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Home/Stories and articles/Profiles
September 2003
Mario Rojas:
Stories of the cueca

Not every Chilean has to like our national dance, the cueca. That's what thinks, at least, Mario Rojas, a musician who knows a lot about the codes of the cueca, and complains about the official treatment it usually gets. He even believes in the need of giving the cueca "a little glamour", and is optimistic about its survival in the hands and voices of young musicians.

By Rosario Mena

The "rescue operation" that during the sixties Angel Parra did with the work of his uncle, Roberto (the creator of the "cuecas choras" and the "jazz huachaca") was the beginning of a wider interest for the urban cueca, which now has a growing number of followers. Rock musician Alvaro Henríquez (Los Tres), the artistic movement of the Guachacas and people like the musician Mario Rojas are all part of this new generation of artists truly aware of the deep cultural importance of the cueca that has been composed and promoted in the cities of Santiago and Valparaiso. Rojas was part of the band De Kuriza, during the 80s, and created the website

—What's the difference between the "cueca chora" and the "cuca brava"?
—There is no difference; it's just the same urban cueca with a different name. During the 60s, there was this very popular record, "Las cuecas choras del Tío Roberto", that made a lot of people connect the concept of the "cueca chora" with the Parra family (Angel, Violeta, Nicanor, Roberto). The style of Tío Roberto is very unique. His lyrics are really witty, and talk about the city but with an accent that resembles the one at the country. That's the style that has somehow been reproduced by Angel, Nano (Nuñez, from Los Chileneros), Lalo Parra and Alvaro Henríquez. In my opinion, none of the them catch up with the master. With the "cueca brava", what happens is that a lot of people connect it with Nano Nuñez, oen of the genre's best composers and founder of Los Chileneros, besides being a great articulator of the low-life in Santiago and the ports. Nano Nuñez’ cuecas are all about brothels and "conventillos". Other names for the urban cueca are "chilena", "chinganera" and "traditional".

—Why do you think that the cueca has become such a "clean" act, so far from its origin?
—If you’re talking about the dance, that has to do with the folk ballets, their design, their choreographies. You got to be really stylized to dance with such clothes. At the same time, the Chilean State requires a certain scenic image to homage your flag, your coat of arms, your country. But what is really sad is their poor musical interpretation: they sing like a church choir, very rigidly, so distant from cueca’s musical roots.

—Kids don't seem to like the cueca when they get it taught at school. Why do you think that is?
—That's natural. For a long time what mattered about the cueca was for it to meet a didactic role, a patriotic function. In schools, teachers get desperate for the kids to learn the cueca, so they have began killing it. But you can now found very good groups of young people that play the cueca: Los Bravos de la Cueca, Los Tricolores, Los Porfiados de la Cueca, Los Santiaguinos, Las Capitalinas, Altamar, Los Romanceros, Los Bohemios, Los de la Orilla, Los Dueños del Barón.

—Is that going to be an on-going movement?
—Well, it's now an irreversible process. There's a wide group of young people that truly enojoy this kind of music. Even the dancing. And not just in Chile, but also abroad. I've just came back from the First World Cueca Championship, in Toronto, Canada; and there were representatives from eight countries (most of them, sons and daughters of Chileans, but also some from other nationalities, which is really curious), and the winner was from Australia. It was a real surprise to see all this young people enjoying so much, caring more about the dance than about the patriotic symbol it may represent. I wnat to be clear about something: to me, it doesn't matter at all tha "all Chileans" are enthusiastic about the cueca. That wouldn’t be natural; even maybe a little fascist, don’t you think? A lot of Argentinians don't enjoy the tango, as there are Spaniards that don't like flamenco. Nobody would accuse them of being antipatriotic.

—Which are your goals with
—To give the cueca a little "glamour", make it a little brighter. There should be a subcultre with its own stars, fans and followers, with its own way of listening and understanding the music. The same as with jazz, rock or country music. We know all the codes about the cueca singing, we know when should the'cantor’ start, who is good and who is not, who knows the most verses and has the best'pito’ (voice), etc. That's what happened during the "golden age" of the cueca, and that should come back.

—Has somebody been a special motivation for your promotion of the cueca? What about your family?
—Just the strong attraction that this music has had over me since I was a boy. It has to do, also, with my father, who was a cueca guitarist, and we would have this music at home since always. About the website, it's just that after several projects, interviews and related articles I had collected, I suddenly realized I had a truly valuable and large material, that it would be good to share. That's how was born.

—Have you always liked cueca?

—Always, always. But I have’n always played it. The first cuecas I learnt at the guitar were Roberto Parra’s "El Chut’ Alberto" and "El sacristán Vivaracho"; and that was around the sixties. Then I didn't play cuecas for a long time until I met Nano Nuñez, at the end of the 80s.

—Do you think that some folklorists may have destroyed the cueca spirit?
—I wouldn’t blame anybody in particular. I wouldn’t even dare say that's true. What I think is that the cueca has been a victim of an institutional culture that has always despised what's popular or mestizo. That's permanent throughout our history. The cueca is part of certain cultural and social margins, and so is going to be for a long time. Its support is on the lower classes, that's for sure.

—Which folk musicians do you admire the most, and why?

—How can you not admire Violeta Parra, if it’s for folk performers and creators. How can you not admire Victor Jara, Patricio Manns, Rolando Alarcon, Angel Parra. It was Angel the one to record with the now famous "tío Roberto", during the sixties. Roberto was very popular a true character of the folklore world, and it was he who recorded with his nephew the famous "Las cuecas choras...", an historical record. In terms of the "cueca brava", all this re-valuing of Los Chileneros is part of a process that began in the sixties with the efforts of Hector Pavez, Gabriela Pizarro and Margot Loyola. They were a key factor for the first recording of this group led by Nano Nuñez, and which was done in the year 1967. There's also the Aparcoa, a group of college students who got to reproduce perfectly the "chilenero" style when singing the cueca brava. They got a second place in the Festival de Viña 1972, with a cueca of Nuñez himself. That means that, after a dark historical parenthesis which we all know about [he refers to the Pinochet ruling] we have began drawing bridges, so we can recapture the effort made by all those I’ve just mentioned.

"How come you don't feel a deep respect an d admiration for each of them? Among the "cuequeros" who we all admire, I have three names that are no longer with us, but that from my point of view represent the cueca spirit’s deeper roots, in terms of singing and playing. They are the singer and pianist Raúl Lizama (Los Chileneros), guitarist Humberto Campos and accordionist Segundo Zamora. This last two were good friends of my father, and I had the privilege of listening to them when I was a kid. Lizama died a few years ago, and I got to be his friend. He was an introverted person but with an natural talent for singing and an incomparable style over the piano. That's how I like the cueca, played by masters such as these. Please don't show me any of those singers and players who don't know what the cueca is all about, or that try to introduce naughtiness or humor in the cueca. They may be fun, but it's not my type of cueca".

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