Victor Jara – The Martyred Musician of Nueva Canción Chilena

By 14 December, 2011

During the early 60’s, the Nueva Canción movement (‘New Song’) was born on Chilean soil. With singer-songwriters paving the way with their socio-politically-fuelled folk tunes, it was a revolutionary spirit that was deeply embedded in the Latin American New Left, the Unidad Popular coalition and its leader Salvador Allende.

The Birth of Nueva Canción

The Nueva Canción movement of Chile was established by Violeta Parra in the early 60s; her Andean-infused folk songs were highly political and nationalistic in their lyrical as well as melodic content. Songs such as “Hace Falta un Guerrillero” (It Takes a Guerrilla) and “La Carta” (The Letter) are full of anti-government sentiments, reflecting solidarity among Latin Americans and their socialist feelings. Some say that Parra was one of the first to set up the Peña (now known as La Peña de Los Parra), a community centre that in essence celebrated indigenous arts alongside political activism.

One figure to grace the stage of the event was Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez, a young musician, theatre director and polictical member of the Communist Party of Chile. Soon, Jara would become an active part of the Nueva Canción movement, performing songs that spoke passionately about contraversial topics of the day such as imperialism, poverty, religion and human rights. Jara published his first recordings in 1966. His songs were drawn from a combination of traditional folk music – inspired by his mother who passed away when he was 15 years old – along with left-wing political activism. From this period, some of his most renowned songs are “Plegaria A Un Labrador” (Prayer to a Worker) and “Te Recuerdo Amanda” (I Remember You Amanda).

Reflection of an Andean Soundscape

Unlike the music that had dominated public consciousness previously, Jara’s music – along with other musicians and bands of the movement – was deeply rooted in the indigenous cultures of Chile and in essence, the sounds of the lower-classes. Jara’s 1969 single “Angelita Huenumán” talks of a blanket-maker himself and his wife, Joan, met whilst travelling around Mapuche country in Southern Chile. Jara describes her hardship, focusing on her hands, literally and metaphorically as “…the anonymous hands of my own creative people.”. Musically, “Angelita Huenumán” centres upon a pentatonic mode in D Minor (D-F-G-A-C) and alternates with relative F Major – creating a bimodal tonality that is a distinct feature of the Andean soundscape. This particular style is known as cueca – a guitar-based rural song that usually comprised an array of other indigenous instruments as quena (flute), zampoña (panpipes), charango (small guitar) and cajón (percussion).

“The Times Are A Changin” – Folk Festivals and Political Activism

1969 saw the first Primer Festival de la Nueva Canción, sponsered by the Universidad Católica, Santiago. With his musical composition, “Plegaria A Un Labrador”, Jara won first prize at the festival. For the first time in Chilean history, musicians and bands from a range of musical styles came together in celebration of their Chilean cultural values. Of course, the political nature of the music performed at the Primer Festival could not escape the underlying Leftist fervour that was intertwined with the music itself. Following his first prize, Jara travelled throughout Latin America as a cultural representative of Allende and his Unidad Popular coalition, using his Marxist-inspired music as a platform in which to engage students and workers.

Dark Days Ahead for Nueva Canción Chillena

Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970 – a time when music of the Nueva Canción was at its most rampant. However, in 1973, Chilean right-wing leaders rallied a coup d’état with the help of the Chilean military. In 1973, Jara was on his way to teach at the Technical University, now known as University de Santiago. As a protest, all students, along with Jara, stayed at the University over night. However, in the morning, Jara, as well as thousands of others were taken to the Chile Stadium (renamed the Estadio Victor Jara in 2003), where they were tortured for several days. Jara, known widely by then as a cultural as well as political-activist against Pinochet’s right-wing regime, was repeatedly battered and humiliated. The bones in his hands were broken and soldiers ridiculed him as he could not play his guitar any longer. Defiantly, he sang part of “Venceremos” (We Will Win), a song supporting the Popular Unity coalition. An officer played Russian roulette with Jara, repeating this a couple of times, until a shot fired and Jara fell to the ground. The officer then ordered two conscripts to finish the job by firing into his body. Jara’s body was dumped on a road on the outskirts of Santiago and then taken to a city morgue where 44 bullets were found in his body.

Years later, on May 28, 2009, José Adolfo Paredes Márquez, a 54-year-old former Army conscript was formally charged with Jara’s murder.

Before his death, Jara wrote a poem about the conditions of the prisoners in the stadium, the poem was written on paper that was hidden inside a shoe of a friend. The poem was never named, but is commonly known as “Estadio Chile”:

There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?
Here alone
are ten thousand hands which plant seeds
and make the factories run.
How much humanity
exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain,
moral pressure, terror and insanity?
Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.
Nothing matters to them.
To them, blood equals medals,
slaughter is an act of heroism.
Oh God, is this the world that you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work?
Within these four walls only a number exists
which does not progress,
which slowly will wish more and more for death.
But suddenly my conscience awakes
and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,
only the pulse of machines
and the military showing their midwives’ faces
full of sweetness.
Let Mexico, Cuba and the world
cry out against this atrocity!
We are ten thousand hands
which can produce nothing.
How many of us in the whole country?
The blood of our President, our compañero,
will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!

How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment

Victor Jara’s memory has manifested itself in all kinds of ways following his death. Phil Ochs had previously met Jara on a tour of South America and arranged a tribute concert the year after his murder, entitled An Evening with Salvador Allende it features songs by Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger and members of the Beach Boys. Since 2005, in Wales there has been a festival (El Sueno Existe) of music and dance every two years in memory of Jara. There has also been talk of a film starring Antonio Banderas though this is yet to come to fruition.

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