Music from Chile Echoes Across the World

The songs Gracias a la Vida [“Thanks to Life”] and El Pueblo Unido [“The People United”] belong to the last century, to a history forever engraved in Chileans’ memories, yet they’ve resounded all across the globe.  The more contemporary Chilean-composed song El violador eres Tu [“The rapist is you”] reflects a scream stifled for decades (or maybe centuries) that has now claimed its moment. These songs represent three different moments, yet they trace a universal road map.

By Fernando Reyes Matta (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – There’s no reason to deny it – listening to those young girls from the Tehran Music School singing their truths and struggles to the music of El Pueblo Unido [“The People United”], brought tears to my eyes. Yes, the words were different, more appropriate to the moment, forged by the awakening of a youth that have said “Enough!” to the Ayatollahs and their extreme religious persecution.

But the fact is, these women have chosen the music of Sergio Ortega to transmit their message. It’s a transfiguration that, to a certain extent, should make us proud. This universal message continues being as relevant as it was when it was born under the inspiration of the [Chilean] music group Quilapayun: without unity, it’s impossible to achieve the profound transformations that can change the lives of the great majorities. And, once achieved, no obstacle can hold it back, even in the face of extreme authoritarian powers.

However, the question arises: Why and how did those girls and the men that accompany them choose those songs born in Chile fifty years ago? Maybe when you need to raise your own shout about a struggle in your fundamental space, that music seems opportune, because it’s already become part of your emotional makeup and values. Humanity has learned how to globalize symbols in their advance down the currents of justice, and that song-hymn is an example. As different sources have stated, the phrase “the people united will never be defeated” has been used literally or with variations in demonstrations and massive protests in many countries.

In Greece, for example, when the SYRIZA leftist coalition emerged, that music – accompanied by vibrant lyrics in Greek – became a reference point for the party platform, right up until today. From some other political perspectives, but always in a struggle against oppression, it’s the hymn they sang during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution; in the 2011 Tunisian Revolt that sparked the Arab Spring; and in the Egyptian revolt of 2011. There are also versions in Swedish, in Finnish, in English and French, and in many other languages we don’t even know about.

Now, motivated by the reappearance of El Pueblo Unido in Iran, I wanted to take a wider look at some other Chilean songs that are equally present in the world. Two examples are Gracias a la Vida [“Thanks to Life] and El violador eres tu [“The rapist is you”]. Different moments, different contents, different uses, but equal in their transcendence. Interpreted by many different artists, they go beyond the moment to synthesize in one-piece ideas that hadn’t yet been linked together. In these cases, a creativity that emerged in Chile has proven capable of becoming globally powerful, because it marks the “conscience of an era.”

Violeta Parra, a Chilean singer-songwriter, was the one to give voice to that deep sense of life and decisive power of love within her. This was so, even though the song was written just a few months before she lapsed into the depression that would lead her to end her life. The song culminates in the verses:

Gracias a la Vida, que me ha dado tanto./ Me ha dado la risa, y me ha dado el llanto./ Asi yo distingo dicha de quebranto / Los dos materiales que forman mi canto. / Y el canto de ustedes, que es el mismo canto, / Y el canto de todos, que es mi propio canto.[1]

That final phrase, especially, marked the future. The song of all becomes one song. That’s the spirit with which it’s been sung by Joan Baez and jazz musician Cecile McLorin Salvant in the United States; Ana Belen in Spain; or Arja Saijonmaa in Finland, who recorded it in her own language and in Swedish, together with the Chilean group Inti-Illimani. And these are only some of the multiple versions, in styles as different as Mexican Chavela Vargas or Spanish opera singer  Placido Domingo. Not to mention the recent version in Chinese I’ve learned about, a moving rendition from a university students’ group.

The song El violador eres tu represents a different phenomenon, but it too has captured the feeling of the times, making concrete and explicit what was in the air. Alyssa Milano, an actress from the US, had already said: “If all the women who at any time had been sexually harassed or attacked would post ‘Me too’ as their social media status, we’d be giving people an idea of the magnitude of the problem.” Others like her would follow, marking the path of a movement that exploded across borders on social media. It emerged in October 2017 as a denunciation of sexual aggression and harassment, following accusations of sexual abuse perpetrated by powerful US movie producer Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag #Me too soon extended to 85 countries, including France, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Spain, and many others.

The impact was huge, but something was missing. That something arrived via Valparaiso, Chile, from a group of four young feminist musicians. And it too exploded across the globe.

The BBC of London spoke about it in 2019: “In Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the protests that are shaking up Santiago, Chile’s capital, and in several other parts of that South American city, hundreds of women with blindfolds chorused at the top of their lungs a hymn that’s going around the world: El patriarcado es un juez que nos juzga por nacer, y nuestro castigo es la violencia que no ves. [‘The patriarchy is a judge who condemns us for being born, and our punishment is the violence you don’t see’] says the first verse, composed by the Las Tesis collective of Valparaiso, 120 kilometers from the Chilean capital. On the other side of the Atlantic, some 10,000 kilometers away, another group of women presented the same choreography in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris, this time singing in French.”

That presentation, with its music and accusatory lyrics, forms an artistic creation that has inspired women all over the world to make similar videos. In this way, a worldwide wave of reflection was generated. The song was first interpreted in Valparaiso on November 20, 2019, in two plazas and also in front of the Chilean National Law Enforcement Agency. A few days later, 2,000 women performed the song in Santiago as part of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This time, the presentation was captured on a video that went viral on social media.

There are multiple examples of the reverberations from this creation, but two in particular illustrate the extent of its impact. In Turkey, just two weeks after the presentation in Chile, seven women activists were arrested in Istanbul, when they tried to stage their own presentation at a public site. The Turkish prosecutors accused them of “an offense against the State”, for singing: “The rapist is you / The assassin is you / it’s the cops, the judges, the government, the President.”  In response to that event, one group of women deputies sang the song in Turkey’s National Assembly, while another displayed photos of women who had been murdered by their domestic partners. With great bravery, another group of women tried it again in Istanbul’s Bosphorus Plaza; this time, the police declined to intervene.

In India, the words to the song took on separate force in Hindi, one of the major languages spoken in that country where a young veterinarian had been gang-raped and later killed, while in another case a young girl was murdered and her body burned when she was heading to denounce her abuser. “In the name of the caste, in the name of religion, we are made to disappear, we’re exploited, we carry the worst part of the rape and violence in our bodies.”

The songs Gracias a la Vida [“Thanks to Life”] and El Pueblo Unido [“The People United”] belong to the last century, to a history that’s been forever engraved in Chileans’ memories, and which resounded all across the world.  The more contemporary song El violador eres Tu [“The rapist is you”] reflects a scream stifled for decades (or maybe centuries) that has now claimed its moment. These songs represent three different moments, yet they comprise a road map of the sociopolitical tasks before us. This path emerges in complete clarity if we look at the songs in chronological order.

First, we must become aware of everything that we have, thanks to life, in order to imagine the future. Second, we should know that only through unity, with a broad consensus, can history advance in favor of those so many times overlooked. Third: we must do it fearlessly, with blunt words, illuminated by undeniable truths that call out for justice and a new government, humane and in solidarity.

There’s a reason these songs – born in Chile decades before or in recent years – have had global reach. Yesterday, they were part of our history; today they form part of the courageous fight of some young women in Iran.

[1] “Thanks to Life, that has given me so much. / It’s given me laughter, and it’s given me sobs / That’s how I distinguish joy from devastation. / The two materials that form my song. / And your song, that’s the same song. / And everyone’s song, that’s also my own song.”

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times