Introducing Victor Jara

October 20, 2014

The legacy of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara is inspiring a new generation, writes Alexander Billet, in an article written for Red Wedge.

THE SHADOW of Victor Jara looms large, and it's only gotten larger with time. Just last month it was announced that a court in Chile had indicted three retired army officers for their involvement in the legendary folk singer's death in the wake of the coup that overthrew then-President Salvador Allende. Certainly, the open-endedness of Jara's saga (more than 40 years after his murder, nobody has been brought to justice) has contributed to his legend, intertwining his impressive skills with songwriting. The beauty of one combines with the horror of the other; like it or not, the two have become inseparable.

All of which is to say that if there is anyone whose stature approaches that of a modern martyr-saint for the social justice set, it's Victor Jara. Why then, at this juncture in time, would it make sense to release a pamphlet on him? Venceremos, penned by Gabriel San Román and published by PM Press, is just such a pamphlet.

It runs a scant 23 pages, and there is little here that will be news to those familiar with Jara's story. A comprehensive tome on the musician's life this isn't. It is, however, a solid and sympathetic overview: the social struggles and conflicts in Chile in the decades leading up to Allende's election; the gestation of the "Nueva Cancion" movement; Jara's rise through that movement along with the groups Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun; the intrigue against Allende's government; the coup that overthrew him; and finally Jara's defiant last moments before his gruesome death in the Estadio Chile.

Victor Jara
Victor Jara

San Román relates all of this in the broadest of strokes (he would have to if he can do it in only 23 pages!) and though it may not seem apparent at first, there is a virtue in this kind of storytelling. That virtue is of straightforward agitation.

Naturally, a pamphlet can't be read in a vacuum. As the author points out toward the pamphlet's end, Chile's own legacy of protest has been revived in recent years with the movement against neoliberal education measures. Across the continent, there's been a similar revival over the past several years. And, of course, to a greater or lesser degree, it's also played out in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

As recently as five years ago, the lay of the land seemed calm enough that we could distinguish between those spurred into activism via the songs of a left-wing artist and those whose activism would introduce them to left-wing art. Now the distinction has been blurred; art and politics are both moving too quickly for either to be neatly separated to one side or the other. One hopes that readers will walk away from a pamphlet like Venceremos having confirmed their own instinct that there is no separating politics from culture, protest from art.



THIS IS particularly prescient, seeing as how despite a great many significant recent upsurges, there seems to be little collective memory of art movements that take hold as a result of and in tandem with mass movements. There are certainly plenty of people for whom the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s are synonymous with the Beatles and Stones, Dylan and Joan Baez. But past that, there is a broad lack of awareness of just how deep the interconnectedness ran, how many artists saw their words and sounds as directly responding and calling back to the events in Paris, Saigon, Chicago and Mexico City, even seeking to influence the participants.

Victor Jara was part of this same broad epochal breaking of cultural barriers. "The strength of the NCCh [New Chilean Song movement] as a phenomenon at the time is, in part, attributable to the strength of the Chilean left," writes San Román, "particularly of the Communist Party, and the peculiarity of la via chilena al socialismo (the Chilean path toward socialism)."

The author doesn't spend much time elaborating on the strengths or shortcomings of this path that may have contributed to things turning out differently (its overemphasis on electoralism, the bureaucratization and so on). To do so would admittedly pull away from the illustration of how Jara, Nueva Cancion and the NCCh weren't just products but at times part and parcel of a pitched social battle over the future of the country and its people. San Román continues:

Changes in the overall political climate of Chile during the 1960s and '70s are extremely important in fostering an understanding as to why the NCCh resonated with many Chileans and arguably became the strongest political folk music movement in Latin American history. The historical impact is lasting as Isabel Parra, daughter of [folksinger and Nueva Cancion innovator] Violeta Parra, has said, "'La Nueva Cancion' was a movement and still is one that has a tremendous importance to make a connection with Chile."

In fact, what the author lays out is that as an artistic ethos Nueva Cancion--and Jara in particular--consciously shared a historical viewpoint with the movement that gripped it; both possessed balanced sense of acknowledgement toward what Chile's elites thought better left in the past and the role of such elements in a radical future. One of the pamphlet's most interesting sections is "The Rural Roots of Nueva Cancion," in which the music of the Chilean countryside is elucidated. Like much rural popular music, it was looked down upon by "respectable society" precisely because, quoting San Román again, it "highlighted the symbolic imagination of the poor, in effect making them a cultural interstice where the ruling elite did not establish full hegemony, and where future counterhegemonic cultural movements such as NCCh could spring forth."

This notion of the "cultural interstice," the physical and expressive spaces that capitalism has neglected and underdeveloped, is certainly, and not coincidentally, key to understanding popular culture in times of inequality and struggle. Jara clearly understood that this exact culture, the art created in the cracks and crevices of empire, can easily find itself launched into the position of vanguard during such times of struggle. In some ways, he and the rest of NCCh consciously fostered this dynamic in songs like "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz," which combined instrumentation instantly recognizable in 1960s American psychedelia over rural folk arrangements.

San Román's description of these musico-cultural realities are what make his brief story cohere. They provide a foundational depth one might not expect to see in an introduction to Jara's tale, through the way in which Quilapayun poked fun at the right-wing opposition to Allende in songs like "The Little Pots," to his tragic last song performed in front of fellow leftists rounded up by Pinochet's soldiers right before they summarily executed him. The idea of music being "dangerous" is bandied around quite a bit, but this was an artist and a musical movement that, because of what it represented, was quite literally viewed as a threat.


WHICH BRINGS us back to the original question: Why bother publishing a pamphlet on all this? San Román provides an extensive bibliography at the end of the booklet for those interested in more in-depth reading, which means there is clearly the intent of readers learning more. Why then, doesn't PM Press just recommend these other books on Jara, Chile and Nueva Cancion on its website?

There is, I would think, a hope that copies of these pamphlets would make their way into the "freshly initiated"--the young MC who has recently read his first Chomsky, the aspiring poet who got a job at a coffee shop to make ends meet and now finds herself walking out to demand a living wage.

What these folks would glean from Venceremos is often unacknowledged: that art doesn't just have a role to play in agitating people, but that it can be agitated over. It's not hard to find attempts on the part of less-than-honorable elements to take over the "cultural interstices" on society's margins, from the push by record labels to figure out "the next big thing" to Nazi boneheads showing up a punk gigs. But as with everything, this can be resisted.

Hammering this home seems to be in the wheelhouse of a pamphlet like this. But again, only if it gets into the right hands. That so many of Jara's killers still have avoided punishment seems to underline the importance of this happening. San Román ends the pamphlet by pointing out that one of the men charged in 2012 with the artist's death, Pedro Barrientos, is residing in Florida. The U.S. government has no plans of extraditing him so that he might face a court. It is worth wondering what might happen if more musicians, artists or just artistically inclined workers were to demand that Barrientos finally stand trial. A cultural movement like this isn't as far-fetched as it might have once seemed.

First published at Red Wedge magazine.

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