The 60s were years of global change in politics, philosophy, and notably music. The student protests of May ’68 in France, the Woodstock Festival, and the anti-Vietnam protests are but a few examples of the spirit of the age. This spirit of change extended even as far Chile. Students became engaged in politics, motivated by a nascent hope in the possibility of social reforms. It was into this atmosphere that the musical movement of La Nueva Canción Chilena (the New Chilean Song) was born. La Nueva Canción movement, overtly left-wing, (it contributed to the election of socialist candidate Salvador Allende as President in 1970) was sparked by a yearning for music that was both Chilean, and Latin American. At the same time as Bob Dylan was composing The Times they are a Changing, and John Lennon Imagine, Chile was searching for a new type of sound.
The birth of this movement can be credited in large part to the work of Violeta Parra, who by reviving previously scattered Chilean folk songs, and other national musical formulas such as the Parabienes, the Canto a lo divino (song to the divine) , and the canto a lo humano (song to the human ) was essential. This heritage, previously unknown or forgotten, was made accessible and reinvented by Violeta Parra, as well her son Ángel and daughter Isabel. Parra (Violeta), herself a prolific composer, greatly contributed to the musical development of the movement. A major breakthrough in the birth of the Nueva Canción was the founding of the Parra family peña (folkloric gathering place), which united several musicians who would go on to be leading figures attaining international recognition. Among these were, naturally, Isabel and Angel Parra, as well as Patricio Manns, Victor Jara, and Rolando Alarcon.
The principal group, that would serve as the model for those that came after, was formed by the Carrasco brothers in conjunction with Julio Numhauser; it would take the name Quilapayún. In the beginning they received musical guidance from none other than Ángel Parra, but the group would establish themselves more firmly on the national scene when they incorporated Victor Jara as musical director. Jara introduced a discipline to the group which made its composition sessions more fruitful and productive. Quilapayún would go on to win, in 1969, the first festival dedicated to La Nueva Canción Chilena. Though the group went through many metamorphoses throughout its existence, it maintained a firm commitment to Latin-American folklore.
Another fundamental group was founded by a group of university students, who would come to be known as Inti Illimani. Noteworthy was their incorporation of instruments such as the charango, the quena, and the guitarrón, with the objective of attaining a ‘new’ sound (Paradoxically only new in the sense that it had been forgotten). Much like Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani’s music mixed the national with the Latin-American by incorporating musical expressions present in different Andean countries such as Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. In the present context of divisions and/or distance between Latin-American nations it may seem strange, but in the 60s unity and cultural solidarity was significantly more common-place. In doing so, Inti-Illimani made accessible to the world, tunes that were a representation not only of the Chilean folklore but also of that of all Latin-America. This was a very noble form of cultural appreciation that existed throughout the music scene in Chile of the 60s and early 70s.
Because of its political affiliations to the Socialist Unidad Popular government, La Nueva Canción was brought to an abrupt halt in 1973, when the Socialist Allende government was overthrown by the military junta. The new regime prohibited Andean music for some time by banning the use of certain instruments used by artists of La Nueva Canción. Various music groups, having supported Allende with their music, became enemies of the state overnight and were persecuted. Victor Jara was brutally assassinated, whilst Angel Parra was sent to a concentration camp. Inti-Illimani had been touring in Italy at the time of the coup, and was left with little choice other than exile for the following 17 years. Quilapayún was also caught off-guard by the coup, while touring abroad in France, and they too began their life in exile.
Despite the arrival of the coup, and the exile of several of the main groups, some musical affiliations carried on with their music. One of these was Illapu, a group founded in 1971 (2 years before the coup) by university students. Being of a later generation, Illapu inherited the musical style of greats such as the Parras, Quilapayún, and Inti-illimani. Their office in downtown Santiago, too, was destroyed with their instruments included as well during the coup. The members of this group were well aware that the music they were producing put their lives at risks, yet they persevered nonetheless. Given their newfound international popularity, Illapu embarked on a European tour that lasted some time. Upon their return to Chile in 1981, the DINA (Chilean secret police) attempted to arrest these musicians at the airport. Given the presence of cameras from international networks that had been following the trail of the young musicians, this became a scandal, and they were instead exiled abroad (on the same plane they arrived), first in France, and later in Mexico.
For many of those in exile, the idea of returning to Chile seemed out of the question. This changed in 1988 when the Dictatorship agreed to hold a plebiscite over whether to continue with the current state of affairs, or transition towards democracy. The results were 56% against the regime, and 44% in favor of it. Democracy was re-established, and in 1990, Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat, became the first president of the post-dictatorship years. This period saw the return of several of the groups that had been living abroad, many of whom continue performing and composing to this day. La Nueva Canción Chilena was a musical movement that marked the nation, both politically and culturally. Folk music remains one of the main genres of the Chilean tradition as a third generation of musicians carries on the work and tradition of those that came before.
Below I have listed some of the exponents of this movement that have been mentioned in the article. Happy listening!
- Violeta Parra: Gracias a la Vida / Volver a los 17 / Parabienes al revés
- Victor Jara (photo): Plegaria a un labrador / Luchín
- Quilapayun: Vamos mujer / Qué culpa tiene el tomate
- Inti Illimani: Samba Lando / El Mercado de Testaccio / Vuelvo
- Rolando Alarcon: Si somos Americanos
- Patricio Manns: Cantiga a la memoria rota
- Isabel Parra: Centro de la Injusticia
- Illapu: El Negro José / Lejos del Amor / Vuelvo para Vivir
- Santiago del Nuevo Extremo: A mi ciudad