La Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) is one of the most influential musical/political movements of modern Latin America. With roots Violeta Parra's groundbreaking work in the 1950s, its adherents grew to include artists such as Victor Jara, Isabel Parra, Ángel Parra, Patricio Manns, Inti-Illimani, Quilapayún, Aparcoa, and many others.
Nueva Canción (NCCh) grew largely out of Violeta Parra's efforts to compile and present indigenous folk music to a wider audience, as a response to the then-prevaling Neofolklore stylings of imitators such as Los Cuatro Huasos, whose acts consisted of dressing up as huasos (stereotypical countryside characters) and crooning about the good life on the land. Violeta contrasted these "huasos de postal" (postcard huasos) with authentic folk music using actual indigenous instruments, as well as songs about the lives of those who worked the land of the huasos and struggled for social justice.
Some of her songs were autobiographical, such as La Carta (The Letter), in which she tells, from her Parisian exile, of the letter that informed her of her brother Roberto's arrest:
Me mandaron una carta
por el correo temprano,
en esa carta me dicen
que cayó preso mi hermano,
y sin compasión, con grillos,
por la calle lo arrastraron, sí.
La carta dice el motivo
de haber prendido a Roberto
haber apoyado el paro
que ya se había resuelto.
Si acaso esto es un motivo
presa voy también, sargento, sí.
(I received a letter
in the morning post.
In the letter I'm informed
That my brother's been imprisoned,
and without compassion, in shackles,
they dragged him down the street, yes.
The letter gives the reason
for having taken Roberto:
because he supported the strike
that was already long since over.
If you can call that a reason,
You can arrest me, too, sergeant, yes.)
One of the most important contributions of the Parra family (which boasted a rather substantial poetic contingent: Violeta, Isabel, Ángel, as well as the anti-poet Nicanor Parra) to the Nueva Canción was their creation of the peñas, which were to the NCCh what the folk music bars of the 1960s were to US singer-songwriters. These peñas, which encouraged public participation in the creation of popular music, were the point of origin for such well-known nueva cancioneros as Victor Jara, Inti-Illimani, and Quilapayún, who carried the movement through to its demise in the Pinochet coup of September 1973, during which Victor Jara himself was killed by the military.
It comes as no surprise that Victor Jara was on the junta's hitlist. He, along with the groups Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani, played a pivotal role in the political organising of Salvador Allende's Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) movement, the leftist popular coalition that began a major programme of social reforms in Chile upon its election in 1970. The artists were a natural fit with the UP, with their eloquent critique of the injustices of the Chilean oligarchy in songs such as Víctor Jara's Preguntas por Puerto Montt (Questions about Puerto Montt), an outraged denunciation of then-Minister of the Interior Edmundo Pérez Zújovic, who ordered the shooting of peaceful demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Montt1:
Muy bien, voy a preguntar
por ti, por ti, por aquel,
por ti que quedaste solo
y el que murió sin saber.
Murió sin saber porqué
le acribillaban el pecho
luchando por el derecho
y un suelo para vivir.
¡Ay! Qué ser más infeliz
el que mandó disparar
sabiendo como evitar
una matanza tan vil.
Puerto Montt, oh, Puerto Montt,
Puerto Montt, oh, Puerto Montt.
Usted debe responder
señor Pérez Zujovic
porqué al pueblo indefenso
contestaron con fusil.
Señor Pérez su conciencia
la enterró en un ataúd
y no limpiarán sus manos
toda la lluvia del sur.2
During Salvador Allende's candidacy in the 1970 presidential election, the nueva cancioneros brought their revolutionary fervour in full force behind the the programme of the Unidad Popular. Their support continued after was elected President of the Republic after years as the "Eternal Candidate" and an opposition parliamentarian, and throughout his brief term of office.
During the campaign, the group Inti-Illimani composed an entire album entitled Canto al programa (Song of the Programme) dedicated to describing and exhalting the UP platform. Framed on one end by the Canción del poder popular (Song of the People's Power), which informs listeners that "esta vez no se trata / de cambiar un presidente; / será el pueblo quien construya / un Chile bien diferente3," and on the other by the Unidad Popular hymn Venceremos ("Venceremos, Venceremos / mil cadenas habrá que romper / venceremos, venceremos / la miseria sabremos vencer4"), the album contains songs with titles such as Vals de la profundización de la democracia (Waltz of the deepening of democracy), Canción de de la propiedad social y privada (Song of socialised and private property), and Rin de la nueva constitución (Song of the new constitution). Between the songs, and sometimes within the songs themselves, there are brief interludes. referred to in the album as "relatos" (narratives), in which a folksy voice, with a strong dialect, who, by way of introduction, announces that:
Yo soy gallo y soy cantor,
me llamo Peyuco Pueblo,
conozco muy bien mi tierra
desde la ciudad al cerro.
Si me miran en el campo
soy peón de cuerpo moreno,
si me ven en la ciudad
puedo ser cualquier obrero,
si me buscan en la costa
me encuentran en los pesqueros,
si van a buscarme al norte
voy vestido de minero.
