Atahualpa Yupanqui’s timely revival of Argentine folklore made him a revered voice of political protest in an era beset by repression and revolution.
Poet, guitarist and composer, the musician affectionately known as ‘Don Ata’ has since become a household name in Argentina and an international icon, assuming a myriad of political and artistic positions over the last century.
Born Héctor Roberto Chavero Aramburo in 1908, Yupanqui was raised first in Pergamino and later in the northern province of Tucumán. The son of an indigenous father and a basque mother, he adopted the pseudonym Atahualpa Yupanqui in homage to legendary Incan kings.
Chosen long before his rise to fame in the 1930s, the name reveals a distinctly rural cultural map, heavily influenced by travel to Argentina’s northern territories and high plains.
The province of Tucumán captivated Yupanqui’s imagination, with the songs ‘Luna Tucumana’ and ‘La Raqueña’ evoking the region’s rustic, magical charm. Much of his music in fact, harks back to the time he spent drifting through far-flung transitional lands, immersing himself in indigenous culture.
Yupanqui’s communist affiliations and lyrical testimonies to the hardships of provincial life inspired a cult-like following, making him ripe for government target. Several periods of exile ensued. The first saw him take shelter in Uruguay following participation in a 1931 uprising against the de facto government of José Félix Uriburu.
Having returned to Argentina several years later, he set off again, this time with anthropologist Alfred Métraux. The pair went north to study the Amaichas Indians, from whom Yupanqui learnt the rhythms of zamba, vidala and chacera that would later find their way into his music.
Later, having made himself an enemy of the Peronist government, Yupanqui fled Argentina once more. In 1950 he travelled to Europe, where he was swiftly taken under the wing of celebrated French chanteuse, Édith Piaf.
Mid-century Paris was a hub of creativity, attracting artists and musicians from across the globe. After suffering several years of heavy censorship at the hands of the Argentine government, the 42-year old musician finally found himself a receptive audience and a sounding board for his music.
The French poets Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, as well as the influential Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, all featured among the close circle of friends who held Yupanqui’s poetry and lyrics in high esteem.
Shortly after signing his first recording contract with Chant du Monde, Yupanqui released his first LP, ‘Miner I Am’, which was awarded Best Foreign Disc by France’s Charles Cros Academy.
The prize enabled him to complete an extensive tour of Europe, which paved his way to international acclaim. For Yupanqui, France was an adopted homeland he would return to time and time again. At the end of his career, in 1989, he was offered the prestigious honour of composing the lyrics of a cantata commemorating the bicentenary of the French revolution.
His 1952 expulsion from Argentina’s communist party, brought a decade of radical politics to an end, but, at the same time, enabled him to enter the public sphere, making frequent appearances on national radio and performing live concerts.
By the 1960s, his popular lyrics had attracted the attention of such iconic Argentine folk singers as Jorge Cafrune and Mercedes Sosa.
In 1977, the latter dedicated an entire album, ‘Mercedes Sosa interpreta a Atahualpa Yupanqui’, to the work of her contemporary, honouring his significance as the most important folk singer in 20th century Argentine music.
Though nowadays synonymous with popular folk song, Yupanqui’s music stands in ambivalent relation to mythologised tradition. Always surpassing mere continuity, his music is constantly recasting its legacy in new, inventive, and often daring ways.
Besides music, Yupanqui was also a prolific poet. ‘Guitarra’, one of his most seminal works, was written in 1960 to accompany an album bearing the same name. Having learnt to play alongside his father, Yupaniqui held a romantic attachment to the guitar, which, for him, was the most natural accompaniment to his lyrical musings on everyday life.
Yupanqui died in Nîmes in 1992, aged 84. With 12,000 songs to his name, his lyrics continue to exert a profound influence on a whole generation of young musicians.
His songs have inspired such diverse tributes as ‘A Don Ata’, by the female folk singer Soledad Pastorutti, and a version of ‘El Arriero’, by the Argentine rock band Los Divididos.
Mention Don Ata’s name to an Argentine and you’ll be sure to receive an effusive outpouring of praise and admiration, and, undoubtedly, a few lyrics known by heart.
Dates Active: 1928-1992
Most Famous Song: Los Hermanos
Best Lyric: “Just when things seem closer, is when they move further away. And so we keep wandering, cured in solitude.”
Famous for: Reviving the traditions of Argentine folklore and speaking out against injustice.
In his own words: “I’m an Argentine singer of forgotten arts who wanders around the world so that no one forgets what it unforgettable: the poetry and traditional music of Argentina.”
Best to listen to: On a weekend break in the country.