July-August 2013

Of Songs and Silence

By Audrey Coleman

Jimi HendrixA lot of us FolkWorks-niks became aware of the power of folk music through the sixties-era Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. Even if we weren’t present at the marches, the musical legacy of that tumultuous time has influenced our sense of nationhood. Memorable experiences from that legacy include Jimi Hendrix’s searing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, Bob Dylan’s universal plea for humanity, Blowin’in the Wind, Pete Seeger’s indictment of war, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, and anything Joan Baez sang in her imploring soprano (because Joan Baez could sing the contents of the phone book and make it sound like a hymn).

In this Fourth of July season, it is fitting to consider how profoundly this music has touched our lives. Always there was the conviction that music had the power to open hearts and change minds. Furthermore, the example of American protest music was not lost on people of other nations who were struggling for change under governments far more repressive than any we have experienced in the United States. Studying South American musical genres this year has impressed upon me the ruckus our folk singers and folk rockers created world-wide. Even as countries such as Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Peru resented the imported music and dance from the U.S. as cultural imperialism, their dissidents adopted the musical tactics of U.S. progressives. Of course, they gave them unique twists drawn from their own cultures. Let me share a few examples.

Chico Buarque protested censorship in Brazil with his double-edged song 'Calice.'

In Brazil, a 1964 military coup ushered in a period of dictatorship that lasted until 1985. While the regime did not put a crimp in the carefree style of the popular new bossa nova genre, repressive measures made it dangerous for composers and singers of MPB (musica popular brasileño- basically acoustic folk music) to perform any works even mildly critical of the government. By 1968, a direct edict put massive censorship into effect and resulted in jailings and disappearances of dissident artists. It was in this atmosphere that in the late sixties, singer-composers Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil composed Calice. The title means “chalice.” On the surface, it is a mournful song that uses the refrain of Christ’s plea to God the Father in the Garden of Gesthsemane:

Pai, afasta de mim esse cálice (sung three times)

De vinho tinto de sangue…


Father, move this chalice away from me (sung three times)

Of red wine of blood…

This hymn poses no problem unless one replaces the word cálice with the Portuguese expression that sounds about the same–cale-se–which means “shut up.” With this meaning, suddenly the plea to the “father”–the dictatorship–is to remove the “shut-up,” the censorship. In four verses, the song’s double meaning goes on to describe the choking environment that shackles expression. A few lines here:

All this silence boggles me

Baffled, I remain attentive

In the bleachers to at any moment

See emerge the monster of the lagoon…

...How hard it is, father, to open the door

This word trapped in my throat…

Renditions of Cálice performed by Buarque and Gil as well as by Buarque with Milton Nascimiento are available on YouTube by searching for Chico’s name and looking for the song title. The song gained notoriety when Buarque performed it–or actually attempted to perform it–at the 1973 Sao Paulo Music Festival in defiance of the censors. As the message of the song became clear to the authorities, the microphones on the stage were disconnected one by one. Buarque moved to another mike each time one was disconnected until the stage was finally wrapped in the repressive silence the singer was protesting.

In Chile the politically conscious Nueva Canción was deliberately developed in the 1960s as a tool for rallying a mass leftist movement that would address social inequities and crushing poverty. One of the driving forces behind Nueva Canción, folklorist-composer-singer Violeta Parra, discovered Andean music listening to ensembles from Peru and Bolivia in music clubs on the left bank of Paris in the early sixties. She felt certain that the pure sound of the panpipes and quena (flute) along with the lush chords of the charango, which she learned to play proficiently, would attract a broad spectrum of the population to the leftist coalition. Back in Chile in the mid-sixties, she and her son Angel founded the pivotal Peña Parra, a folk club where leftists gathered to listen to and compose music as well as strategize. Meanwhile, singer-composer-theater director Victor Jara was turning out uplifting classics such as Plegaria a un Labrador (Prayer to a Worker) even as he knew right-wingers threatened to silence him. The group Quilapayun, regulars at the Peña Parra, originated the chant El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido! The fervor of the movement’s musical soundtrack was perhaps best demonstrated by a huge sign backing a stage where presidential candidate Salvador Allende appeared a few weeks before his 1971 election: No Hay Revolución Sin Canciones (Without Songs There is No Revolution). Violeta Parra did not live to see Allende’s victory nor the coup that followed two years later.

