"Venceremos": Victor Jara and the New Chilean Song Movement


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When the socialist politician Salvador Allende dramatically won Chile’s presidential election in 1970, a powerful cultural movement accompanied him to power as folk singers emerged at the forefront proving that music could help forge the birth of a new society. “Venceremos” charts the development of such a cultural phenomenon from the years before Allende’s victorious campaign to the brutal U.S.-backed military coup on September 11, 1973, which ousted his presidency and imposed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The bloody repression that followed would claim the life of Víctor Jara, a key singer-songwriter, but could never put to rest the lasting power of his songs nor the movement he personified.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604869576
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Series: PM Pamphlet Series , #12
Pages: 40
Sales rank: 1,228,893
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Gabriel San Román is a multimedia journalist. He is a former coproducer for KPFK Pacifica Radio and a writer for the Orange County Weekly. His work has appeared in numerous outlets, including Common Dreams, Truthout, and Z Magazine. He lives in Anaheim, California. T. M. Scruggs has taught at the Universidad Centroamericana, Florida International University–Miami, and was the sole ethnomusicologist at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the use of music to construct social identity and effect change, primarily in the Americas. He lives in Berkeley, California.

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Víctor Jara and the New Chilean Song Movement

By Gabriel San Román

PM Press

Copyright © 2014 Gabriel San Román
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-957-6




Víctor Jara's "Manifiesto," the definitive song of La Nueva Canción Chilena, served as background music during an episode of CNN's Cold War series titled "Backyard," in which his widow, Joan Jara, was interviewed about her folk singer husband's murder at the hands of General Augusto Pinochet's forces. As a youthful teenager learning about the world, the segment on Chile and U.S. intervention during the latter half of the twentieth century piqued my already budding interest in politics and history. The basic history of the coup of September 11, 1973, that toppled the democratically elected socialist presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile had already been known to me, but it was the series, oddly enough, that first introduced me to the music of Víctor Jara.

The sonorous melodies were as captivating as the lyrics were pensive. Who was this Chilean folk singer? What was it about his idealism, life, and music that had him meet the tragic fate of a political martyr? As I sought out those answers as both a lover of good music and radical politics, I also eventually discovered Violeta Parra, Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, and all the superb musicians who formed the foundation of the historic cultural movement known as La Nueva Canción Chilena. Later, academic research and my life in journalism allowed me to continue to delve deeper into this profound musical world.

The resulting pages of this brief history of Chile's New Song movement examine its rise as a distinct cultural phenomenon that became a concurrent component of a political revolution, with a particular emphasis on the lyrical content, themes, and musical forms of the era's songs as they morphed through their own particular history as well as the politically tumultuous times in Chile that helped shape them.

History does not exist solely for the purposes of reflective gazes into the past. The lessons of Chile's New Song movement remain relevant to our world today. Currently, three major record label corporations — Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group — control an overwhelming majority of music distributed worldwide. As increasing consolidation takes its toll on creativity and political expression, the historical example of DICAP, La Nueva Canción Chilena's alternative record label, is ever more urgent as a cultural, political means of organization no matter what leftist political persuasion or preferred musical genre.

South American countries still have found their radio stations under similar circumstances that Chilean musicians described decades ago within the framework of colonization. Under the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the Ley de Responsabilidad Social en Radio y Televisión (RESORTE) opened up the country's frequencies to more Venezuelan music, requiring DJs to dedicate half of their playlists to national contemporary and folkloric artists. Just as in Chile during the 1960s, record company colonization permeated the airwaves with rock bands and other music from the United States.

And then there is, of course, the lasting legacy of New Song singers like Víctor Jara who continue to inspire successive generations of activists and musicians alike, including this author. "I think he is an example who gives young people a motivation and courage to not be content with the world as it is today but to think that they can actually produce a difference to make a better world," Joan Jara said to me of her late husband in an interview. "Victor somehow goes on living in that sense today."


On September 4, 1970, Chile became the focus of world attention as its presidential election results gave Salvador Allende, a self-proclaimed Marxist, a slim majority of all the votes tallied. Months later, on November 3, he was inaugurated and the city of Santiago held a large-scale cultural festival in celebration. As Joan Jara, the widow of folk singer Víctor Jara, reminisced, "I remember when Víctor came out on stage, dedicating his songs to 'our Compañero Presidente,' Allende suddenly appeared on the first floor balcony of the Moneda palace ... and waved a salute to him across the multitude of people." Such a memory marked a moment of successful convergence and triumph for both the New Chilean Song movement and Allende's Popular Unity Coalition.

The rise of the New Chilean Song movement (NCCh) is one of the most compelling examples of a cultural component helping to accompany a political revolution to power. The strength of the NCCh as a phenomenon at the time is, in part, attributable to the strength of the Chilean Left, particularly the Communist Party, and the peculiarity of la vía chilena al socialismo (the Chilean path toward socialism). Changes in the overall political climate of Chile during the 1960s and seventies are extremely important in fostering an understanding as to why the NCCh resonated with many Chileans and arguably became the strongest political folk music movement in Latin American history. The historical impact is lasting as Isabel Parra, daughter of Violeta Parra, has said, "'La Nueva Canción' was a movement and still is one that has a tremendous importance to make a connection with Chile."


