By Briana Duggan
Half a world or so away from Latin America’s beginnings at the Mexican border lies the long and sometimes mountainous and sometimes desert-like and sometimes glacial country of Chile. (Hey! A lot can happen in 2,600 miles.)
Today, it’s quite a pleasant place, a beautiful and diverse landscape housing great timber, salmon, and copper industries. Webs of gray highways arch around the rugged terrain connecting Santiago’s sprawling metropolis with Chile’s other large cities — Valparaíso, Concepción, and Antofagasta.
Forty years ago, however, I’m not sure if Chile would recognize its present self. It was the Cold War era and Chile was a country divided on ideological grounds. There were those that wanted Chile to become a western society, one of open markets, free trade and the like. Then there was the opposition that supported, and, in 1970, eventually democratically elected the first socialist president, Salvador Allende.
In marches, supporters of Allende’s Popular Unity government would chant, ¡El Pueblo Unido Jámas Será Vencido! (The People United Will Never be Defeated!) It turned into a socialist anthem, containing within itself the idealism of those who strained their voices chanting it in marches and rallies.
More powerful in Spanish than in English, the anthem has a beautiful cadence that sort of rolls out of the depths and jumps out of your lungs. Left-leaning musicians turned the chant into songs of their own, the most famous version being by Quilapayún.
Art is political, and even if you forget the words of the song, Quilapayún’s musical style made a political statement.
Tired of imported music, culture, and, most significantly, politics, great musicians of the Southern Cone — Mercedes Sosa, Victor Jara, and Violeta Parra — rejected the mainstream musical influences of the time and adopted Andean musical techniques. They’d often incorporate folk instruments like the quena, zampoña, charango, or cajón into their songs. Quilapayún is one example of this movement back to South American cultural roots now called the Nueva Cancion, literally the “New Song.”
I chanted the anthem once myself. I was at an Inti-Illimani concert in Valparaíso, while I was studying there. The band created their own song for the chant.
When they played it, the entire crowd stood up, fists in the air, and sang together. The band pointedly played it as the last song to carry the audience home. That was 2009.
For so many years, because of Augusto Pinochet’s post-Allende dictatorship and artistic censorship, groups like Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani were unable to play their own music within their own land. Even after all those years and oppression, the anthem — and those words — still ignite something inexplicable within an audience, and within the musicians themselves.