Victor Jara
Chilean Victor Jara was tortured and murdered by the Pinochet regime for his influential songs and other leftist activities.

The Pinochet regime destroyed the original recordings of Nueva Canciones produced under the DICAP label between 1968 and 1973. Anything disseminated since has been taken from album copies. Victor Jara was tortured and killed. Quilapayun, Inti-Illimani, and other musicians of the movement went into exile, bringing their message of the Chilean plight to sympathetic European and North American audiences. Many of the most moving performances can be found on YouTube and Spotify.

While Chileans endured the brutality and repression of the Pinochet era, Argentinians fell under a reign of terror by a military junta between 1976 and 1983. Although Argentina had been hospitable to members of the Nueva Cancion movement, it did not have its own music of resistance until this Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) took hold. Rock music, a U.S. import, represented the outrage of youth over torture, disappearances, and ritualized executions by death squads whose victims were largely between the ages of 18 and 30. The rock band Serú Girán headed by Charly García took the lead in the rock nacional movement. Songs with ambiguous lyrics recounted in code, as Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil had done in Brazil, the tormented sense of helplessness among the young. In Los Sobrevivientes (The Survivors) composed by Charly Garcia, the message would be vague only to those who could not identify with the victims:

We are blind from seeing

Weary from so much wandering,

We are fed up with fleeing in the city.

We’ll never have roots,

We’ll never have a home

And yet, as you can see, we are from here...

Serú Girán
The band Será Girán represented persecuted youth during Argentina’s Dirty War.

The song, which opens with a fragile, hesitant melodic line, ends with a hymn-like instrumental in a firm chordal structure that suggests progress from weakness to strength. The Guerra Sucia ended in 1983 when the junta allowed democratic elections. The song Los Sobrevivientees can be found on Serú Girán’s 1979 album La Grasa de las Capitales. The group has since disbanded.

But what good is singing when hope for change has all but died? In the Andean province of Ayacucho, there is a long history of songs in the Quechua language that bear witness to the brutal victimization of peasants by warring armies. One of the most popular testimonial songs from the area recounts a government assault in 1969 on a group of peasants and students who had been protesting a new truant law that unfairly targeted farming families. Flor de Retama was composed in the traditional huayno ayacuchano genre. It expresses the tender, vulnerable lives that have been snuffed out the image of a little yellow flower:

Come, everyone, to see

Ay, we are going to see

In the plaza of Huanta

The little yellow retama flower

Bright little yellow, retama flower…

… The soldiers are entering

They are going to kill students/peasants…

Where the blood of the people

Oh, it’s spilled over…

It got worse. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the people of Ayacucho were trapped between the guerrilla forces of the Shining Path and the government military that was trying to eradicate the rebels. The villagers were in much the same position as Vietnam farmers caught between the Vietcong and the American army. Seen as suspect by both sides, families were terrorized with “disappearances” of their relatives, robbery of their crops by hungry soldiers and jailings.

And yet they sang. An updated version of Flor de Retama included this spoken protest:

Green earth people (soldiers in khaki uniforms)

You come into our towns…

Spreading fear

You “disappear” our neighbors

You steal everything and anything…

Martina Portocarrero
Peruvian vocalist Martina Portocarrero was famous in Peru for her rendition of the testimonial song 'Flor de Retama.'

Songs were composed and hidden even after the authorities prohibited public song festivals in Ayacucho. Refugees from the highlands who settled in Lima performed their songs in new festivals they established there. Since the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission began investigating the political violence in 2002, survivors and children of survivors have continued to share these testimonial songs. A moving performance of Flor de Retama by Martina Portocarrero is available on YouTube.

Why were people impelled to compose songs when their world was imploding? Why did many put themselves at risk singing the truth of their experience? We might just as well ask why imprisoned European composers created new works under the inhuman conditions of Nazi concentration camps.

Why? Music expresses our humanity. Songs remind us of our values. They make it tolerable to remember the people we have lost and how we lost them. They are a source of power that can never be silenced for long.

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music. She is a graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Riverside.


All Columns by Audrey Coleman