The birth of the NCCH is firmly rooted in the rural popular culture of the Western Hemisphere's longest and thinnest nation. The countryside is where Violeta Parra, famed Chilean folk singer and godmother of the movement, began collecting traditional compositions during the 1950s. As Chilean historian Maximiliano Salinas explains, "Rural culture is the oldest and most traditional of the Chilean popular cultures. It is also the culture that for the longest time — for centuries, in fact — has felt the oppression of colonial and neo-colonial systems." Despite this, the lyrics of traditional songs did not contain the explicit revolutionary themes that later characterized the NCCh. They did, at times, express popular intuitions and sentiments in contrast to those desired by the ruling class. Such, arguably, are the seedlings of traditional popular culture from which the new cultural movement of the NCCh grew.

The verses of Chilean rural music conveyed utopian ideas of the earth, love, and mysticism. In his studies, Gilbert Durand "shows that the ruling classes of the West ... have always tried to exclude the value of symbolic imagination. The popular classes in contrast, have cultivated these dimensions with their folklore." Rural Chilean songs certainly highlighted the symbolic imagination of the poor, in effect making them a cultural interstice where the ruling elite did not establish full hegemony and where future counterhegemonic cultural movements such as the NCCh could spring forth. The divide was furthered by elitist stereotypes concerning the rural poor of Chile and the belief of their supposed inability to assimilate "high culture." These factors help explain why rural folk music continued to be outside of and in contrast to the self-proclaimed "high culture" of the elite.

As an example, the theme of love in rural song was sometimes expressed in transgressive terms. As one of the rural compositions collected by Violeta Parra, "Listen, My Life," lyrically expressed: "I don't attend Mass with devotion / because I have placed in you / my soul, my life, my heart / he who loves with soul and life / knows nothing about commandments." The song speaks of a love higher than the authority of the Catholic Church that was a strong institutional presence in rural Chile, to say the least. Parra would later pen controversial songs in which liberation theology-infused lyrics inflamed Church authorities. She was the living synthesis between traditional folk and the NCCh. Through her music, it can clearly be seen — or better yet, heard! — how traditional and New Song elements were bridged together.


During the 1940S, folk music was not very popular in Chile. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, its influence began to emerge on the popular music scene. Prior to the NCCh, was La Nueva Ola Folklórica, or "New-Wave Folk." Also during this time, rock and pop music from the United States and England held a dominating presence. In addition, Argentine music, both folk and commercial pop, invaded Chile. Such imports and the reemergence of folk changed the musical scene of Chile and the dynamics of the NCCh were influenced by such shifts in the sonic landscape.

The impact of English-language music on Chilean culture was immediately apparent. Elvis and the Beatles were quite popular. In this type of market, Joan Jara observes, "Chilean singers had to Americanize their names, so that Patricio Henriquez became 'Pat Henry,' Los Hermanos Carrasco 'The Carr Twins,' and so forth." It is easy to understand how and why artists of the NCCh came to perceive these northern influences as cultural imperialism in light of such examples. As Jorge Coulón, co-founder of the group Inti-Illimani, recalled, "The situation in Chile was, from my point of view, a very, very depressed cultural situation. We were a colony of the record companies based in Mexico and in the United States. We did not have Chilean music on the radio at that time or in the media." Secondly, the notion of folk and its traditional instrumentation as the 'authentic' music of Chile contrasts with musical imitations of the day. The presence of English-language popular music influenced the NCCh by being one of the trends it rebelled against.

Highly influential to the evolution of La Nueva Ola Folklórica was the influx of Argentine folk music. The populist and nationalist measures enacted by then-president Juan Perón indirectly played into the cross-border dynamic. Perón had legally required radio stations to devote at least half the airtime of their music programming to Argentine composers or traditional folklore. The very necessity of such a law in Argentina illustrates and underscores the commanding presence of foreign music in that nation as well.

Influenced by incoming Argentine music, particularly folk, new groups began to emerge on the Chilean musical scene in the early 1960s, the most successful of the crop being Los Cuatro Cuatros. Folk musicians that would later transition over to the NCCh also began to be noticed during this period as well, most notably Patricio Manns and Rolando Alarcón. Largely lacking the socially conscious lyrics of the NCCh, La Nueva Ola Folklórica served to popularize folk sounds in the midst of the heavy presence of foreign music. Indeed, Jamie Diaz, a Chilean musician who formed two groups during this time, Los del Sendero and El Show de los 5, noted that as result of La Nueva Ola Folklórica's popularity, "the Chilean upper class youth got the guitar 'out of the closets' where it had been relegated for many years and labeled as an instrument of the poor." That reputation of the guitar illustrates the elitist views of rural popular culture. The stringed instrument would later become the musical centerpiece of the NCCh and again be noted as belonging to the poor, but in a manner very different from elitist viewpoints.