Así, desde norte a sur,
aunque sea sin quererlo,
me verán en todas partes
con el sudor en el cuerpo.5
introduces, responds to, or explicates the content of the songs. Thus, after the Canción de la propiedad social y privada explains the plan to expropriate the mining operations of the north, which are now "en poder de señores / que hablan en gringo / y unos pocos criollos / que dan lo mismo6," Peyuco Pueblo breaks in to note that:
Hay algunos propietarios
los pequeños y medianos,
agrícolas e industriales
que también son explotados.7
This allows the chorus to respond that:
Son víctimas directas
que por todo les pagan
menos del costo
son propiedad privada
y en el gobierno
con mayor garantía
pero no hay que enchuecarse
con los empleados
y para los obreros
Once Allende and the Unidad Popular were in power, the nueva cancioneros dedicated their efforts to support for the programmes of the new government and exposing and satirising elements of the right-wing opposition, who had begun working together with the CIA to bring the economy to a standstill while plotting the eventual overthrow of the popular government. Thus, Víctor Jara, in his Qué lindo es ser voluntario (How Wonderful it is to be a Volunteer) sang in support of the Volunteer Sundays (organised to alleviate the damage done to the economy by CIA activities):
Qué cosa más linda
es ser voluntario:
para el vecindario
casas, y caminos
con nuestro destino, ¡sí!9
For their songs about the right wingers Sergio Onofre Jarpa and Eduardo Frei Montalva being the most popular targets the nueva cancioneros generally chose an ironic, belittling tone, matched with melodies that were usually either simple and upbeat (e.g. the waltz rhythm of Víctor Jara's Las casitas del barrio alto [The Little Houses of the Rich Neighbourhood]), or traditional and festive, such as the cumbia used in Quilapayún's Onofre? Sí Frei (Onofre? Yes, Frei).
Juegan bridge, toman martini-dry
y los niños son rubiecitos
y con otros rubiecitos
van juntitos al colegio high.
Y el hijito de su papi
luego va a la universidad
comenzando su problemática
y la intríngulis social.
Fuma pitillos en Austin mini,
juega con bombas y con política,
y es un gángster de la sedición.10
Víctor Jara, Las casitas del barrio alto
Es la nueva onda
y hasta en el Senado
hay que instalar
del Mercado Negro
Quilapayún, Onofre? Sí, Frei
On 11 September 1973, the Nueva Canción came to an abrupt end. Chilean generals, led by Augusto Pinochet and supervised by the CIA, rebelled against the democratically elected government. The Air Force bombed the presidential palace of La Moneda when Allende refused to resign, and either committed suicide or was killed by the military. The armed forces immediately began rounding up supporters of the lawful government for incarceration, torture, and murder. Among those taken prisoner by the generals were Ángel Parra and Víctor Jara. While Ángel Parra was eventually allowed to go free after much suffering at the hands of the torturers, Víctor Jara was not so lucky. He was among those rounded up and held at one of Santiago's main stadiums, Estadio Chile. There, he was held along with 5000 others, beaten, and ultimately machine-gunned to death. The stadium in which he was killed now bears the name Estadio Víctor Jara.
Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani managed to escape danger in Europe, where they had been on tour prior to the coup. Others eventually joined them, settling primarily in Paris. What had been the Nueva Canción now divided up into two branches: the nueva cancioneros in exile, who used their music to bring international attention to Chile's plight, and the Canto Nuevo, those who wrote protest songs in Chile during the dictatorship, using highly oblique and sophisticated metaphors to avoid arousing the military's (easily aroused) suspicion.
1It has been suggested that Víctor Jara's open denunciation of Pérez Zújovic in Preguntas por Puerto Montt was in fact the reason the junta targeted him personally for assassination while many other nueva cancioneros, including Isabel and Ángel Parra, were allowed to leave the country.
2"All right, now I'm going to ask /
for you, for you, and for him, /
for you who are now alone /
and for him who died without knowing./ He died without knowing why / they riddled his chest with bullets /
when he was fighting for his right /
and land on which to live. / Oh! What an unhappy man /
is he ordered them to shoot, / though he knew how to avoid / such a vile killing. / Puerto Montt, oh, Puerto Montt,/ Puerto Montt, oh, Puerto Montt./ It's you who must respond / señor Pérez Zujovic / why they answered defenceless people / with their rifles. / Señor Pérez, you buried / your conscience in a casket / and not even all the rain in the south / will suffice to wash your hands clean.
3"This time it's not just about changing presidents; it will be the people who build a very different Chile."
4We shall prevail, we shall prevail /
A thousand chains we'll have to break, /
We shall prevail, we shall prevail /
We know how to overcome misery.
5"I'm a bloke and I'm a singer / They call me Peyuco Pueblo / I know my land well / from the city to the hills. / If you see me in the country, / I'm a peon with brown skin, / if you see me in the city, / I could be any worker / Look for me on the coast / and you'll find me on a fishing boat, / come to find me in the north, / and I'll be dressed as a miner./So, from the north to the south / even if you don't want to / you'll see me everywhere / with sweat on my brow.
6"In the hands of gentlemen / who speak in gringo / and a few criollos / who are no different"
7"There are some property owners / with small and medium holdings, / in agriculture and industry / who are also exploited."
8"They are direct victims / of monopolies / who pay for everything / below cost / they are private property / and in our government / with the firmest guarantee / they'll stay that way / but you can't be screwing over / your employees / and for your workers: / good wages."
9"How wonderful it is / to be a volunteer / building parks / for the neighbourhood / putting up bridges, / houses, and roads / moving forward / with our destiny, yes!"
10They play bridge, drink their martinis dry / and their children are all blond / and with other little blond kids / they go together to the private school / And daddy's little son / Later goes to the university / Starting out with all the problems / and the social intrigue / he rolls joints/ in Austin Minis / plays with bombs and with politics / murders generals [A reference to the assassination of the constitutionalist General René Schneider] / and is a gangster of sedition.
11"It's the new wave / speculation / accusing ministers / in general; / and even in the Senate, / we must install / a branch / of the Black Market."