“Without an understanding of the emotional component of political involvement it is impossible to fully understand a movement for social change such as the one operating in Latin America at that time. Without an account of how music was pervasively used in the construction of these emotional components, the political and social explanation of what occurred in Latin America during that period will be always inexcusably partial.”
Pablo Vila’s introduction to ‘The Militant Song Movement in Latin America: Chile, Uruguay and Argentina’ (Lexington Books, 2014) succinctly defines the complexities of a movement whose narration differs across the three countries discussed in the book.
The militant song, which emerged as a powerful movement from the 1950s until the mid 1970s, swiftly became an expression of “el pueblo” – the people. The political mobilisation of the masses, constructed upon the validation of subaltern experience and memory, incorporated traditional folklore, as well as the ramifications of poverty and social injustice. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 increased anti-colonial sentiment in Latin America and emphasised the importance of cultural dissemination which, in Cuba, was epitomised by its own variant of militant song known as “Nueva Trova Cubana”.
The book incorporates history and memory, as well as the processes that have constructed divergent forms of remembrance with regard to the militant song movement. While the militant song departed from common objectives – namely the repudiation of colonial and imperialist influences – the memory frameworks in Chile, Uruguay and Argentina differed following the brutal dictatorships and subsequent transitions towards a democratic framework.
Thus, while political mobilisation against oppression provided a common foundation in all three countries, the memory processes in the aftermath of their respective dictatorships reflected the variations in remembrance of the militant song. In Argentina, songs that nurtured the militant song yet lacked a militant element took precedence within the country’s collective memory. The de-politicisation of songs, aided by the emphasis upon aesthetics and poetry, became a characteristic of Uruguayan memory. On the other hand, militant song in Chile emerged as the strongest with regard to memory, owing to the dictatorship-imposed rupture on society.
Three phases characterise Uruguay’s militant song: the triumph and inspiration of the Cuban Revolution, cultural resistance to dictatorship, and the 1985 return to democracy. While the emphasis upon resistance to colonial influence and the incorporation of local traditions remained for a time, within a limited audience, exposure to the intellectual society and the international left by Daniel Viglietti aided dissemination. Viglietti, a radical Uruguayan singer who collaborated also with Chilean nueva canción musicians, stands out as the epitome of the militant song genre in Uruguay.
Uruguay’s militant song encouraged dialogue between the singer and the audience, placing value upon aesthetics and the literary quality of the songs as the primary means through which to combat dictatorship oppression. As the inspiration of “el pueblo” becomes a disseminated collective experience, political oppression is challenged through “simultaneous and complicit engagement”, according to Maria Figueredo. The prominence of aesthetics in Uruguay’s militant song, while failing to act as a deterrent for the exile of more radical singers such as Viglietti, enabled the manoeuvring and rewriting of songs in a manner that challenged authority within censorship restrictions. However, the shift in focus is also testimony to the later trend of depoliticisation, thus minimising remembrance of Uruguayan militant song and its fusion with politics.
Atahualpa Yupanqui, pioneer of the militant song movement in Argentina is considered to have vindicated previously inaccessible social commentary departing from the subaltern and the consciousness of the indigenous, marginalised for a long time by successive governments. A reflection also of the silence imposed upon the indigenous, Yupanqui’s militant song is immediately distanced from the “hegemonic collective imaginary”, particularly with regard to the song “El arriero va”, which is considered to be the first song endorsing critical commentary about social conditions in 1944.
As Carlos Molinero and Pablo Vila state in their chapter, the recognition of difference from within strikes the first challenge against the hegemony, thus bringing social inclusion of the masses to the fore. This also aided in the expansion and exploration of socio-political themes by other singers such as Mercedes Sosa, thus making the change from political representation to using song as a political weapon. With the singer as protagonist, the song is allowed the freedom to become the epitome of struggle – one particular reference and inspiration for the genre being Che Guevara’s utopian metaphor of the “new man”.
However, unlike the continuous experience of Chile, Argentine militant song was less widespread – a fact reflected in the remembrance of non-militant repertoire that nurtured the movement, rather than an affinity to militant song itself. For example, despite its lack of militant content, “Gracias a la Vida”, authored by Chilean nueva canción pioneer Violeta Parra but mostly associated with Mercedes Sosa, remains at the helm of Argentine remembrance of the genre.
Chile, on the contrary, remains the embodiment of militant song. ‘La nueva canción Chilena’, incorporated within Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular campaign, was an active movement of political mobilisation and consciousness that rendered the masses participants in political events. Vehemently shunning commercial snares, the nueva canción movement proved formidable in countering imperialist culture at a time when Chilean society was riddled with turbulence, military violence and the resonating clamour for social change. Nueva canción artists willingly pledged their support to Allende’s campaign, with groups and singers such as Inti Illimani and Victor Jara becoming deeply involved the process of rendering the song a viable political vehicle.
Perhaps the most poignant of all was the composition of ‘El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido’ (The people united, will never be defeated’) in August 1973 by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayun, just a few weeks prior to the brutal US-backed military coup led by General Pinochet. The immense inspiration generated by the movement led to the detention and torture of several nueva canción singers such as Angel Parra and Victor Jara – the latter being brutally tortured and murdered in the aftermath of the coup. Other singers and groups, such as Patricio Manns and Inti Illimani, were forced into exile. Records pertaining to the nueva canción movement were destroyed along with other material that reflected the mobilisation of the subaltern, such as literature and indigenous instruments. The fusion of militant song with politics in Chile remains evident – particularly in the ongoing battle for memory and the challenging of dictatorship oblivion – a characteristic that is still enshrined in Chile despite the return to democracy.
Drawing upon valuable historical resources, interviews and a vast repertoire of songs, the book is a valuable reference that highlights not only the role of the singers in this enduring movement, but also the political dimension that is allowed to preserve its emotive aspect. A movement that “has outlived the historical conditions that engendered them,” as Nancy Morris states in her contribution, the relevance of the militant song, epitomised in particular by the Chilean experience of memory in relation to the epoch, needs a constant regeneration to avoid the pitfalls of the political periphery.
‘The Militant Song Movement in Latin America: Chile, Uruguay and Argentina‘ (Lexington Books, 2014)