Apart from the shifting trends in popular culture, political events in Chile highly influenced the dynamics and direction of the NCCh and the period when this became most apparent was the early 1960s, a time of tremendous social unrest in Latin America. Chile was not exempt from this phenomenon and prior to the 1964 presidential election, its economy and social conditions were in a state of crisis. The U.S. Alliance for Progress program recognized the potential for socialist revolutions arising from a continued status quo such as the one in Chile. Thus the 1964 elections were of great interest to the United States and those in Chile who favored bourgeois reformism. Eduardo Frei of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) ran on such a platform, termed a "Revolution in Liberty," against Salvador Allende, a perennial candidate in Chilean presidential elections since 1952 who ran under the coalition of the Communist and Socialist Parties known as the Popular Action Front (FRAP). Though Frei triumphed with an outright majority, Allende's coalition gained strength by receiving 39 percent of the vote. The Left was growing more powerful despite the forces working against it, and the NCCh gained popularity along the way.


During the early 1960s, Violeta Parra began to compose folk songs that were the foundation of the NCCh and earned her the reputation as the movement's de facto founder. Prior to that, she performed earlier in her career with her sister Hilda in the duo Las Hermanitas Parra, whose music was apolitical. During the 1950s she spent years in rural Chile learning and collecting a considerable amount of folkloric poems, stories, and most importantly, songs. She spoke simply of her connection as a people's artist to her performance materials: "I didn't realize, when I set out to acquire my first song ... [that] I would learn that Chile is the best folklore reference book written." Parra's experiences with the poor influenced her lyrical content, and by the early 1960s she began writing socially conscious songs that reflected the social and economic conditions in Chile during that time.

Violeta Parra's music illustrated a sense of injustice committed against the people she had spent time with on her journeys. Her lyrics contain a strong religious sentiment that is explicitly politicized at times. In songs such as "Whatever Would the Holy Father Say," she sang, "Look at how they speak to us about heaven / When bullets rain like hail / Look at the enthusiasm with the sentence / Knowing that they killing innocence / Whatever would the Holy Father in Rome say / That they are beheading his dove?" Once more she powerfully spoke out with the protest song "The Letter," aimed against then-president Jorge Alessandri, and ended it with the controversial lyrics, "my nine brothers are communists with the favor of my God, yes." From the president of the Republic to the pope in the Vatican, Chilean folk music pressed the highest authority figures with questions from below.

Parra's music continued to expand and include other forms of expression besides poetic commentaries on daily rural life. In the song "A River of Blood," she sang of martyrs such as Mexico's peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and the leftist Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. She ended the song lamenting the suicide of the founder of the Chilean Communist Party, Luis Emilio Recarbarren. "A River of Blood" was one of the earliest songs that expressed the theme of martyrology, "music's homage to those fallen in the struggle." Parra continued pioneering social themes in the song "Because the Poor Have Nothing." It spoke of religion being used to keep the poor in a state of inaction, as she wrote, "To believe the lie / He calls his confessor / And he tells him that God does not want any revolutions / Nor petitions or unions that offend his heart."

During the early part of the 1960s, Parra developed a friendship with a young man named Víctor Jara who had a budding interest in folk music. She recognized his special talents in singing and playing guitar. Under her guidance Parra had inspired a man who would, of course, live on to iconic stature as a musician and activist. Raised in Lonquén, Jara remembered his mother, Amanda, playing folk music at baptisms, weddings, and wakes. Slowly emerging as a musician, he began his recording career as a member of Concumén, a folk collective that performed at political functions such as demonstrations and rallies. He contributed songs on their early record releases. Of particular interest is "Miner's Song." Rhythmically and lyrically influenced by Parra's work, Jara sang of the hardships of miners with the folk collective in the hauntingly echoed out verse: "Sweating / Bleeding / Everything for the boss / Nothing for the pain / I am a miner."

The political lyrics of Chile's new emerging folk singers tied them intimately to the country's emerging left-wing politics. By the time of the 1964 elections, some singers even actively took part in FRAP's campaign. Violeta's son, Angel Parra, and Víctor Jara, sang at rallies for Allende that year along with many other folk musicians such as Patricio Manns. Though not incorporated to the extent that it would be in the 1970 campaign, the NCCh began to grow alongside the Left during the turbulent 1960s. This new political cooperation and focus of folk musicians occurred concurrently with La Nueva Ola Folklórica's commercial peak and subsequent decline in popularity. But as Joan Jara has said, "Víctor, Angel, and Patricio all affirmed that the passing of the commercial boom did not affect real folklore in the least, since getting into the charts was not its main objective."


Excerpted from "Venceremos" by Gabriel San Román. Copyright © 2014 Gabriel San Román. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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