We must never forget those who have given their lives for their work. Every year, the labor movement observes Workers Memorial Day on April 28, to commemorate those who have died on their jobs and to focus on making workplaces safer. This year, we look at worker safety through an international lens, by remembering Chilean musician Víctor Jara, whose life as an artist was brutally taken from him. It’s sobering to remember that political artists in other countries face repression and even death, just for practicing their art. — Local 802
During the early 1960s, the Nueva Canción (“New Song”) movement was born on Chilean soil. With singer-songwriters paving the way with their politically fueled 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 movement was established by Violeta Parra, whose 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 socialist solidarity among Latin Americans. Some say that Parra was one of the first to revive the concept of the “Peña” (now known as “La Peña de Los Parra”), a meeting place or community center where artists celebrated indigenous arts alongside political activism.
One figure to come on the scene was Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez (Víctor Jara), a young musician, theatre director and member of the Communist Party of Chile. Soon, Jara would become an active figure in the Nueva Canción movement, performing songs that spoke passionately about 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 whom he and his wife Joan met while 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” centers on a pentatonic mode in D minor (D-F-G-A-C) and alternates with the 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 style that usually included an array of other indigenous instruments such as quena (flute), zampoña (panpipes), charango (small guitar) and cajón (percussion).
FOLK FESTIVALS AND POLITICAL ACTIVISM
1969 saw the first Festival de la Nueva Canción, sponsored by the Universidad Católica in Santiago. With his composition “Plegaria A Un Labrador,” Jara won first prize. 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 fervor that was intertwined with the music itself. Following his first prize, Jara travelled throughout Latin America as a cultural representative of Salvador Allende and his Unidad Popular coalition, using his Marxist-inspired music as a platform to engage students and workers.
DARK DAYS AHEAD
Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970 – a time when music of the Nueva Canción was at its height. However, in 1973, Chilean right-wing leaders staged a coup with the help of the military. In 1973, Jara was on his way to teach at the Technical University, now known as Universidad de Santiago. As a protest, all students, along with Jara, stayed at the university overnight. However, in the morning, Jara, with thousands of others, were taken to the Estadio Chile (renamed the Estadio Víctor 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 it was found to contain 44 bullets.
On May 28, 2009, José Adolfo Paredes Márquez, a 54-year-old former Army conscript, was formally charged with Jara’s murder.
Víctor Jara’s memory has manifested itself in all kinds of ways following his death. Phil Ochs 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 featured performances by Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger and members of the Beach Boys. Since 2005, there has been a biannual festival of music and dance in Wales in memory of Jara. There has also been talk of a film starring Antonio Banderas, though this has yet to come to fruition.
A version of this essay originally appeared at https://soundsandcolours.com. It was edited here, using the permission of the Creative Commons License. Permission to reprint the article was also granted by the site.
VICTOR JARA’S LAST POEM, WRITTEN RIGHT BEFORE HE WAS MURDERED
Before his death, Víctor Jara wrote a poem about the conditions of the prisoners in the stadium. It 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.”
“Estadio Chile” by Víctor Jara
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?
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.