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Writings

"New Song" Movement, Revisited

By Sergio Reyes

Chile --like many other Latin American countries-- has produced outstanding folk musicians who dedicated an important part of their creative work to what I call revolutionary songs. Some names that might be familiar to you are Violeta Parra and Victor Jara, or groups like Inti-Illimani or Quilapayun. There are, of course, many more musicians in Chile who have dedicated their talent to composing songs that talk about the people's struggle to change a social order based on capitalist exploitation of labor. Patricio Manns, Rolando Alarcon, Charo Jofre, Payo Grondona, Tito Fernandez, Quelentaro, Hector Pavez, Isabel and Angel Parra, the group Illapu, are a few names that come to mind, in addition to those more renowned internationally. They are all part of what those who decide to catalog and label history have designated under the euphemistic name of "Nueva Cancion" or New Song movement.

Latin America has been producing songs that referred to the injustices that permeated its history for centuries now. A continent whose history has been marked by the arrival of European colonial powers who exterminated a large portion of its native inhabitants, by slavery, and by the most cruel forms of labor exploitation, cannot but produce songs that acknowledge these facts. All societies do, included the United States itself.

What really happens is that the powers who rule over people will at least discourage these expressions of liberation and at most will openly repress them. In this context, the only "new" factor in this historical creation of revolutionary music is that Chilean musicians were able to break through the barriers established by the capitalist market. They were able to take it from performances at demonstrations and rallies to recording studios and then to the radios and to mass distribution.

Chile lived the decades of the 60s and 70s in a sustained process of struggle for socialism. Musicians were inspired by the organization and political action of workers, peasants and the poor who demanded respect for their rights and openly confronted the mighty power of the wealthy. This inspiration was transformed in song and the song was given back to its source: the people who saw themselves mirrored in music.

"I don't sing for love of singing / or because my voice is so fine / I sing because my guitar has understanding and reason," said some of the verses of a song by Victor Jara. And Violeta Parra gave history lessons in verse saying, "On the north Chile borders Peru, and Cape Horn on the south . . . and in the middle of this Avenue of Delights, Chile lies at the center of all injustice." Meanwhile, Chilean workers and peasants marched on the streets to the tune of "The People United will Never be Defeated."

The songs changed their tune in 1970 when Salvador Allende, a socialist heading the Popular Unity Coalition was elected president. I will never forget when Payo Grondona, armed with a banjo nonetheless, put music to the words of Allende's statement announcing the nationalization of the copper mines, up to then in the hands of American corporations. Payo used to joke, "The Yankee imperialists took all our copper and in turn I took their banjo." There was a group that adapted the American song "We Shall not Be Moved" to the situation in Chile and proudly said, "Not even with a military coup, we shall not be moved!"

Their words were buried by a right-wing military coup in 1973. The dictatorship headed by general Pinochet was to last until 1989. Victor Jara was killed at the National Stadium concentration camp in Santiago weeks after the coup. The Left and the labor movement were outlawed. So also were the songs that represented them, their aspirations and dreams. Many revolutionary musicians were imprisoned and forced into exile where they continued to create. This time the focus was the omnipresent military dictatorship and the efforts to end it.

In Chile, musicians exercised self-censorship, said things in code, and slowly recovered some spaces to express themselves. In exile, Chilean musicians could speak openly and did so. In 1990 the first elected president since 1973 was inaugurated and many exiled musicians were allowed to come back to Chile.

"I'm coming back home / I'm coming back my dear companion . . . I bring in my luggage of exile / the friendship and warmth of other people." These were the words of a beautiful song written by the group Illapu upon their return to Chile. Yet home was never like it used to be. Their country had been turned upside down, changed from top to bottom. Illapu is one of the few groups that has been able to maintain a degree of popularity, to continue to record and to have songs that make radio hit list. However, their most blatant political songs are not selected to be played.

Chile is now a country where the majority of the politicians who in the past were leftist and belonged to Allende's Popular Unity Coalition, are now part of the government. Most of them went through periods of imprisonment and exile during Pinochet's dictatorship. Yet, today, they seemed to have forgotten their past altogether. Instead they prefer to make use of the privileges afforded those who are partial to the so called "market economy" and the militarily controlled "democratic" system, as designed by the Constitution written by the dictatorship in 1980.

With very few exceptions --the group Illapu being one of them-- you cannot hear the voices of revolutionary musicians on Chilean radio. Recording of this type of music is mostly limited to a small, brave and independent label, Sello Alerce (again here Illapu is the exception since they are recorded and promoted by EMI Odeon, a major commercial recording house for Latin America.)

During my stay in Chile in 1995, I was surprised at the lack of new songs depicting the current conditions in Chile. In general people are still afraid to hear direct denunciations of the political system in song. Chile used to be a country where people had a strong sense of internationalism and solidarity with the struggle of the poor in other countries. When I sang songs about the struggle of Puerto Ricans for independence, socialism and the liberation of their political prisoners held in the U.S., people's response was indifference and disinterest.

For many years I have said that there was no point for me to try to compose new songs about the struggle for social change. There were already magnificent composers doing a great job with it. Yet when I saw the sad reality of the so called "new" song movement in Chile, I decided that this was the time to write songs and to sing them out loud. Then I had the good fortune to meet Carlos Munoz, a poet who all throughout the dictatorship was composing poems of resistance and denunciation and who continues to do so now. Obviously, he has never been published commercially and no state money for "the arts" ever came his way.

I set some of his poems to music and here the "new" capitalist Chile was at last adequately portrayed. "I want no more cruelty / I want no more torture / I want no more dictatorship / I want no more impunity." His words flew easily to the tune of the Chilean tonada establishing the hope of so many people not to go back to the recent past. Or "There will be no reconciliation / if there is no repentance / our people want justice / truth and clarification". And about the economic miracle we say, "The Chilean economy / is applauded in the world./ They say we are the Latin tigers / but I say it is all lies./ More than four million people / there are in our country / poor people who live / in miserable conditions."

This is how the cassette "Encounters & Farewells" was born. Also independently funded and with a very modest run. Munoz and I know that we are continuing the work of those who in the past sang about the true condition of the Chilean people. As we say in the song dedicated to Victor Jara, "Yesterday you sang for me / to give me hope / your songs gave me strength / today I sing for you."