"My Guitar Is Not for the Rich": The New Chilean Song Movement and the Politics of Culture

By Taffet, Jeffrey F. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

"My Guitar Is Not for the Rich": The New Chilean Song Movement and the Politics of Culture


Taffet, Jeffrey F., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


My guitar is not for the rich

No, nothing like that.

My song is the ladder

We are building to reach the stars.

Victor Jara

In his 1969 song "Who Killed Carmenicita?" Victor Jara wrote of a teenage girl whose mind was poisoned by listening to pop radio and reading magazines that "distorted her ambitions and riddled her life with lies, bottled happiness, love and fantasy." Carmenicita lived in a poor working class section of Santiago, but because she believed in a media fantasy world, "home life stifled her and school was boring...only at the doors of radio stations her heart throbbed...her eyes dazzled by the idols of the moment." Eventually, Jara suggests, her reality, and the illusions she developed, drove Carmenicita to an ugly suicide.1

On the most obvious level, Jara's song was a reaction against popular culture in Chile during the late 1960s. During these years a large proportion of films, popular music, television programming, and popular magazines were either imitations of, or exports from the United States.2

Young leftists such as Jara perceived that these influences eclipsed local national-cultural structures, and were dangerous because they were leading to a loss of cultural identity. In response, Jara, along with the singer-songwriters Violeta Parra, Isabel and Angel Parra, Osvaldo Rodriguez, Patricio Manns, Rolando Alarcon and the groups Quilpayaun and Inti-Illimani led a musical reaction to help redevelop an independent cultural identity.

The music of these artists, collectively known as the New Chilean Song Movement (NCCh), can be divided into two basic elements, one stylistic and the other lyrical. On one hand the musicians wrote new songs reminiscent of traditional folk music and used Andean instruments to play the songs. In writing lyrics, these musicians chose themes that often mirrored the political ideas and outlook of the left within Chile. Although during the 1960s the singers were active in supporting leftist parties, in the 1970 presidential campaign and following Allende's electoral victory, they were fully integrated into the left's political apparatus and assumed a semi-official status as a cultural voice for Allende's Popular Unity coalition.3

Examination of the New Chilean Song Movement supports the argument that nationalism, and its mirror image, anti-Americanism,4 played a central role in leftist ideology. Although the leftist parties certainly did have a socialist agenda, it was lodged within an essentially nationalist framework. In part, the stress on nationalism and national forms became the central element within the left because it was the lowest common denominator among the leftist parties. That is, the member parties of the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular-UP) coalition could not agree on policy beyond destroying the power of the global over the local. But the stress on nationalism, and in establishing a "second independence," was also a necessary development because of the need to compete for votes. The establishment of a socialist economic system and radical change in the political system, while supported by the far left, was not acceptable to the moderate left or to the political center. Thus, if the left was to win elections, issues with broad resonance (such as anti-Americanism and nationalism) needed to be the supporting structure for a political platform.

Nationalism and anti-Americanism, and the related drive for economic, political, and cultural independence, all found expression within the New Chilean Song Movement. But equally, the folk music was a method toward creating and supporting that independence. Together the cultural/musical movement was a mirror to the explicitly political and economic actions of the Allende government designed to strengthen the government and the country.

This essay first will consider the relationships between culture, politics, and revolution and then apply an understanding of those relationships to a discussion of the Chilean left's goal in the cultural arena. …

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