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The Poet and the Tyrant: Victor Jara’s Music and the Brutal Legacy of Pinochet

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There is something about the death of a ninety-one year old dictator that reminds you of the adage “only the good die young.”  And yet, only days after his death, some are already trying to forgive Augusto Pinochet.  For those who think he was an invaluable bulwark against “communism” or he made Chile’s economy what it is today, the 30,000 tortured and killed on his watch are the price well worth his service.

Tell that to the thousands herded into the Estadio Chile, a soccer stadium turned concentration camp, as soon as Pinochet’s coup began in 1973.  The thousands of dissidents and activists who were raped, tortured, or killed as Pinochet consolidated his rule.  Among those thousands was Victor Jara, the songwriter and revolutionary.

Over the course of a little less than a decade, Jara had become one of Chile’s most popular folksingers.  He was an integral part of the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement, a movement of Latin American musicians who blended Spanish and indigenous folk music to create a genuine music of the people.  With the folk boom in full swing in the United States, markets around the world were being flooded with commercialized versions of “protest music.”  Nueva Canción was a conscious alternative, folk in the truest sense.  Among people increasingly angry about their country’s rising poverty and subjugation to US interests, Nueva Canción found home.  Jara himself summed it up the best: “US imperialism understands very well the magic of communication through music and persists in filling our young people with all sorts of commercial tripe. . . .  The term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused.  I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song’.”

It was this revolutionary spirit that set Nueva Canción apart.  Jara’s own songs were brutally honest, yet hopeful.  He didn’t just sing about poverty, exploitation, and imperialism — he sang about the power of ordinary people’s resistance.  His song “Manifiesto” made this clear:

So my song has found a purpose
As Violeta Parra would say
Yes, my guitar is a worker
Shining and smelling of spring
My guitar is not for killers
Greedy for money and power
But for the people who labor
So that the future may flower

As Jara’s popularity increased, Chile’s working people rallied around the presidential campaign of socialist Salvador Allende and his Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) coalition.  Jara, as well as many other Nueva Canción artists, threw himself wholeheartedly behind Allende.  Their songs became a vital essence of Unidad Popular.  In fact, a concert held by Jara and other artists in the Estadio Chile would become a highlight of the campaign.

After Allende’s victory, Jara’s commitment only deepened.  As Chilean and American businesses did everything in their power to crush Allende’s government, workers mobilized in defense of their own interests.  Jara was with the people every step of the way, till September 11th, 1973, when Jara became one of the dissidents, radicals, and trade unionists herded into the Estadio Chile, where he had played in support of Allende just three years before.

The guards singled him out for his songs.  They beat Jara brutally.  They broke all the bones in his hands and wrists.  Then, as the story goes, they mockingly handed him a guitar.  “Play now,” they said.  With his hands crushed and tears streaming down his face, he began to sing the anthem of Unidad Popular.  The crowd in the stands spontaneously joined in, as they had in the same stadium three years before.  Afterwards, the guards shot Jara and threw him into a mass grave along with the rest of those killed in the stadium that day.

Pinochet had all copies of Jara’s recordings, the sheet music and master tapes, burned.  His songs might have died with him if not for Joan, his widow, who smuggled them out as she escaped Chile.  Pinochet would try to rid the country of any trace of the revolutionary Nueva Canción, even going so far as to ban many traditional indigenous instruments.

But the dictator failed.  As the world, in horror, watched Pinochet’s tanks roll through Santiago, the story of Victor Jara spread like wildfire.  Nueva Canción would influence songwriters and poets around the world.  In one of the best-known tributes to Jara, British writer Adrian Mitchell composed a poem dedicated to him, later set to music and performed by Arlo Guthrie:

Victor stood in the stadium,
His voice was brave and strong.
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song.
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong.

What was so dangerous about Jara was that his songs were integral part of a struggle of millions who were fighting to win their basic human dignity — the very same people over whom Pinochet ruled with an iron fist until his deposition in 1990.  Scottish folk musician Dick Gaughan said it very frankly: those who say that “music and politics should not be mixed . . . [should] tell that to the CIA and their thugs who murdered Jara because his repertoire didn’t suit their interests.”

Jara’s music was truly the music of the people, and that is why it has inspired every generation even after his death.  He has been remembered not only in Latin America’s folk tradition, but by artists the world over.  The Clash, U2, and even 80s popsters Simple Minds have paid tribute to Jara in their songs.  The stadium where he was killed was renamed after him in 2003.

Pinochet is to be cremated for fear of his grave becoming vandalized.  With his remains, the notion of Pinochet as anything other than a ruthless tyrant should be scattered to the wind.

Pinochet’s legacy is that of a brutal dictator; Jara’s, that of a people’s troubadour.  Pinochet ground thousands into poverty; Jara sought to lift them up.  Pinochet’s record reminds us of just how vicious the force of reaction can be; Victor Jara’s life and music has and will continue to inspire us to fight against it.


Alexander Billet is a music journalist living in Washington DC.  He is currently working on a book entitled The Kids are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of the Clash, and runs the blog Rebel Frequencies: rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com.  He can be reached at alexbillet@hotmail.com.



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