Rock Revivalists In The Wake Of The Chilean Dictatorship

Analagous is the monthly column of Jeff Pearson.

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” – Pablo Neruda

For the Parra brothers of Chile, October of 1970 felt like an awakening. A culture of free-thinking youths and subsequent emergence of an art scene were blossoming under the very soon-to-be President Salvador Allende’s growing Popular Unity coalition, with their band, Los Jaivas, at the forefront. Eduardo, Gabriel, and Claudio were readying their first record, the free-flowing psychedelia of El Volantín, and seemingly held in their hands the direction of where Chilean rock music was heading. The band was already playing at a level highly ahead of its time–their exploratory nature combined indigenous elements of driving percussion and folklore with lengthy improvisations, placing them in the pantheons of the most fearless and innovative musicians of their era. Watching what little footage there is from that October’s Festival de Piedra Roja it’s clear that Los Jaivas were onto something special. The festival was Chile’s answer to Woodstock[1], held on the outskirts of Santiago in the beautiful vista flanked by the Andes Mountains. Taking part in something that had never been done before, Los Jaivas let their music reverberate through the nature surrounding them; it’s easy to see, in those brief, ephemeral moments of documented playing that day, why it felt like the beginning of something big. In actuality, it was all starting to end.

Just four days after Piedra Roja took place, United States President Richard Nixon set forth plans to overthrow Allende via a series of failed CIA coups that would weaken the Chilean leader’s central government. Beginning largely in 1972, Allende’s presidency was under constant attack from right-wing military extremists working under Nixon’s support. Many of them ended violently–the bloodiest being the failed Tanquetazo of June 1973, where rebelling Chilean officers attacked with tanks in an attempt to overthrow Allende. General Carlos Prats led the defense against the attack, an act that earned him the position of Minister of Defense. Tanquetazo was unsuccessful, but it greatly crippled the Socialist party, and perhaps the most important effect was that Prats was put into office and virtually immediately overthrown and replaced by Augusto Pinochet.

A mere three months after Tanquetazo, on the eleventh of September, Allende’s reign ended. He had plans set into motion to end the military crisis, but they were intercepted by the now largely right-wing contingency in place. As his La Moneda Palace was being heavily bombed, Allende reportedly saw no way out other than to take his own life. A military junta seized control of the Chilean government, and newly appointed Minister of Defense Pinochet elected himself as the President. Though the beginning of a new era for Chile, it is perhaps even more important to consider what ended with Pinochet taking over the presidency. A profound effect of the right-wing leader taking office had to be on the newly flowering art scene; September of 1973 will forever be known to Chileans as the summer the artists’ voices fell silent.

In order for Pinochet to fully silence those voices, however, he needed to take drastic action. He needed to make an example of someone.

Víctor Jara had established himself as one of the country’s definitive musicians throughout the late sixties, mixing Chilean folklore, political protesting, and his sparsely accompanied voice to deliver messages of unity and overcoming oppression. He was one of Allende’s greatest supporters, and his unwavering croon served as the voice of the voiceless in the tumultuous era leading up to the coup d’état in 1973. Songs like “El Derecho de Vivir En Paz” and “Lunchín” promoted peace amongst the people, and placed him among the most beloved figures–not simply limited to his reach within the music community–in Chile. The morning of September 12, 1973, a day removed from the bloody coup d’état, Jara was ripped off of the streets of Santiago along with about 40,000 others, and taken to the Chile Stadium as prisoner. Pinochet’s regime tortured and questioned Jara–reportedly mocking the cantarín, asking him to play them a song after breaking all of the bones in his hands–but Jara remained steadfast and strong. Witnesses say that Jara answered his captors’ ridicule by defiantly singing the pro-Socialist protest song, “Venceremos,” through a bloodied face and broken hands and ribs.

Jara was the symbol that Pinochet needed. His body was found some four days later on the outskirts of Santiago with forty-four bullet holes in it[2]. His death was a message of fear aimed directly at the artistic community of Chile, and in many ways symbolized the beginning of Pinochet’s reign of silence and falling in line[3]. Many artists and citizens fled the country, sought refuge and acceptance elsewhere. Among them were Los Ángeles Negros, a psychedelic rock counterpart to Los Jaivas, who gave in to the pressure of releasing music in Chile and a diminished popularity for rock music in a Pinochet-led country, and relocated to Mexico City.

Though displaced from their home countries and forced to live in exile, those in the artistic community who made it out of Chile alive were the lucky ones. Thousands of poets, writers, musicians, artists and filmmakers who defied the right wing regime were put to death during Pinochet’s seventeen-year reign of terror. The dark days of the dictatorship ended with a citizen-imposed Constitutional change and election in 1989, and another era of artistic change descended upon the music of Chile. This time around, it was an era of rebuilding.

