How do art and politics relate to one another?
Can they sit happily together? Are they mutually exclusive?
Are they destined to clash, or inherently connected?
The political and artistic atmosphere of Chile in the 1960’s and 1970’s provides a rich opportunity to delve into the question in one particular time and place.
During these years, traditional folk arts were revitalized, and socialist politics (which advocated public ownership of industry, greater social equity, and care and opportunity for the poor) grew in popularity. The Chilean arts and leftist politics would grow together during these years – and ultimately, be attacked together.
Looking back to the roots.
Violeta Parra, born to a schoolteacher in 1917, found her life’s calling in folklore music. At a time when globalization and industrialization were deepening their holds throughout South America, Parra championed a renewal and celebration of traditional Chilean arts. Parra is credited with recording and preserving thousands of Chilean songs, recipes, traditions, and proverbs.
And yet, in her connection with the common folk of her country, Parra’s intentions went beyond a simple itemizing or fossilizing, or even a well-intentioned glorification of the past. Parra sought to revitalize the traditions of the Chilean public, and to renew artistic creation within them . Her efforts would give birth to the movement of “ nueva cancion Chilena ” – “new Chilean song.”
Nueva cancion Chilena grew around artists who were embracing the style and heart of folk-music, within the context of modern consciousness. Just as the folk songs of old would sing of the lives of common-born men and women, so would nueva cancion songs sing of the working classes – but now, these working-class lives were set in the world of globalizing capitalism .
The mutually reinforcing connections between the nueva cancion aesthetic and the political philosophy of socialism are clear. Both focus their attention on the struggles, adventures, and triumphs of the working commoners. Both recognize an intrinsic ethical and social value in these folk traditions. Both seek to elevate these ‘common folk,’ in person and traditions, to a sphere often reserved for the ‘upper classes’ – in art, the dominance of globalizing megastars, and in politics, the dominance of the capitalist class.
Whether or not the collusions of nueva cancion art and socialist politics were inevitable, they were certainly manifested through Violeta Parra’s work.
In the early 1960’s, Parra opened Peña de los Parra – a combination of political meeting-place, exhibition venue, and collaboration hall for artists. The core of Peña de los Parra was its thriving and evolving collection of nueva cancion musicians.
Leading the new wave: Victor Jara.
By the time Jara came to Peña de los Parra in the mid 60’s, he’d been an active folkloric artist with the traveling theatre group Conjunto Cuncumen for years. With Cuncumen , Jara had been vitalizing communities with traditional storytelling and folklore, but it was at Peña de los Parra that Jara would begin to focus on folk music. Jara published his first recordings in 1966, and in the years that followed, his music became increasingly popular – and increasingly politically charged.
Jara, nueva cancion , and Chilean Socialism all took a leap forward in 1968, with the album X Vietnam , by the group Quilapayún . In addition to his musicianship, Victor Jara was the producer of the album, which featured songs by a variety of Peña de los Parra , including Violeta Parra and Pablo Neruda. The songs combine folkloric tales of the working classes, religious-inspired songs and hymns, and music from the Spanish Revolution.
When the album was recorded, nueva cancion continued to thrive as a decentralized, unofficial movement, living in small gatherings and local shows. In an effort to raise funds to send Quilapayún to an arts festival in Europe, the Communist Youth Party of Chile paid to press 1,000 copies of X Vietnam . Everyone involved expected to sell a modest number, on a local basis.
Instead, the albums sold out in a flash , reflecting and spurring international demand for the socially conscious voice of nueva cancion .
In response, the Communist Party formed its own record label, Discoteca de Canto Popular (DICAP), to print and distribute socially conscious nueva cancion music.
Continuing the message.
The third album produced by DICAP was one of Victor Jara’s most popular and enduring albums, Pongo en Tus Manos Abiertas ( I Put Into Your Open Hands ). The album contains songs both that reflect archetypical folkloric stories set in a modern context, as well as overtly modern meditations on specific situations within contemporary Chile.
An example of an archetypical, folkloric story in a modern context is “Te Recuerdo Amanda” (“I Remember You, Amanda”).
