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November 2003

Nueva Canción Chilena — New Chilean Song:
A sign of the times

This is the full story of the Nueva Cancion Chilena movement, one of Chile's most important artistic expressions ever.

By Marisol Garcia


There was no real connection between each country's experience, but the song with a social content that developed in America and Europe during the 60s had a lot in common. While Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger introduced a poetic conscience never-before seen in American popular music, the same concern could be seen in Cuba with the New Trova (Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés), Brazil and its "Tropicalia" movement (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil), the Nova Canco Catalana in Spain (Joan Manuel Serrat, Lluis Llach) and the Manifest raised by the Nuevo Cancionero in Argentina (Mercedes Sosa, Tito Francia).

Dylan had already warned that "The times are-a-changing", and that same cultural concern would end up affecting Chile's popular song. It was the times of the University reform, the Second Vatican Council and a whole new sexual revolution; a time when all social paradigms seemed to be put under focus and changed forever.

That mix of political fervor, folk roots and rebellion against the cultural establishment, was what helped a new writing and interpreting movement to begin taking place in Chile on the year 1967. The radio DJ Ricardo García baptized it as the "Nueva Canción Chilena" (New Chilean Song); a movement completely open to combine rhythms and genres, to new collaborations and to give lyrics a deeper meaning. From that perspective, it has been hugely influential on later pop music movements, such as the Canto Nuevo in the 80s, and even some rock works of the 90s. To this day, the Nueva Canción Chilena is considered to be one of the most meaningful artistic movements to ever be born in Chile.

The socio-cultural context in which Chile lived before the State Coup of 1973 can not be reproduced, but the chance of conceiving popular music as a way of getting people to be more committed to social change, and art to see itself as a vehicle for social change. Its lessons on the fusion of rhythms and genres has been fundamental as an identity trace, even visual, for how it combined local and foreign influences.

One can not miss Violeta Parra (1917-1967), our biggest composer, and somehow the "godmother" of this whole movement. Two of her kids were one of Nueva Canción's biggest names, Ángel and Isabel. But her lack of prejudice and how she integrated social issues to her songs were also important. Songs of hers such as "¿Qué dirá el Santo Padre?" (What would the Holy Father say?) and "La carta" (The letter) are strong proofs of how one can build manifestos with just voice and guitar.


Songwriters and their message
Chronologically, the closest referent to Nueva Canción was the "neo-folklore" of groups such as Las Cuatro Brujas and Los Cuatro Cuartos, high-class singers that made the Chilean song look a little sophisticated, with none of the social message that would later develop. But the neofolklore was important for how it renewed certain topics that had become rule (related to nature and women), even though it continued with a rigid class model -landowners and peasants— that the next generation tried to avoid at all costs.

Not all these songwriters were only thinking politics. Songs like Victor Jara's "Paloma quiero contarte" or Angel Parra's "Cancion de amor" were more into finding a true author voice than sending any particular social message. They would see themselves as creators that had to find deeper meaning to the ones then present in charts and radios. A lot of the movement's biggest names (Victor Jara, Patricio Manns, Rolando Alarcón) were talented in more than one field, such as poetry or theater.

In their catalogues one can find harsh political protests as well as tender love songs, or even hails to God. That's why they never accepted being labeled as "protest singers", but more like "committed" musicians. There are characteristical author traces in the urban sensibility of Payo Grondona, the tenderness of Isabel Parra, the historical conscience of Rolando Alarcon and the rural perspective of Quelentaro. That's why it would be unfair to reduce the Nueva Canción Chilena to just a pamphlet, even though this artists would get more harsh as the 60s developed. The most emblematic examples can be found in the work of the group Quilapayún, who recorded the most important hymns of Salvador Allende's government: "Venceremos" (We shall win) and "El pueblo unido" (The people united) of Sergio Ortega. Another important proof of political commitment was "Canto al programa" (1970), a "cantata" composed by Luis Advis and Sergio Ortega which was recorded by the group Inti-Illimani to promote Allende's program.

All these artists made a profound work of investigation on folkloric roots, and introduced to local composition rhythms and instruments that had never before been heard in Chilean music. String instruments such as the charango and the cuatro; wind instruments such as the quena and the tiple, and a lot of percussion. At the same time, they would look for folkloric genres that where not worked from a popular perspective (Chiloé and Andean music, mainly), and others brought from Bolivia (huayno), Venezuela (joropo), Argentina (tango, baguala), Peru (vals) and Cuba (son and guaracha). Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani were the two groups that further took this Latinamerican vocation.

 


     
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