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The new song of Santiago

Artists shake off a dark time, and a South American culture--its poetry, music and dance--reawakens.

December 31, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Santiago, Chile — FOR Chileans, Sept. 11, 1973 was the day the music died.

The long, narrow South American country, home to this capital of 5.5 million, once was an international center for Latin pop music, with groups in the vanguard of the rock en espanol revolution and the New Song movement, a politically charged folk revival then sweeping Latin America.

Then came Chile's 9/11. Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Socialist government of Salvador Allende, whose populist ideals had galvanized artists. Thousands were killed, including singer-songwriter Victor Jara, the Chilean Bob Dylan. Thousands more went into exile.

During the next decade of dictatorship, Chile went dark.

On an October visit to Santiago, I found a place still struggling to overcome its past but working to define its artistic future. Pinochet's death earlier this month at age 91 may mark a turning point in the country's drive to reclaim its cultural soul.

Today, Chile's artistic rebirth is being fueled partly by an economic boom that's considered a model for Latin American prosperity. (Ironically, some attribute this surge to Pinochet's policies.)

Signs of new life are everywhere.

I saw New Song-style troubadours leading sing-alongs in coffeehouses and animated santiagueros savoring conversations at sidewalk cafes until the wee hours. I saw street-corner tango dancers on the Paseo Ahumada and colorfully costumed folk groups performing in the colonial Plaza de Armas to help raise money for a statue of Violeta Parra, a seminal New Song figure who committed suicide in 1967 after giving the world the spiritually uplifting classic "Gracias a la Vida" (Thanks to Life).

I caught the hot new rock band Los Bunkers performing for enthralled university students and witnessed young couples joyously waving handkerchiefs as they danced the syncopated cueca, Chile's traditional folk form that's seeing a revival.

But the most dramatic sign of change was at Palacio de la Moneda, the stately presidential palace where Allende allegedly committed suicide. Today, the beautifully restored building is occupied by the country's first female president, Michelle Bachelet, a physician and single mother of three. Bachelet and her mother were imprisoned and tortured before fleeing into exile. Her father, a general loyal to Allende, suffered a heart attack and died in custody.

Facing the palace in Plaza Bulnes, across Avenida Bernardo O'Higgins, the city's main east-west thoroughfare, I came across an outdoor exhibition celebrating Jara's life and work through his lyrics, drawings and photos.

It was poetic justice as public art.

But the wounds are far from healed. Almost every musician I met mentioned the coup as a cultural point of reference. In Chile, time is still marked as BP and AP, "Before Pinochet" and "After Pinochet."

Even shopping for CDs in Santiago can be fraught with meaning.

I stopped at a hole-in-the wall music store on Paseo Ahumada, a pedestrian walkway that's a cross between Broadway and the Third Street Promenade. A young clerk surveyed my selection of albums by Jara and others in the New Song movement and, as glibly as though inquiring where I was from, asked: "Are you a communist?"

Exorcising demons

SOME contemporary artists are actively exorcising the ghosts of the dictatorship.

The latest album by Los Tres, Chile's acclaimed rock band, opens with the disdainful "No Es Cierto" (It's Not True), which mocks testimony by a seemingly befuddled Pinochet about alleged human rights violations. The chorus plays on the political double-speak: "I don't remember, but it's not true. And if it is true, I don't remember."

The trio, which recently reunited after a six-year hiatus, takes a bitter shot near the end of their excellent new CD, "Hagalo Usted Mismo" (Do It Yourself). In the vengeful tune "Bestia," lead singer and songwriter Alvaro Henriquez wishes he could kill one of Pinochet's murderous henchmen, whom he addresses only as Beast.

This is certainly not the first time a post-Pinochet pop band has taken on controversial topics. Since the early '70s, the pioneering folk-rock group Los Jaivas has been turning up the amp and the beats on traditional Andean flutes and quenas. Los Prisioneros, a revered band from the 1980s, rattled the status quo with rock drive and outspoken lyrics. And in the '90s, Santiago saw massive concerts to celebrate the repatriation of groups such as Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun, whose social messages soar with church-like choral harmonies.

The leaders in Chilean pop today are rock bands such as La Ley, Los Bunkers and Los Tres. The last marked its comeback last summer with a concert for 12,000 fans at Arena Santiago.

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