Bands like Las Tres and La Ley emerged in the immediate aftermath of Pinochet’s falling dictatorship, some of the biggest and best bands to ever come out of Chile, perhaps symbols of all of the artistic oppression bursting out of the proud country. Even the newly burgeoning metal scene in America and Britain was matched by the thrash brutality of Pentagram’s highly influential extreme metal demos; the early nineties seemed like the first bright spot in ages for Chilean music.

It wasn’t until very recently–with the exception of Pentagram–that Chilean rock music was really making waves worldwide, however. There has been a sudden boom of astral-traveling psychedelic rock bands in the past two years coming out of Chile, emulating those brief years before the coup d’état when there seemed to be no end to what these bands were capable of. Much like back in the late sixties, bands like The Holydrug Couple and Föllakzoid are having to carve their own path, create their own scene from the ground up, and once again there is no ceiling in the world they have created for themselves. More importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stop a movement like this one in 2013.

These bands are put in the unique position of defining an era of music and what might come to be the sound of the country. Due to the fact that there was such a long period in Chile’s history where kids couldn’t look homeward for inspiration, the psychedelic sounds of Santiago are pulled from elsewhere. Ives Sepúlveda is the main creative force behind The Holydrug Couple and former keyboardist of Föllakzoid, drawing inspiration from the garage rock sounds of the likes of Nuggets, Krautrock acts like Neu! and Can, and sunny California psychedelic rock from the sixties. Bands like La Hell Gang and WatchOut! too wear garage psych influences on their sleeves; in melding myriad styles like these bands are doing, they are effectively redefining what it means to be a Chilean band. A lot of the native culture found in bands like Los Jaivas and Las Ángeles Negros has regretfully given way to such a long period of inactivity, but the future looks bright in the new wave of psychedelic rock bands’ hands in crafting a sort of new nativity.

Part of the widespread appeal of the new wave of Chilean psychedelic rock is, of course, the fact that the Internet age allows for their music to reach more ears, but the bands are receiving a lot of help from stateside labels as well. Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones recently signed and issued the newest albums from Föllakzoid and The Holydrug Couple, La Banda’s, and the off-shoot The Cindy Sisters, fit right at home amongst the psychedelic punk of Chicago’s Hozac Records, and Un Festín Sagital is one of the landmark acts of Beta-lactam Ring Records, based out of Austin, Texas. The universal gaze on the South American country is allowing Chile ample opportunities to create their own way, make their own history.

A handful of labels operating in the same vein as their American counterparts–all do-it-yourself, leftist ideals–have sprouted in present-day Chile. Cardinal Fuzz, with doom stoner instrumentalists Pontiacs and garage punks WatchOut! breaking ground on their home turf in the vein of Los Jaivas before them. Pasta Base releases The Psychedelic Schafferson Jetplane’s lysergic, frenzied music. The presence of three labels is just as important for the country, if not moreso, than internationals giving their bands a chance. It’s another step in the progression towards a self-sufficient art scene, a sign of the powerful effects of music in the healing process of Chile. Labels like Cardinal Fuzz and Pasta Base give the next generation of musicians the opportunity to have someone spread their music and give them a platform to share whatever unique voices they may have. To think that there was a time, not so long ago by any means, that there were no opportunities to even play this kind of music, let alone release it through a homegrown label, shows how far Chilean culture has come since Pinochet’s fall.[4]

In that regard, this era of Chilean rock is perhaps the most important in its short, yet checkered history. These bands and labels are, whether they realize it or not, in the position to rewrite that history. There is a natural proclivity among Chilean musicians to explore the depths and heights of where they can take their music, something that perhaps comes with being surrounded by such stunning depths and heights in nature. Föllakzoid’s Domingo García-Huidobro touched upon that concept in a recent interview, stating, “Being in Chile makes you closer to the stars. A lot of the things we decide in our lives, we leave to general karma. And, yeah, space has a lot to do with it.” There is something inherently cosmic about the music they play, and they are poised to influence the direction that Chilean rock heads next. Much like the Parra brothers of Los Jaivas some forty years ago, watching a revolution take place from the Piedra Roja stage, these young Chilean psychedelic rockers are ushering in an artistic awakening. This time, however, no one can silence them with sleep.

1. The festival was marred with sound complications, drug use, debauchery free love–all the classics.

2. Jara’s wife, Joan, went to retrieve the body and fled Chile after his funeral.

3. Jara’s legacy lives on, even today, through the spirit of his music. A year after his death, Phil Ochs staged a benefit concert in New York City, entitled “An Evening With Salvador Allende,” where Ochs, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Arlo Guthrie performed in Jara’s honor.