Here, Jara sings a story of grief, remembrance, and love. ‘Amanda‘ was a young lover, who would run to meet her love, Manuel, when he had a break from his factory work. The song remembers her running through the rain to meet him – on the day Manuel was killed in his work, never to meet her again.
An example from Pongo en Tus Manos Abiertas of an explicitly modern-oriented song is “Preguntas por Puerto Montt” (“Questions for Puerto Montt”).
In 1969, homeless peasants had begun to build homes and settle on land in Puerto Montt. The land was privately owned, but abandoned. The peasants had received unofficial permission from local and national authorities, but on the morning of March 9th, 1969, the ruling powers decided otherwise. On the orders of the Minister of the Interior Edmundo Pérez Zujovic, 250 armed police officers opened fire on the 91 unarmed peasants with machine guns, attack dogs, and tear gas. All the homes were destroyed, and 8 peasants killed.
In “Preguntas por Puerto Montt,” Jara laments the tragedy, and challenges those responsible – both the individuals, and the social systems that made the tragedy possible. Jara cries, “ You will have to answer, Mr. Pérez Zujovic, why were defenseless people replied to with guns. Mr. Pérez, your conscience is now buried in a coffin, and all the southern rains won’t clean your hands. ”
Salvador Allende and the 1970 Election
Salvador Allende, himself a member of the Chilean Socialist Party, was backed in his presidential run by Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), a coalition of leftist political parties. Thanks in large part to the artistic message spread through the nueva cancion movement, socialist sentiments were running strong in Chile at the end of the 60’s. During Allende’s campaign, Victor Jara lent his support through free concerts at official rallies, as well as campaigning independently through his speech and music. Jara’s rendition of “Venceremos” (“We Shall Triumph”) was played widely at Allende’s rallies.
In the November 1970, Allende was elected into office. Under his Socialist-guided leadership, the country’s policies began to shift to the left; institutions were nationalized, jobs were created for the poor, land redistribution continued, and efforts towards universal education and health-care began. As well, Allende’s government contributed grants to fuel the arts, and the nueva cancion music continued to thrive .
Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the new government.
The Chilean right-wing, which included the Chilean military, did not approve of the new policy shifts. Nor did the United States government.
Before the election, the Nixon administration gave the CIA $10 million to prevent Allende from being elected. Allende’s election in November was deemed unacceptable to US political and business interests, and so money continued to pour clandestinely into Chile. Now that Allende was in office, US efforts went to destabilize the economy and continue to support Allende’s political adversaries. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it: “ I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves. ”
On September 11th, 1973, the Chilean right-wing, with the support of the Chilean military (and the unofficial support of the United States government), staged a coup d’état, overthrowing the Allende government. With gunfire and explosions audible in the background, Allende gave a final live radio speech, then killed himself before the Presidential Palace was stormed.
At the time of the coup, Victor Jara was teaching at a university in Santiago. The night of the 11th, Jara stayed at the university with students and other teachers, singing songs to raise spirits.
On the morning of September 12th, Jara was taken – along with thousands of others – to Chile Stadium. Many taken to the stadium would be tortured and killed by military troops in the days following.
After Jara was recognized by some of the troops in the stadium, he was savagely beaten. The troops shattered the bones in Jara’s hands, then mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them. In defiance, Victor began to sing the Popular Unity song, “Venceremos.”
Amidst the beatings, Jara managed to write one final untitled poem:
There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?
A few days after being abducted, Victor Jara was gunned down by machine guns, and his body (and its 44 bullets) was dumped in a run-down street in Santiago.
The legacy continues.
Though Victor Jara’s life was brutally cut short, the art and philosophy he manifested live on.
Jara would become a symbol of the brutality of the Pinochet regime – and a symbol of artistic resilience in the face of such brutality . Though Pinochet would rule with a harsh hand for years, his government was eventually replaced in the 90’s. In 2003, Chile Stadium – where so many had been held and tortured during the coup, and were Jara was killed – was renamed Victor Jara Stadium.
Though its members have changed over the years, Quilapayún is alive and well, performing and recording music, and continuing the nueva cancion Chilena movement.
Jara’s own music continues its popularity, speaking its message of peace, social justice, and love to a new generation.
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