Simón Díaz, Venezuelan Folk Musician, Dies at 85


This obituary by Larry Rohter appeared in The New York Times.

Simón Díaz, one of Venezuela’s most popular singers and comedians who also earned recognition worldwide for his prowess as a player of the cuatro, a guitar-like instrument, died on Wednesday at his home in Caracas. He was 85.

His death was announced by his daughter, Bettsimar Díaz, who did not offer further details. In recent years he had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease.

Known as “Uncle Simón,” Mr. Díaz had been a presence in the cultural life of Venezuela and neighboring South American and Caribbean countries since the mid-1950s. He first gained attention as the host of a radio show of folk music called “The Plainsman,” whose popularity led to a recording contract and more than 50 albums and CDs in which he mixed traditional songs and original compositions.

Mr. Díaz’s artistic impact extended well beyond Venezuela. The American neo-folk singer and songwriter Devendra Banhart cites him as a major influence and recorded his “Luna de Margarita”; the German choreographer Pina Bausch included fragments of Mr. Díaz’s music in her piece “Nur Du (Only You)”; and the Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar used his “Tonada de Luna Llena” on the soundtrack of the 1995 film “The Flower of My Secret.”

Mr. Díaz’s most famous recording was “Caballo Viejo,” or “Old Horse,” released in 1980. It has been recorded more than 200 times in a dozen languages by such artists as Julio Iglesias, Plácido Domingo, Ry Cooder, Ray Conniff and Celia Cruz. (The Gipsy Kings’ worldwide hit “Bamboleo”includes excerpts from the song.)

Though he projected a folksy image, Mr. Díaz was a scholar of his country’s music, having studied for six years at a conservatory after arriving in Caracas from the countryside in 1949. Like Cecil Sharp in Britain or Alan Lomax in the United States, he roamed his country collecting and annotating folklore, with a special focus on tonadas, the work ballads of cowboys, fishermen and other manual laborers; and coplas, another popular folk music form.

“Sometimes people would ask me why I wanted to dedicate myself to music from the country,” Mr. Díaz said in a 2005 interview, “but that is where I am from, and that is the music I felt inside of me. It was always a part of who I am. I’m inspired by the people, the work, the land, by the raw materials and the truth of nature, by the simple things that were once important.”

Simón Díaz Márquez was born on Aug. 8, 1928, in Barbacoas, Venezuela, a cattle town in the plains state of Aragua. He was one of eight children, and after his father, who played cornet in the local band, died, young Simón went to work as a street vendor and then as a singer and musician.

Starting as a child, Mr. Díaz played the cuatro, a four-stringed instrument that resembles a smaller version of the guitar, and his mastery of it was a key to his success. He was a dazzling instrumentalist and, thanks to his musical training, a deft arranger and composer, capable of making the complex appear deceptively simple.

On his radio program, he often played the yokel who is actually smarter than the city folk gave him credit for, and that led to a successful parallel career as a comedian, sometimes in the company of his brother José, an actor known as Joselo.

Beginning in 1960, Mr. Díaz appeared in films and was the host of television programs, the most popular of which was for children, broadcast for 11 years in the 1970s and ’80s on the state channel. He emerged as a kind of Captain Kangaroo figure — with the nickname “Uncle Simón” — beloved by children and their parents.

In the turbulent politics of Venezuela over the last 15 years, the popularity and respect that Mr. Díaz enjoyed led to his being courted by all sides and factions, but he resisted their efforts to recruit him to partisan political activity, aligning himself with neither president Hugo Chávez nor the opposition. During a national strike in 2002, he recorded a song gently chiding both sides and asking them to be more reasonable.

Mr. Díaz was decorated several times by the Venezuelan government, and his other honors include a Latin Grammy Award in 2008 for lifetime achievement.

Besides his daughter, survivors include his wife, Betty; his son, Simón; and three grandchildren. Another son, Juan Bautista, died last year.

For the original report go to

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