The exile of Chilean folk group Inti-Illimani came suddenly. The group was on a European tour in 1973 when Chile's Socialist government of Salvador Allende was toppled in a bloody military coup. Inti-Illimani--which had been associated with the left-wing-oriented nueva cancion (new song) movement--was forbidden to return to Santiago.
Permission to return home came just as suddenly only last year, at the unexpected invitation of the same military government that had banished them.
Now the group is finding it as hard to adjust to being back after 15 years as it was to deal with being in exile.
"It's strange to us, exciting and strange," said group member Jorge Coulon. "Many things have changed. Not so much the important (political) things, but privately--your family became old, children are now persons who work. In this you feel the changes."
And the mood of the people too was much different after 15 years of military rule, following 160 years of democracy. According to Amnesty International, the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet has been marked by repression and violence, with thousands of people either killed or "disappeared."
"It's difficult to speak to people now," Coulon said by phone from a Davis, Calif., concert site. "You feel a lot of fear. . . . Many people tell us to beware, don't speak about things. You feel the people are trained to be silent and don't speak with anybody."
But outspokenness comes naturally for Inti-Illimani, which will play tonight at 8 at Santa Monica High School. The group, which formed in 1967 as part of the then-nascent new song movement, was inspired by the likes of poet Victor Jara and drew on cultural traditions that had become nearly lost in a drive toward modernization. Coulon said that no official explanation was ever given for the band's exile, though the group's support of the Allende government and the human-rights orientation of many of its songs were likely considered a threat to the military regime.
In some ways they were lucky to be exiled: While Inti-Illimani toured the world--including South America--performing songs calling for a liberation and human rights, many Chilean artists opposing the military rule were allegedly killed or "disappeared." But, ironically, it was only when exiled that the band truly took on the aura of a political force.
"We don't like to be (known as) 'the Chilean group in exile,' " said Coulon. "But we were. . . . We became a symbol of democracy for many people in Chile."
That was dramatized when thousands of people accorded the group a hero's welcome when it returned for the first time to the Santiago airport. And soon thereafter it was underscored by longtime acquaintance Peter Gabriel inviting Inti-Illimani to join him, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman at the Amnesty International concert in Mendoza, Argentina.
But Coulon remains uncomfortable with the high profile given the band's political activism.
"We don't like very much to be called 'political musicians,' " he said. "We are musicians, and we have a political position, but more a philosophical and ethical position. I'm sure many things will change with going back to Chile. Maybe it's a new beginning for people to consider us as musicians."
Musically, the band's exile also proved to hold benefits. For one thing, it coincided with a rise in consciousness about world music.
"When we first came to the U.S. in 1974, we had a real--I use this in the good sense--gringo audience," Coulon said. "Our music was strange. Now there is a fantastic curiosity for many musics. Before, music was a diversion. Now it's becoming more of a language."
The group tried to be as open as it hoped its audiences would be, and as it toured it was exposed to many forms of music which it absorbed into its Chilean roots. Along the way, it recorded with the likes of classical guitarist John Williams and American folk singer Holly Near.
This is reflected in the band's latest album, "De Canto y Baile" (Of Song and Dance), released in the United States on Redwood Records. The album features songs written by band members and using the traditional folk instruments and forms of the Andes, but with flavors drawn from numerous folk, classical and jazz influences.
"We want to be contaminated with experiences," Coulon said. "We discovered that our first love was Andean music, we think it's the soul of our music and continues to be that. But we are curious about every musical experience.
"Living in Europe (the band was based in Rome), we discovered many important sources of music--Mediterranean, North African, Balkan. Now going back to Chile, we have new influences and changes, but we don't know how they will work. This is the mystery of our music."