grew up to be one of Venezuela’s greatest poets, singers and political activists, remembered for his commitment towards the working class in his country, Latin America and the world.
He was born to a humble family and lost his father when he was only three years old. He worked from a very young age to help his mother and brothers but never left school. He became a member of the Communist Party when he was a student at the Central University of Venezuela, starting to write protest songs that would find him a place at the ‘Nueva Cancion’ movement.
His lyrics spoke to the working class of Venezuela in a simple language, representing a cry for liberty that was spreading through Latin America.
Thanks to a scholarship by the Communist Party of Venezuela, Ali traveled to Bucharest to study petroleum engineering. He recorded his first album ‘De una vez’ while in Germany in 1972 and came back to Venezuela later, deciding he didn’t want to give up his life to transnational oil corporations.
The Necessary Songs
Ali sang about the suffering of the Venezuelan people, who identified with his lyrics and called him ‘the Singer of the People.’
Hace 77 años nació en Paraguaná, El Cantor del Pueblo, Alí Primera. Sus versos, canciones y poesías acompañan las luchas del pueblo, porque Alí es acción y pensamiento rebelde ante las injusticias. Levantemos sus banderas y sigamos la marcha. ¡Alí Vive! https://t.co/YAMqPI0w1z pic.twitter.com/zFMXXchQU3— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) 31 de octubre de 2018
“Today 77 years ago Ali Primera, the Singer of the People, was born in Paraguana. His lyrics, songs and poetry are with the struggles of the people because Ali is rebel action and thinking against injustice. Let’s rise up his flags and keep on marching. Ali lives!”
His compositions made him the spokesperson of the painful realities of the ones most in need. Despite being described as a ‘protest singer,’ he used to say his songs were not of protest, but of necessity.
To Ali, the protest “lacks political-ideological content and doesn’t discuss the root of the problem neither the organization of the people,” so he aimed his songs to be an expression of the people’s search for consciousness.
Considered too radical for mass media, his music was censored by the government of Rafael Caldera. To overcome this censorship, Ali founded his own record label, called Cigarron, promoting his own work and other artists’ that shared similar ideas.
During his lifetime Ali recorded and published 12 albums, including the first one recorded in Germany, and three independent productions during his first years. After his tragic death in 1985, Cigarron published two post-mortem albums.
Among his most emblematic songs is ‘Techos de carton’ (Cardboard Roofs), in which he speaks about the poorest people in his country.
“How sad is the sound of rain on cardboard roofs. How sad the situation of my people in the cardboard houses,” say the lyrics.
Other songs include ‘La patria es el hombre’ (the Homeland is the Man), ‘Mama Pancha’ (Mother Pancha), ‘Cancion para los valientes’ (Song for the Brave), ‘No basta rezar’ (Praying is not Enough), ‘Los que mueren por la vida’ (Those Who Die For Life) and ‘Comandante amigo’ (Friend Commander), an ode to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
Alí Primera vive en el canto y en la batalla del bravo Pueblo de Simón Bolívar! Vamos contigo, Alí, en Amor Mayor!— Hugo Chávez Frías (@chavezcandanga) 31 de octubre de 2012
“Ali Primera lives in the song and in the struggle of the brave people of Simon Bolivar! Let’s go with you, Ali, in Amor Mayor!”
By the end of 1984 Ali recorded a demo cassette with his latest songs to be included in his next album, using different Latin American rhythms. The project was abruptly interrupted after he died in a car accident, but his family and friends continued with it and published ‘Por si no lo sabía’ (In Case You Didn’t Know).
Many think the accident was actually a planned attack against the musician, but his wife Sol Musset dismissed this version and said that Italo Americo Silva, who was driving drunk when he crashed with Ali’s car, was a great friend of the family.
In 2005 the government of Hugo Chavez declared the music of Ali Primera to be National Heritage, becoming a symbol of the struggle that represented the voiceless and marginalized.
Some phrases of the Singer of the People
“Capitalism is the root of all the problems my people are suffering.”
“You can’t call dead those who die fighting for life.”
“Don’t be fooled by those who speak of progress, because you remain thin and they gain weight.”
“If the fight is scattered there will be no peoples’ victory in combat.”