Face The Music! Latin America and the Protest Song Movement

It is somewhat interesting how people sometimes re-analyze the music business and the current social scene only after the death of an important political figure or musician. Tragedy, it seems, can sometimes trigger new ways of seeing life. It may be bold to state that even in an event as big as an artist’s death, people tend to start appreciating what was supposed to be appreciated in the first place. Not the fame, not the money or popularity, but the message that this artist wanted to give to the world: the message behind the music.
The recent death of Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer and icon who was popular throughout Latin America and internationally, has mainly affected many followers of La Nueva Canción, a social movement that Mercedes Sosa and many other Latin American artists are involved in. So what is La Nueva Canción? What does this mean?
In 1970, when Salvador Allende won the presidency of Chile by a narrow victory, he became the first socialist to be democratically elected as the leader of a Latin American nation. As he greeted the cheering crowd, the banner above him read, “You can’t have a revolution without songs.” It was a testament to the powerful role music plays in creating social change. This role is the essence of Nueva Canción (new song), also known as Canto Nuevo or Trova.
The new song movement of Latin America saw its beginnings in Cuba’s revolutionary nueva trova movement in the early 1960s as artists began to reflect the ideology of anti-imperialism. As life in Cuba changed, events in South America lead to the birth of nueva canción in Chile and Argentina, where musicians sang about the injustice and oppression in their homeland as well as the plight of the exploited indigenous populations. By the 1970s, many saw this music as a platform for protest, and the musicians would suffer the consequences of rising up against the imposed dictatorial regimes.
In Chile, the movement began in the 1960s with artists such as Victor Jara and Violeta Parra, who drew attention to the plight of the indigenous populations of their country. The same occurred in Argentina, with pioneers such as Atahualpa Yupanqui and Mercedes Sosa blending ancient Andean musical traditions with socially conscious lyrics. Nueva Canción in many ways reflected the solidarity between Latin Americans from various countries, and offered cries for peace and social justice on a worldwide humanitarian level. Also, Nueva Canción echoed the anti-American sentiment resulting from the Vietnam War, and the genre became a suitable platform for expressing anti-imperialist views.
This type of music brings a positive social message- lyrics that reflect the struggles of the people, and their desires for a better world. It is a music genre that combined Latin American folk music played on traditional instruments with politicized lyrics, which had deep respect for the working and peasant classes. It spread across Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1960s and ’70s when musicians joined the mass uprisings that were calling for democracy, justice and an end to U.S. intervention. Most songs feature the guitar, and often the quena, zampoña, charango or cajón. The lyrics are typically in Spanish, with some indigenous or local words mixed in.
The ’73 Chilean coup impacted the genre’s growth in Chile, the country where it was most popular, because the whole musical movement was forced to go underground. During the days of the coup, Victor Jara, a well-known singer, songwriter and maybe the most popular figure of Nueva Canción, was tortured and killed by the new rightist military regime under General Augusto Pinochet. Other groups, such as Inti-Illimani and Quilapayún found safety outside the country. The military government under General Pinochet ruled until 1989 and went as far as to ban many traditional Andean instruments, in order to suppress the Nueva Canción movement. While Chile has produced the largest number of Nueva Canción artists, its popularity pervades in almost all Spanish speaking Latin American countries, and it enjoyed some popularity in Spain and the USA during the 1970s. Nueva Canción songs became political weapons used to attack unjust governmental systems and support revolutionary ideals while giving hope to the progressive movement. Its main exponents are Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanes, Violeta Parra, Carlos Varela, Mercedes Sosa and Victor Heredia. In Argentina these songs were born during the regime of Juan Perón, and continued throughout the military dictatorship. In Brazil it is called Tropicalismo, and the main exponents are Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.
There has always been a strong relationship between music and politics, particularly political expression in music. This expression has used anti-establishment or protest themes, including anti-war songs. In addition, pro-establishment ideas are also used, for example in national anthems, patriotic songs, and political campaigns. Many of these types of songs could be described as topical songs. Unlike many other types of music, political music is not usually ambiguous, it is simple yet effective and is used to portray a specific political message. We must consider the fact that in order to remember a certain melody or lyric, it has to be simple and recognizable enough in order to be memorized by followers. While the political message in music is apparent, it is important to analyze the political context of the time it was made. In other words, understanding the historical events and time that inspired the music is essential to fully understanding the message that was intended. Therefore, since political messages are meant to be heard by the people, this music is often meant to be popular. Mercedes Sosa and her first husband, Manuel Óscar Matus, with whom she had one son, were key players in the mid-60s Nueva Canción movement (which was called nuevo cancionero in Argentina). Her first record was “Canciones con Fundamento”, a collection of Argentine folk songs. In the early 1970s, Sosa released two concept albums. She also recorded a tribute to Chilean poet Violeta Parra in 1971, including what was to become one of Sosa’s signature songs, “Gracias a la Vida”. After the military junta of Jorge Videla came to power in 1976, the atmosphere in Argentina grew increasingly oppressive. At a concert in La Plata in 1979, Sosa was searched and arrested on stage, along with the attending crowd. Their release came about through international intervention. Banned in her own country, she moved to Paris and then to Madrid. She eventually returned to Argentina in the 1980’s.
In the present, there are many artists who want to give a message to people, to raise social awareness and to go against unfair governments and war. Manu Chao (a French/Spanish artist who is internationally recognized) is a perfect example of this. Many of Chao’s lyrics talk about immigration, love, living in ghettos and drugs, and often carry a left-wing message. This reflects Chao’s own political leanings. He is also known to be very close to the Zapatistas (from Mexico). His band Mano Negra is possibly a reference to an anarchist group. He has many followers among the European left and the anti-globalization movement.
One of the best American examples of this is Joan Baez, a folk singer and songwriter known for her highly individual vocal style, and for her topical songs dealing with social issues and therefore her strong commitment to generating awareness for social change. In 1956, Baez first heard a young Martin Luther King, Jr. speak about nonviolence, civil rights, and social change. Several years later the two became friends, marching and demonstrating together on numerous occasions. Her experiences regarding Vietnam’s human-rights violations ultimately led Baez to found her own human-rights group, “Humanitas International”, whose focus was to target oppression wherever it occurred. She toured Chile, Brazil and Argentina in 1981, but was prevented from performing in any of the three countries, for fear her criticism of their human-rights practices would reach mass audiences if she were given a podium.
La Nueva Canción gives these oppressed musicians a voice. This type of music never gets old since it is from the heart, and it has a more lasting message in comparison to types of mainstream music that can be forgotten in a short period of time. This is the type of music that can move crowds, generate a positive effect on our societies, and change a community significantly. Through music, these artists have been able to express their opinions to the world and fight for justice. The power invested in music is underestimated when people classify genres and catalog music as just another form of entertainment.
In these times more than ever poetry and songs are the best weapons for peace. The inspiring lyrics of these musicians express a respect for Latino culture, a demand for better social and economic conditions for Latin America, and a quest for a better world for all people. Therefore, music can be used for deeper goals besides entertainment. It can contribute to bigger causes, generating awareness, promoting social change and reaching the people’s hearts through art, instead of violence.

By Silvina Moreno

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