The Chilean New Song Movement: Far More Than a Relic of the Past

by Patrice McSherry*

Image: Inti-Illimani play in one of Santiago's stadiums in 1971.

Image: Inti-Illimani play in one of Santiago’s stadiums in 1971.

The New Song movement that emerged in the 1960s in Chile was rooted in popular musical traditions that were passed down through generations. The young musicians drew from folk traditions but created new musical, instrumental, and poetic forms that revolutionized the musical culture of Chile. Songs like “Plegaria a un Labrador” (Víctor Jara), “Venceremos” (Inti-Illimani), and “El Pueblo Unido” (Quilapayún), with their stirring music and socially conscious lyrics, became well-known anthems of the popular movements of the 1960s and 70s. They had a universal quality as well, crossing borders and communicating with people around the world who shared similar dreams of social justice.

This music is far more than a relic of the past. Today, New Song is part of the cultural patrimony of Chile. The songs evoke and symbolize a historical period, and are embedded in the historical memory of Chileans and non-Chileans. But many of the original musicians have continued to create, develop, and grow, producing an abundance of new music, recording albums, and performing in large concerts where they are welcomed as beloved figures. Quilapayún, for example, celebrated its 50th anniversary with dozens of concerts before tens of thousands of people. In April 2015, the group gave a free concert in the plaza behind the presidential palace, La Moneda, before thousands of people. It was the first time the group had played in this plaza in more than 40 years. The concert included an “exorcism” of Augusto Pinochet.

During the 1960s and 1970s profound political changes were taking place in Chile, in other parts of Latin America and around the world. New political and social movements of students, workers, peasants, urban shantytown dwellers, and other groups mobilized to demand rights and political inclusion along with structural changes in elitist systems.  The 1960s were marked by the Cuban revolution and the war in Vietnam, and many young people in Chile, as in other countries, were strongly anti-imperialist and in favor of progressive social change. The New Song movement was an organic part of these broader social mobilizations, and it played a key role in the democratization movement “from below” to transform Chilean state and society, culminating in the election of democratic socialist Salvador Allende in 1970.

New Song captured the struggles and aspirations of popular sectors and illuminated the harsh social realities they faced in Chile and Latin America. Mariela Ferreira, singer and instrumentalist of the folk group Cuncumén, put it well: “The mix of political lyrics and sound was important, but even more, the music was a key element of the social movements, the historical moment, the marches, the hopes of millions: the music transmitted that.” Formerly invisible and marginalized people became protagonists and universal figures in New Song. The artists expressed the deepest emotions and hopes of broad popular sectors and politically committed intellectuals.

The artists themselves, in conjunction with students, unionists, municipalities, parties of the Left, and peasant organizations, created the first informal structures to diffuse the new music: the peñas. A key component of the growing movements for social change, particularly New Song, was this ingenuity in circumventing the machinery of the dominant culture—elite control of radio and television stations, ownership of theaters and performance venues, all of which provided the tools for political control and censorship—through the creative powers of people and the support of key organizations. The multifaceted artistic currents of the time, including New Song, captured the ethos of expanding counterhegemonic movements that challenged entrenched power relations in Chile. I analyze this hegemonic system and its challengers in my book Chilean New Song: The Political Power of Music 1960s–1973, drawing on the theories of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist from the early 20th century who wrote extensively on the role of cultural power in maintaining exclusionary, elitist capitalist systems. The artists, poets, and musicians of New Song were organic intellectuals in Gramsci’s sense, critiquing social inequalities and oppression while also inspiring hopes among large sectors of society for a different, socially just system.

In the context of Latin America, the role of the Chilean New Song musicians was particularly important and powerful because they were organically linked to political parties of the Left and popular movements deeply involved in these socio-political transformations. The musicians—Víctor Jara, Patricio Manns, Isabel and Ángel Parra, Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani and so many others—were troubadours of the growing counterhegemonies in Chile. New Song articulated the invisible and suppressed music, values, and culture of majority populations of the region. The songs created consciousness, questioned existing relations of power, and expressed the dream of a better future. Moreover, the musical movement was a catalyst, not only a mirror, of the social movements. The New Song movement helped to create change—although not in a planned or deliberate way—by attracting masses of people to political causes, popularizing radical-democratic and socialist political visions through their song, and inspiring broad sectors of society to fight for progressive social change.

In 1973, a bloody U.S.-backed military coup overthrew Allende and implanted state terror in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Víctor Jara was murdered in Chile Stadium, where thousands of Allende supporters were detained. Ángel Parra was imprisoned in the National Stadium with thousands of others and then transferred to the remote Chacabuco prison camp. Many other musicians were forced into exile. A long night of repression and fear descended upon Chile. But the music of New Song did not die. In fact, the musicians played an important role in inspiring new human rights movements in exile, and sustaining people under repression in Chile. The music became globalized, a central element in burgeoning movements of solidarity with the people of Chile. Cassettes with New Song music were smuggled back into the country. The song “El Pueblo Unido” became known worldwide and translated into numerous languages. The music was a central part of innumerable international acts, demonstrations, meetings, marches, and rallies as multitudes of people around the world denounced the dictatorship and demanded the return of democracy.

Today, new generations of Chilean musicians draw inspiration from the movement and many consider themselves descendants of New Song. Its musicians are cultural references and living legends in Chile, and its music one of the country’s most original and beautiful cultural treasures.

* J. Patrice McSherry is a political science professor, currently collaborating with Instituto de Estudios Avanzados (IDEA) in Santiago. She is author of Chilean New Song: The Political Power of Music 1960s to 1973, published by Temple University Press in 2015. The book won the 2015 Cecil B. Currey Award from the Association of Third World Studies for best book on the developing world.

Patrice McSherry, “The Chilean New Song Movement: Far More Than a Relic of the Past.” Social Justice blog, 03/14/2016. © Social Justice 2016

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