Chile From Within

Roots Music Part 1: Censorship, Victor Jara and Los Tres (La Quinta Vergara)

Posted in Chile culture, Santiago, Viva Chile by tomasdinges on March 15, 2007

In the close environs of Santiago’s el Bar Don Rodrigo, red velvet walls contain thick smoke and the vaguely nostalgic melodies of rewritten 80’s classics being played live with gusto on a cheap keyboard. During the breaks, electronic house beats alternate with old recordings of 40’s jazz.

Down the road, in El Berri, the music will range, with luck, from Peggy Lee to Frank Sinatra to John Lee Hooker.

Go to the mountains or rural areas and shepherds and wranglers will tell you that they listen to mexican Rancheras, “because they sing songs we can relate to.” Bus rides in the countryside cover American hits from the 70’s to the 80’s.

Where is the Chilean music and its traditions?

Maybe its absence has to do with decades of censorship and the fracturing of the Chilean national identity brought about by General Augusto Pinochet’s military ruling coalition, or “government,” as some would say. His rule was conservative, to say the least, and styles that butted up against the establishment, the church, the military rule, etc… were snuffed out.

Maybe it was the historically feudal nature of Chilean society which never gave the peons their due.

Immediately after the dictatorship, Isabel Lipthay, an exiled folk singer and musicologist now living in Muenster, Germany, told me that the folk instruments of the charango, guitarron, zampoña, etc…were banned by the dictatorship. There resurrection was only allowed when they were to be used to play the European cannon of classical compositions in a folk orchestra.

These stories are an everyday extension of the brutal murder of Victor Jara, who was at the head of Chile’s nueva canción. In detention by the military, the fingers on his guitar hand were broken one by one, and he sang until his death by gunshot. He had actively sought to rescue Chilean folk traditions in his album Canto de Travesura, in which all but one song is denoted as “popular” or part a nameless folk tradition rescued from the obscurity under imaginary shade trees by the brook, meters from the fields where their unknown authors worked dawn to dusk.

Jara’s songs of militant class uprising and dignity to workers were listened to clandestinely. Isabel Lipthay told me of groups of strangers congregating on the other sides of walls where a record of his was being played, only to dissolve as the song ended or a military man walked up.

What does this have to do with a censorship of video images by the producers of the massive concert held by Chilean folk-rock superheroes Los Tres at the Festival de Viña?

Everything and nothing.

The screen behind the three musicians was four times their size. “On the eighth day God created the “day-after pill”, save your family, demand the pill and the right to choose abortion,” slowly scrolled three times across the base of the screen as the group played their song Hojas de Te in front of a crowd of thousands. Abortion is illegal in this country and the day-after contraceptive has been highly contested, its distribution blocked by conservative mayors of the autonomous municipal districts.

Vintage images of the Pinochet, Hitler and SS officers, Jesus, Virgin Mary and The Last Supper were to flash quickly in the screen along with cheap, saturated postcard images of landscapes of Europe and the south of Chile, representing a heidiesque germanic landscape, and police repression of protests during the anti-Pinochet movements of the 1980’s. There were some shots of former president Salvador Allende, the Nobel poet and Communist Pablo Neruda and other cultural heros. It was a quick, subconscious “day-in-the-life”, heavily distorted in post-production video editing by documentary filmmaker and editor Niles Atallah.


Upon the scrolling text about abortion, men with radios came down from the main production studio freaked out and without breath asking desperately if there was more content like this. The main production board above had begun to control the images and the guy manipulating the preprogrammed light displays began to twiddle his knobs next to Niles. “I could have thrown his computer off the balcony,” said the infuriated artist.

In a sense the fact that Channel 13 censored the video images is exactly what Los Tres wanted, talk and debate. The most pathetic thing, said the lead singer of Los Tres, Alvaro Henriquez, was that people got more worked up over a pro-choice abortion and contraceptive message than the fact that he was wearing an actual Nazi uniform, with a swastika and a Chilean flag.


A greater fear was that it was to be censored and no one would talk about it afterwards. Hmmm. Is that a sign Chile may be changing?

The newspapers covered the censorship issue fully for the next few days, attributing the images to a variety of factors, including trickery, the sample DVD for the images was different than that what was shown, and confusion by the “foreign” video artist (Niles is a product of Chilean-exile parents who themselves were products of Palestinian immigration to Chile), who didn’t know what he was projecting. Niles had worked strong for a week on this projection.

It turns out that Virginia Reggianato, the corpulent and died-blonde mayor of the decadent and luxurious beachside resort city of Viña del Mar, is pro-censorship, and applauded the decision of the producers of the event.

“This was an abuse because what they did was not considered in the programming and we can’t all share their ideas. I find it laudable that they express their ideas, but where it corresponds and not in a presentation which goes out to the world,” she said. “As of today they are rejected.”

The line of the head producers, including the catholic television station Channel 13 UC, and TVN Channel 7, the government-run station, made a strong statement that this was against their editorial perspective of the station. See this article in El Mercurio, for more info.

Alvaro Henriquez, black overcoat (original vintage Nazi), high collar and greased black hair plastered to his forehead looked curiously like a goth figure, strange enough considering that Los Tres have been largely responsible for a folk revival in Chilean culture, based around the cueca, a rural musical tradition. Now vintage is “de moda.” Hmmm. So is the cueca chora, or cueca urbana, being played often by young people on Thursdays in El Huaso Enrique, or in monthly private invite-only parties put on by cueca stalwarts Maria Ester and Pepe Fuentes.

to be continued…

2 Responses

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  1. […] his inimitable style, Tomás Dinges ties together the popularity of Mexican Rancheras and American hits, Chile’s feudal history, the oppressive […]

  2. […] I began to understand further when my friend Niles Atallah (who I have written about previously here) created the stop-motion “video-art” piece along with Cristobal León and Joaquin […]

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