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(DV) Billet: Victor Jara's Music and the Brutal Legacy of Pinochet







The Poet and the Tyrant
Victor Jara's Music and the Brutal Legacy of Pinochet  
by Alexander Billet
December 18, 2006

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There is something about the death of a ninety-one year old dictator that reminds you of the quote "only the good die young." And yet, days after Augusto Pinochet's death, we are already subjected to those trying to forgive his horrific legacy. Whether he was a bulwark against "communism," or made Chile's economy what it is today, the 30,000 tortured and killed on his watch are somehow worth it. 

Tell that to the thousands in the soccer stadium that week 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. But Jara didn't just happen to be among those in the Estadio Chile that day. Like everyone else, he was there because he was a radical; and in his case, a songwriter and poet; a deadly combination to any iron-fisted regime. 
Over the course of a little less than a decade, Victor had become one of Chile's most popular folksingers. He had been an integral part of the Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement, a group of Latin American musicians whose specific blend of Spanish and indigenous folk music had sought to be a genuine music of the people. With the folk boom in full swing in the US, markets around the world were being flooded with commercialized versions of "protest music." Nueva Cancion was a conscious alternative, folk in the truest of terms.  And for a people increasingly angry over their country's subjugation to US interests and rising poverty, these songs would find a home. Victor himself would sum it up well: "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 The term 'protest song' is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused.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 would set Nueva Cancion apart in its subject matter. Jara's own songs were brutally honest, yet beautifully hopeful. He wouldn't just sing about poverty, exploitation and imperialism, he would sing about the power of ordinary people's resistance. To him music wasn't just a means of entertainment, but an expression of one's innate sense of justice.  His song "Manifiesto" would make 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 labour 
So that the future may flower 
By 1970, as Victor's popularity increased, Chile's working people had rallied around the presidential campaign of socialist Salvador Allende and his Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) coalition. Victor, as well as many other Nueva Cancion artists, threw themselves wholeheartedly behind Allende. Their songs became an integral part of Unidad Popular. In fact, a concert held by Victor and other artists in the Estadio Chile would become a highlight of the campaign. 
Victor's commitment after Allende's victory would only increase. As Chilean and American businesses did everything in their power to crush Allende's government, workers would mobilize in defense of their own interests. Jara was there every step of the way, as he would be when Pinochet would launch his CIA-backed coup against Allende. On September 11th, 1973 Victor would find himself among thousands of other dissidents, radicals and trade unionists herded into the same stadium he had played at in support of Allende just three years before. 
The guards singled him out for his songs. They beat Victor 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 took the guitar in hand, and began to play and sing the anthem of Unidad Popular. The crowd in the stands began to spontaneously join in, as they had in that exact place three years before. Afterwards, the guards shot Victor and threw him into a mass grave along with the rest of those killed in the stadium that day. 
Pinochet had all copies of Victor's recordings, the sheet music and master tapes, burned.  His songs might have died with him if not for Joan, his widow, smuggling them out as she escaped Chile. As Pinochet consolidated his rule, he tried to rid the country of any trace of the revolutionary Nueva Cancion, even going so far as to ban many traditional indigenous instruments. 
Victor was only one of thousands to die during Pinochet's rule.  But as the world watched in horror as Pinochet's tanks rolled through Santiago, the story of Victor Jara would spread like wildfire. Nueva Cancion would influence songwriters and poets around the world. In perhaps the best-known tribute, British writer Adrian Mitchell would compose 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 part of a struggle of millions who were fighting to win their basic human dignity; the very same people that Pinochet would rule 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." 
This is why Jara's music has inspired every generation since. It is folk music in the truest sense: music of the people. He has been remembered not only in Latin America's folk tradition, but by artists the world over. The Clash, U2, 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, on the other hand, is to be cremated for fear of a grave being vandalized.  And like his remains, the notion of Pinochet as anything other than an unpopular tyrant should be scattered to the wind. The songs of Jara, however, are celebrated throughout Chile and the world. While Pinochet's legacy is that of a brutal dictator, Jara's is that of a people's troubadour. While Pinochet ground thousands into poverty, Jara sought to lift them out.  And while Pinochet reminds us of just how atrocious the world can be, Victor Jara reminds us that its music and beauty can always inspire us to fight.

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. He can be reached at: alexbillet@hotmail.com.

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