Discussing Bolivian Music with Jenny Cardenas

By | 30 August, 2019

Jenny Cardenas is a Bolivian protest singer, alongside her academic work as a researcher of sociology, history and musicology, which can be found in her published books and papers. For over four decades, she has spent her life researching and performing the music of Bolivian folk traditions, mixing her perspective of social activism with academic investigations to create a unique perspective on the history and development of Bolivian music and culture.

One of the finest Bolivian artists to emerge from the Latin American nueva canción (new song) movement that began in the 60s, Jenny began performing within the protest movement during an era of dictatorships in Latin America, and has since recorded 10 albums and toured the world sharing stages with the likes of Mercedes Sosa, Susana Baca and Silvio Rodriguez.

She has taught and graduated with masters degrees from the University of St Andrews, Scotland and the Music Conservatory of Rio de Janeiro, specializing her research in the music of Boleros de Caballeria (Cavalry ballads) originating from the Chaco War of 1932-35 between Paraguay and Bolivia. I sat down with her to discuss her songs and investigations into Bolivian music past and present.

To begin, maybe you could explain some of the themes and messages behind your music?

I started singing and performing at University, during the era of the military dictatorship in Bolivia and also across the continent, Pinochet in Chile, Videla in Argentina, in Uruguay also Bordaberry. It was a moment, especially in South America, of heavy repression on the part of the military dictatorships. In the universities there was a big culture of resistance, working to return to democracy, to end the dictatorships. This was the context in which I started performing, without thinking it out as such, it developed more through the experiences of living my life.

I also come from a family of musicians, who were committed to the processes of the 1952 revolution. My father was a soldier in the War of Chaco (with Paraguay between 1932-1935). I began studying anthropology but I had to return from Chile to study sociology here in Bolivia when the Allende government fell. By chance, the most militant activists against the dictatorship were all studying Sociology in the universities. I began to sing in the universities, also in mines and in other political struggles across the country.

Do you think that Bolivian music during the dictatorship and beyond had a political, critical element to it?

In that era the public criticism wasn’t so much an expression in Bolivian music generally, more of a generational movement for democracy against the dictatorships. In that era we sang songs of the movement mostly from Chilean singers like Violetta Parra, Victor Jara and Inti Illimani, but also from Uruguay, Daniel Viglietti, Alfredo Zitarrosa, Los Olimareños. And this wasn’t exactly folklore they were singing, it was a new expression that was also connected to the rise of new literature, new cinema, they were the new folk songs of Latin America.

These were songs of a generation that were looking to create a history of freedom and possibilities, in an era where generations were massacred in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, etc.

Do you think it’s the case that Bolivian popular music really began to value its folk traditions with fusion bands like Los Jairas, that become popular from the 60s onwards?

From University onwards I’ve been collecting and researching the music that was composed, performed and listened to during the revolution of 1952. And it’s not as if this music was born in 1952. In the years prior to the revolution, this generation was shaped massively by the Chaco War with Paraguay between 1932-1935. So the music that was listened [to] during the revolution was shaped by the music that arose around the Chaco war. What happened with the war is that people of Bolivia saw their communities, in a very vulnerable moment, fighting alongside the indigenous peasants from the country. Many of the middle classes and city populations realized that it was a country a lot more complex than they had known or realized. It was a moment that opened the mind and mentality of a whole generation, so that when the revolution of 1952 came they decided the country needed to change to include these people.

So it’s not that the revolution of 1952 created so much new music, rather it incorporated the indigenous music, it began to include a lot more wind instruments. It was not only a utilization of these styles, but really a social inclusion of indigenous communities that had been very marginalized in society up to this point. This was an enormous part of the population, at that time Bolivia had a majority indigenous population in numbers, but maintained and dominated by an urban class that was until 1952 the aristocracy and oligarchy, formed from the bosses of the dominant mining industry in Bolivia of only a three major companies. From the revolution came the agricultural reform for campesino peasant farmers in the countryside, which only truly happened in Mexico and Bolivia throughout the whole Latin American continent. They gave parts of these huge farms to indigenous communities that always worked on the land without owning it.

So music was absolutely a part of this generation that began to view their history differently. I began to research how the music of this generation formed part of a new imaginary, forming of a new country, a new idea of society and the state even. So I began from the generation of Latin American protest singers during the dictatorships, studying the roots and the process that led to that point, going back to examine this whole process of history, society and music that led to the dictatorships and protests.

So do you think that the urban middle classes were quite separated from rural and indigenous communities before the Chaco War? Do you think there was more cultural exchange between classes from the Chaco War onwards?

It can’t have been like that, a clear line of separation. Many of the middle classes spoke Aymara, practiced indigenous traditions the same as those in the country. Maybe they didn’t express these traditions publicly, because there was social prejudice. “You can’t play Charango because it’s Cholo, if you play the zampoña or siku it’s Indian, indigenous”. Although the reality is that all of us Bolivians are mixed, you couldn’t say “that person is 100% European descendant”, for example.

