Music as Social and Political Instrument of Change in Latin America

Philosophers and critics have long argued over which way the maxim should read:  does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?  Historically, artists of every medium have contributed to the social dialogue via there works, whether through hieroglyphics depicting a successful journey to the underworld, a holy Requiem for the dead, or shock artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually and religiously controversial exhibits.  Music transcends most art forms as a tool for unification because it inherently invites participation, even more so than dance or theater in the realm of the performing arts, which demand more individual preparation.  Songs and chants can be generated anywhere, and often hearken back to indigenous folk music that taps into a communal experience, thus strengthening the sense of interconnectedness.

In Latin American, two similar genres of music developed out of the cultural music of the region in response to contemporary socio-political issues that personally affected in Chile and Cuba.  In Chile, Nueva Canción (“New Song”) emerged in the mid-1960s, just as Nueva Trova was taking root in Cuba.  In light of the New Song movement’s intimate relationships in the revolutions that rocked Latin America during the late 60s to mid 70s, one is urged to conclude that Eric Selbin’s assertion regarding revolutions being “made” not “arriving” more accurately reflects the inherent ideological influence in socio-political upheaval.  As Nancy Morris records a member of the musical movement saying, “’[Canto Nuevo is] not just a post-1973 way of singing.  In what is said and how it’s said poetically and musically, Canto Nuevo is a process’” (qtd. in Morris 118).

Both musical movements stemmed from artistic reactions to the living and working conditions in Chile and Cuba respectively, and both embraced traditional folk music’s conventions as a platform to express politicized lyrics.  “New Song began as a fusion of traditional musical forms with socially relevant lyrics.  Although each country has developed variations of New Song that reflect local social and political conditions and musical styles, New Song as a whole can be characterized as music intended to support and promote social change” (Morris 117). In Chile, songwriter, activist, educator, poet and martyr Victor Para wrote songs that for many defined the atmosphere of the movement and the hope of the community.

His song, “Plegaria a un Labrador,” which “uses Biblical language to convey a message of hope and change,” was chosen as the best song of the Primer Festival de la Nueva Canción Chilena in 1969 (Morris 120).  Jara’s music (and the music of the entire movement) was like a responding chorus to the political requests of Salvador Allende, the Unidad Popular (“Popular Unity”) coalition candidate.  In “Plegaria a un Labrador,” Jara wrote the following lyrics:

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levántate y mírate las manos, para crecer estréchalas a tu hermano.  Juntos iremos  unidos en la sangre.  Hoy es el tiempo que puede ser mañana  rise up and look upon your hands,  so as to grow clasp your brother’s in your own.  We shall advance together united in our blood.  Today is the time/when we can shape tomorrow.

These lyrics suggest a call to arms and a charge to unify (i.e., “Unidad Popular”) so that the many can affect positive change for the good of the citizenry.  Yet there is still a sense of hope in the song, that the working class have the capacity to stand together and “advance,” not simply battle meaninglessly against oppression.  Jara went on to openly support Allende, including performing free concerts. Only three years after Allende was elected, the US-supported military staged a coup on September 11, 1973.  Allende most likely committed suicide. “The music of the Nueva Canción was severely affect by this media censorship [after the coup].

It was banned from the airwaves, removed from record stores, confiscated, and burned… musicians were exiled, imprisoned, and, in the well-known case of Victor Jara, killed” (Morris 123). On September 12, 1973, Jara and thousands of other Allende supporters were taken to the Chile Stadium, where Jara was tortured and murdered.  The new government tried to silence the Nueva Canción by forcing the musicians to hide, but the music was not the property of the musicians; as Jara so eloquently wrote, the music was for the working people of Chile, and thus is was not to be completely suppressed.

In Cuba, the revolution began with in 1953 with the guerilla attack on the Moncada Barracks and culminated in the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s government on January 1, 1959 by a group, which included Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  After he assumed power, Castro spent the early part of the 1960s eliminating all Batista loyalists, including the mass execution of 70 Batista regime soldiers.  One crucial element of support for Castro’s social change, even in the wake of such brutality, was the proliferation of songs that supported the revolution and its progressive intentions.

Artists such as Silvio Rodríguez and  Pablo Milanés were responsible for the Nueva Trova in the late 60s, and their efforts were directed to re-imagining the traditional music for the new culture under Castro’s political umbrella.  To this end, the government sponsored and supported those artists of the movement, because they were, in turn, supporting the progressive movements of the new party.  Both Rodríguez and Milanés wrote songs for Che Guevara, for example.  “By negotiating their way through Cuban cultural politics, Rodriguez’s generation defined their politics in the process, proving Cuban culture to be diverse and inspiring,…challenging propaganda clichés by creating the distinctive self- critical songs of the Cuban revolution,” (Fairly 15).

In both countries, the music makers were part of the recipe for social and political change.  Their lyrics gave illiterate people a way to express their frustrations and concerns, and the musicians of the Nueva Canción worked with and against the political forces of their day.  As Fairly writes: In a country not blessed with newspapers, the words of songs matter: songs like the iconic Ojala, a song about impossible desire and dreams that seems to capture all life’s uncertainties in one, became the soundtrack of everyday life across the Spanish-speaking world. Although he was no apologist for the revolution, Rodriguez’s popularity at home became so great that people joked that he had gone from being “banned” to “obligatory.” (15) This sense of obligation is part of the way in which many people have a hand in creating and growing massive socio-political movements.

Works Cited

Jan Fairley. “Film & Music: Jazz, World, Folk etc… An accidental hero: For Latin Americans, Silvio Rodriguez is the equivalent of the Beatles and Dylan rolled into one. Ahead of a rare UK visit, Jan Fairley met the Cuban singer.” The Guardian Sept. 2006: 15.   National Newspapers, London, UK. ProQuest. 6 Feb. 2007 ;http://www.proquest.com/; Morris, Nancy.  “Canto Porque es Necesario Cantar: The New Song Movement in Chile, 1973-1983.” Latin American Research Review 21.2 (1986): 117-136.

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