Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Who is this psychedelic looking guy?
Well, he is obviously called Angel Parra and despite the image he is a folk singer. He is part of a family of folk musicians from Chile.
His mother was Violetta Parra and his sister Isabel Parra.
They were leaders in a Chilean musical movement called Nueva Cancion. It was a movement that sought to find an intrinsically Chilean form of music by using the folk music that was a strong part of the lives of the poorer people of the country. Like many folk movements around the world it was a very political movement and it became inextricably linked with the left wing Popular Unity Government of Salvador Allende.
In 1973 the Popular Unity Government was overthrown by a fascist coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and backed by the US. Allende was murdered as were many hundreds of others including teachers, students, doctors, social workers and musicians.
The most famous musician to be murdered was Victor Jara, the musical leader of the Nueva Cancion movement. Like many others he was detained and sent to the football stadium in Santiago. There he was tortured, his fingers broken, and finally killed.
There followed 17 years of fascist dictatorship during which indigenous forms of music, and the playing of indigenous instruments were banned.

At this point I think its best I come clean. I do not speak any Spanish and I really don't know very much about Chilean folk music.
There is a great deal of depth to Chilean music including not just folk and all its derivatives but psychedelic music, pop music and jazz.
My knowledge of this rich music is limited to just two records, both of which were found in charity shops.
Angel Parra's Canciones Funcionales and Isabel Parra's de Isabel Parra, both released in 1969 when the movement was strong and popular.
There is something about both of these albums that intrigues me. It is partly that they provide me with a window into the music of a country far away and therefore exotic. But is also partly that I am amazed that music could be such a political force.
In modern Britain the idea that any musician would willingly align themselves with a political movement is laughable - unless that movement had a nebulous aim such as to help the starving or 'raise awareness'.
I guess the last time we had musicians with a political conscience was during the era of Red Wedge in the 80s.
So political music interests me. But, as I mentioned before, I don't speak Spanish so I can't follow the messages of these songs. Perhaps reason enough to learn Spanish! Joking apart, I am really missing a great part of this music. It is like listening to Bob Dylan and not following the words - you miss a lot.
I am also intrigued by the similar trajectory of the folk movements of the UK, the US and Chile. Initially these all started as an exercise in preservation as people felt that this was music that we dying. From preservation the movement went to emulation - playing in the style of the musicians they were trying to save. The next step was to create new songs. And at this stage, politics came to the fore in the music itself. Perhaps it is not surprising that music from the poor members of a society should lead the middle class collectors of that music to realise what the effects were of a capitalist society on these people.
Angel Parra plays his own songs on the first side of Canciones Funcionales (Useful Songs). With titles such as La Democracis (Para Bien o para mal), El Drugs-Store (Tonada-slow) and La Television (Polca) even non-Spanish speakers such as myself can get an idea of the political content. The second side comprises covers of songs by Atahualpa Yupanqui an Argentinian singer and songwriter whose ethnographic work in collecting Argentinian folk songs was much admired by the Nueva Cancion. I suspect his opposition to the fascist Peron government might also have been admired. For these tracks he uses guitarist Julio Villalobos who went on to play in the strangely named Blops, a Chilean psych band.
I much prefer De Isabel Parra. I think that its that her voice is so much easier to listen to - although it seems to have been given a strange echo effect, perhaps to make it sound as though she is playing a concert.
Most of the songs on the record are written by her mother Violetta (who committed suicide in 1967) and have a rugged forceful quality that I find instantly likable. She also covers her brother's Ave Maria which is simply beautiful.
I have a feeling that is might be a 'best of' or a compilation of earlier records. If anyone can tell me I would be delighted.
I am also confused by the record labels - Isabel Parra is on  Pena De Los Parra - was this a family record label? While Angel is on Lince Producciones - about which I can find nothing.
By the way, if anyone want to know more about this shameful period in US and Chilean history I would recommend you read Joan Jara's biography about her husband Victor. It wonderfully captures a period of excitement and hope and then describes the horror of the coup and the dictatorship. Chilling stuff.


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