Nueva Canción: Music, Politics & Emotion in Chile

For the Chilean community, the month of September is a big one. With it comes a mixed bag of intense emotions that stretch from what can only be described as mourning, all the way to immense pride. We begin the month knowing that September 11 is the anniversary of Salvador Allende’s death and the beginning of the military’s brutal 17-year-long rule. A week later, we celebrate Chile’s War of Independence from Spain. All the while, the music that has been stifled on more than one occasion by the violent oppressors from both within and outside the nation that spans almost the entire continent of South America -from the dry desert to the antarctic glaciers and the lush lakes in between- is there.

Music and art has always informed politics and vice versa; Chile’s history with the two is astounding. Even before the Nueva Canción Chilena (Chilean New Song) movement, which is a perfect example of just how intertwined things can become, Chilean folk music had long been key in the struggle for social justice. At the same time Australia was experiencing an unprecedented support thrown behind the arts with Whitlam as Prime Minister, the early 1970s provided Chile with a socialist-aligned president in Salvador Allende of la Unidad Popular party, whose connection to music and the arts was undeniable and rich.

Beginning in the late 1960s with Violeta Parra, nueva canción revived an interest in Chilean folklore, much of which was lost in the oppression of the country’s indigenous peoples (which is ongoing to this day). Parra’s aim was to preserve over 3,000 Chilean songs, recipes, traditions and proverbs. With her children Isabel and Ángel Parra, she founded cultural centres which provided training and performance opportunities as well as organisational spaces for leftist political activism until their forced closures in 1973. Among the artists who became connected with the movement and the Parra family was social activist, singer-songwriter and playwright Victor Jara.

Allende’s 1970 presidential campaign marked a major turning point in Chilean political history. Against all odds and interference from outside influences (most notably, the United States of America), Allende gained the presidency with 36% of the vote. Along the way, he collected  the support of many nueva canción artists. Jara’s song Venceremos was used during Allende rallies, while many bands who had gained popularity both within Chile and internationally were viewed as strong pro-Allende allies and promoters, eventually gaining financial support from the government. Inti-Illimani, a band that blended rich, traditional Andean music with the contemporary, were particularly influential and “put music to the government manifesto” in the 1970 album Canto al Programa.

The support thrown behind education and the arts by the Allende presidency was unprecedented and saw Chilean musicians flourish both at home and overseas. It also posed a significant threat to outside forces with vested interests in Chile remaining under aggressive, right-wing control. In 1973, a military coup backed by the United States/CIA overthrew the democratic government, resulting in the murder of thousands of people. Allende, who had given his final speech earlier that morning, thanking the people of his country, the workers and “those who sang and gave us their joy and their spirit of struggle” was killed along with many others in a bombing of the presidential palace. Meanwhile 5,000 civilians were interrogated, tortured and executed in a soccer stadium.

Among those civilians was Victor Jara, who was eventually executed after several days of torture. Shot 44 times, his body was thrown into the street of a shanty town in the country’s capital, Santiago. The musician, whose works promoted peace, love and equality was the most widely-known victim of the regime, which in total killed (or “disappeared”) an estimated 40,018 people. Under the rule of Augusto Pinochet, nueva canción recordings were seized, burned, and banned from the airwaves and record stores. In a period in Chilean history referred to as  the Apagón Cultural—the Cultural Blackout, the military government exiled and imprisoned artists and went as far as to ban many traditional Andean instruments in order to suppress the nueva canción movement. Though it is not widely active today, there is a great, lasting legacy left behind by the genre’s founders and practitioners. The music of Violeta Parra, who committed suicide before Pinochet came into power, continues to be recorded and re-recorded to this day. In 2010, her song Gracias a la Vida was recorded by a super-group to raise relief funds following the devastating Chilean earthquake.

Arguably the best known nueva canción musicians internationally, Inti-Illimani were touring in Europe at the time of the coup. Having received word of the many killings of friends and fellow artists, they stayed in Italy. They remained there in de facto exile until 1988 while Pinochet reigned. During their time in Europe, their music took on influences of this adoptive home and they began to incorporate elements of baroque and other traditional forms in with their Latin American influences, creating a unique fusion of modern world music. 

In the late 1980s, they were able to return to Chile and once again, were instrumental in the shaping of the country’s political landscape. Upon their homecoming tour they  became involved in the organisation of the voting down of the referendum which would have seen Pinochet re-elected un-democratically. This was the same referendum recently immortalised on film incorporating real-life footage in the Gael Garcia Bernal starring film No.

I have sat between my parents watching that very film at the Nova in Carlton. I have seen my father cry by the light of the cinema screen as footage of the regime he grew up in, the country he was lucky enough to leave, played. Much like Inti-Illimani, he reached Europe (Greece, having experienced their own military coup was generous in taking in Chileans). Like Inti-Illimani, his love for music is resounding and something he shares with my mother and has passed on to me and my brother. Unlike Inti-Illimani, he never returned to Chile. At least , not permanently.

I have been lucky enough to see two influential nueva canción bands in my lifetime: Illapu and Inti-Illimani themselves. Illapu, a five piece from Antofagasta, like Inti-Illimani were forced into exile (Mexico City via France). Like Inti-Illimani, they returned in 1988 and were able to continue their musical development. Their single Lejos del Amor is one of the finest examples of ensemble singing and natural harmonisation I have ever heard live. Over time, it has won them 7 platinum records. Live Inti-Illimani are immense, both in terms of sound and size. Prior to their 2004 disbanding they had expanded to include members from across the continent and were comprised of a dozen or so multi-instrumentalists with songs and a presence, while perhaps not entirely accessible without an emotional connection, so strong they remain in my mind utterly incomparable.

All this week, I have been preparing myself for Sunday night, when the television will flash images of New York’s 9/11. Rightfully, the world will mourn the loss of nearly 3,000 lives in New York in 2001. My father, who as a teenager hid in a dumpster to avoid being found by military police and who never saw his best friend who lived next door again after the house was raided, will stare blankly at the screen waiting for some small acknowledgement of Chile’s September 11. Seven days later, we will meet up with friends and we might attend one of the functions that still take place around Melbourne where we can dance and drink and eat and we celebrate Independence Day. Regardless of whether we do leave the house or not, we will listen to these  musicians I have had the privilege of being brought up on and of seeing perform live. It may be bittersweet, it often is. But for the first time in a long time, I won’t be embarrassed by the folk-influenced music I have always truly loved but pretended not to. Rather, I will be proud.