Simón Díaz, Venezuelan folk musician, dies at 85

Mr. Diaz emerged as a kind of Captain Kangaroo figure, nicknamed “Uncle Simón.”
Mr. Diaz emerged as a kind of Captain Kangaroo figure, nicknamed “Uncle Simón.”
Bebeto Matthews/AP/File 2005

NEW YORK — 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 Feb. 19 at 85 at his home in Caracas.

His death was announced by his daughter, Bettsimar Díaz, who did not offer further details. In recent years he was 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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Mr. Díaz’s artistic impact extended well beyond Venezuela. American neo-folk singer and songwriter Devendra Banhart cites him as a major influence and recorded his “Luna de Margarita”; German choreographer Pina Bausch included fragments of Mr. Díaz’s music in her piece “Nur Du (Only You)”; and 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.)

Although 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 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.