Last year Tom and I talked about making a compilation of the best Chilean folklore songs from our favorite groups, like Illapu, Inti-Illimani, and Los Jaivas. I never progressed much beyond talking, but Tom reviewed song after song to assembled the list and sent me a copy. A few of my faves didn’t make the cut, but there’s always the possibility of a volume two.
Much of Chilean folk music sprung from the Nueva Canción movement, a creation native to South America. It was the fusion of numerous influences—Andean, Cuban, Spanish, African, the Chilean cueca—in both style and instrumentation. While guitars are omnipresent in the folklore, it’s also common for musicians to use typical Andean instruments like the charango, which looks like a tiny guitar, or zampoña and quena flutes. A lot the songs produced in the Nueva Canción style can be described as protest songs—some more explicit than others—against foreign intervention, dictatorships, and oppression. One of the key figures in the movement, Chilean singer Victor Jara, was tortured and assassinated in the aftermath of the September 11 coup in Chile. His death, though tragic, reaffirms both the power of his songs, and music’s power in general to motivate people.
I don’t know the story behind all of these songs, but I asked around and did some research. Here’s a little of what I do know about each one. I also cut 30-second samples that you can listen to. I tried to include a representative portion in the samples of each song, so they hopefully offer you a feel for the whole piece. Where possible I also have links to purchase the songs at the iTunes Store. Unfortunately, not all of the artists are available there. Chilean folk music hasn’t made it big yet online. I did note that you can watch performances of nearly all these songs on YouTube. Without further ado…
“Vuelvo Para Vivir” by Illapu (iTunes)
The members of Illapu were exiled for seven years during Pinochet’s dictatorship. According to one story I heard, they wrote this song when they returned in 1987 while they were on the airplane to Chile. I couldn’t corroborate that anywhere, so I think it’s probably just part of the lore surrounding the song. In any event, it became an immediate hit and spent many weeks at the number one spot on the charts.
“Mira Ninita” by Los Jaivas
This love song from Los Jaivas starts slowly and builds in intensity throughout the song. The lyrics conjure up all sorts of beautiful imagery—“I’m going to take you to see the moon shining in the ocean”—but I couldn’t understand the song’s message. Wikipedia reports, “The lyrics are still a mystery.”
“El Aparecido” by Inti-Illimani (iTunes)
Inti-Illimani was formed in 1967 and is one of the biggest Chilean folk groups. Too big, in fact, even for all its members; in 2004 the group split into two groups with the name Inti-Illimani. Che Guevara is the subject of this hit from 1971. It has a haunting chorus and sparse instrumentation, which nicely highlights the timpani flute (included in sample). If you’re looking for more Inti-Illimani, I highly recommend their 1997 album “Grandes Éxitos,” though it’s hard to find.
Claw at his head
Oh, how the powerful’s fury
Has crucified him
“La Muralla” by Quilapayún (iTunes)
In “La Muralla,” a song with two distinct rhythms, Quilapayún sings about cooperating to construct a wall that will stretch “from the coast to the mountains,” that they will open to what is good and close to what is bad.
Bring me all your hands
To build this wall
The blacks, their black hands
The whites, their white hands
“Plegaria a un Labrador” by Victor Jara
Casual inspection of this song’s title is misleading: the song is “Prayer to a Laborer,” not a labrador. This piece is one Victor’s Jara’s most famous. It starts slow and builds to a frenzied finish that invokes part of the “Hail Mary.”
Get up and look at your hands
To grow, reach out to your brother
Together we’ll go forth, united in blood
Now and at the hour of our death, amen.
“Lejos del Amor” by Illapu (iTunes)
This is by far my favorite Chilean folklore song. It’s another one by Illapu about exile, but this one finds its form in a poetic commentary about the recent arrival of seagulls in Santiago’s Mapocho River. For more details, you can see my article from last year about “Lejos del Amor.”
“Alzando el vuelo” by Sol y Lluvia
I loved the understated simplicity of this song the first time I heard it. For Spanish students, the lyrics are also easy to understand. The title means “Taking flight.” They touch on some profound themes, but it can’t be too high-minded because Sol y Lluvia manages to work the word “smog” into the song.
You mess up
I mess up
And the world grows in mistakes
You forgive me
I forgive you
And the world grows in love
“Rin de angelito” by Violeta Parra (iTunes)
More likely than not, Violeta Parra contributed more songs to the Nueva Canción movement than anyone else. Nearly every other group that appears here performed her work at one point or another. In this rhythmic, mournful piece Parra sings about a child dying, which happened not infrequently in the harsh southern region of Chile. In that region when children died parents put angel’s wings on them so they would go directly to heaven, which gives this song its name, “A Little Angel’s Song.” She creates some powerful images with her words, for example, “Why does her body fall like a ripe fruit?” The subject matter may be depressing, but Parra’s treatment is poignant.
“Todos Juntos” by Los Jaivas This song’s instrumentation combines drums, a traditional flute, and an electric guitar. The title of this plea for unity is “Everyone Together,” or “All Together.” The lyrics are short but pithy:
For a long time I’ve been alive,
asking myself why the Earth is round
and why there’s just one.
If we all live separated,
what are the sky and sea for?
Why does the sun illuminate us
if we don’t want to see one another?
…if this world is one and for all people,
Then we will all live together.
“Candombe para José” by Illapu (iTunes)
I was friends with a woman who participated in an underground movement during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship. She told me that whenever a person was captured and taken to jail or a detention camp, the other prisoners would whistle the melody of this song to let the new arrival know that he was among friends.
The BBC did a radio interview with Roberto Márquez, the frontman of Illapu, to investigate why people rallied around this song in particular. Unfortunately that interview was offline while I was writing this and I couldn’t find an active copy elsewhere.
“Adios General” by Sol y Lluvia
Even someone with a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish can decode the title of this song. The general in question is Agusto Pinochet, the long-time dictator of Chile. This song was released in 1987, the year before the country had a yes/no vote to decide whether Pinochet would continue as the president of Chile. The members of Sol y Lluvia joined the movement for the no vote. On October 6, the day after the Pinochet regime admitted defeat, the populist newspaper Fortín Mapocho printed the headline “ADIÓS GENERAL, ADIÓS CARNAVAL”, with a sub-headline, “Composed by: Sol y Lluvia. Performed by: The People of Chile.” On Pinochet’s last day in office the group recorded a live version of the song before a crowd of 25,000.
“Te Recuerdo Amanda” by Victor Jara
This is another of Victor Jara’s famous songs. Jara was known for his unique guitar playing, and that style is clearly present on this track. Amanda and Manuel are the names of the protagonists of this song; they were also the names of Jara’s parents. He paints a picture of Amanda running in the rain to meet Manuel at the factory where he worked.
Your wide smile,
The rain in your hair,
Your were going to meet him.
“El Aguaja” by Arak Pacha
Arak Pacha is probably the least-known of these groups, as well as the youngest. I don’t know much about this song, but it has some wonderful flute playing.
“Samba Landó” by Inti-Illimani (iTunes)
This is one Inti-Illimani key anthems. It’s a volatile song about race and history. It starts out with a nighttime scene and a new law that shines: “Freedom for blacks, chains for the slave owners.” It ends with a cry to black people around the world, “from Ayacucho to Angola, from Brasil to Mozambique, we are the same history.”
Thanks to life, that has given me so much
It gave me hearing, that in all its breadth
Hears night and day, crickets and canaries
Hammers, factories, barks, and storms
And the sweet voice of my love.
If you have anything to add to my brief explanations or if I made a mistake and left out your favorite Chilean hit (though really it’s Tom’s fault), let me know in the comments.