The Chaco War changed cultural and social relations in the sense that previously there was no conception that these different social groups could fight and die equally for the same country. When they were all equally facing death, then they had lived a shared suffering. Some interpretations think that it was mostly indigenous that died in the war, but in fact it was everyone, young people from the cities equally. When they were in the trenches they realized that this country couldn’t continue to be so exclusionary, with such awful conditions for indigenous workers.

Do you think that in the present, music with ‘folk’ roots is more popular in Bolivia, a bigger part of popular culture?

Obviously more music has been recorded, released and is widely played on radio, but there has always been the parties (‘entradas folklóricas’) of the communities, traditionally in the name of the popular religion. For example, when it’s Easter and holy week all of the indigenous communities would go out into the streets and play their instruments, with their outfits for the festivals, and people from the city would come to dance and be involved too. There’s always been the musicians from the military bands who would play at carnivals and parades, on Saturdays and Sundays in the plaza they would also play cueca, huayno, tangos, foxtrot, hymns and also boleros de caballeria. Today there are so many parties (entradas), carnivals every day that are characterized by banda brass groups, and banda music is overwhelming all the traditional wind instruments that have always been played.

A Sonido Martines mix of ‘banda’ carnival music from Bolivia

Do you think that in the era of the Evo Morales government there’s been a push or re-imagination of popular culture? To promote a different history through the culture?

You have to remember that this country has had a history so combative in a way, permanently in so much conflict, socially and politically. What’s happened is that Evo has arrived as a natural consequence of all this history and process that began with the Chaco War. Including the 1952 revolution, the movement of Tupac Katari, that was the first political organization of peasant farmers in 1973. Evo Morales is more of a syndicalist representative of the coca leaf farmers union, he came from this background. When Evo arrived he was in resistance to the military groups that were in control of coca leaf farming, but he hasn’t lived the reality of indigenous communities in many ways.

Between some sectors of the Evo government and their associates, they have manipulated history, and invented traditions, such as legends related to the ruins of Tihuanaco. Personally I think there is an invention, mixing of traditions and instrumentalizing history to serve a purpose, but it’s not a good invention.

I don’t like it because there has been a process of promoting the rights of indigenous communities in the cities, but in a way they’ve been ‘folklorized’, utilized as an instrument, which isn’t connected to the original organizing processes of indigenous people, it doesn’t offer them a way of maintaining their lands and traditional authority. There aren’t jobs apart from government related industries. Now we have a country occupied by narco-traffickers out of control. We have these huge constructions in the city peripheries, that are an expression of certain sectors that have gained a lot of money in the boom of the last 15 years. Obviously communities continue their traditions, their celebrations, but I can’t say that they have advanced or developed the processes that truly represent them.

Do you think that folk music or influences is more popular in Bolivia than other Latin American countries for example?

I think that this is a country that has a difference to the others, because of the greater presence and culture of indigenous communities in society that express their music, the songs of the Altiplano communities. There are many famous music researchers like Henry Stobart who’ve studied Bolivian music over the years, there is still a big number of musicians playing native instruments in all different parts of the country.

But in the 21st century there is a new society emerging, a society that played these wind instruments with fusions like Kalamarka that have a huge live spectacle, based on bands like Los Jairas. But everything now is a variation of Los Kjarkas so there’s not much innovation happening. This sound has been grabbed by the market and sold really heavily. Not to say all popular music is bad, there is really great popular Bolivian music and really bad stuff equally.

As a protest singer, what do you want people to take away from your music and shows?

Today there almost aren’t protest artists here in Bolivia. With the Latin American nueva canción movement during the era of the dictatorships, it was a response to a concrete situation of repression. The music of each era is an expression and sensibility of the moment itself. In this era I’m singing more songs about the violence against women, climate change as something fundamental to be presented and be considered. But also through singing the songs of the Chaco War, for example, you can speak about the historical processes and generate a conscience of how it shaped elements of this country.

If today, right now, songs didn’t exist expressing the process that Bolivia is living through, this would say something in itself. Equally I think it’s necessary that these new forms come through, DJs mixing their styles with tradition, and I think it’s important to note that every era has its expression and that’s constantly evolving, it’s not a big jump.

I want to mention that I’ve performed at WOMAD, Glastonbury and Bath Festival, and recently been invited to perform in New York, Buenos Aires and New Delhi this year to present Bolivian songs, always expressing what they mean for the people they represent. And I believe the ability and force of Bolivian musicians and music is something incredible, the whole continent has influence from our music and tradition also.

Jenny’s latest album Cambio de Estación, can be found via Apple, Amazon, Spotify and other music retailers


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