To be Chilean is to live on the edge. A long, narrow country of about 18 million whose southern tip marks the end of the South American continent—or, as many say, the end of the world—it’s hemmed in by the wild Pacific Ocean to the west, the formidable Andes Mountains to the east, and the merciless Atacama Desert to the north. The country’s rich bounty of folk music reflects these dramatic landscapes and equally dramatic history.
Chile’s famous national dance, the handkerchief-teasing flirtation called the cueca, is the folk genre every tourist hears about. But each region in Chile is like a musical microclimate. In the north, for instance, one hears the influence of the pre-Incan indigenous peoples—the Quechua, Aymara, and Atacama—as well as of Catholic liturgy and Spanish colonial military bands. Rural life is the basis for the music of the agricultural Valle Central (Central Valley), with its singing and dancing huasos, Chile’s version of the cowboy. And in Easter Island one finds chanting and dancing derived from Polynesian cultures, like the sensuous Samoan-based sau sau.
During the politically tumultuous years of the 1960s and ’70s, Chile’s folk music inspired the activist movement Nueva Canción (New Song), with socially conscious singer-songwriters like Víctor Jara courageously challenging the country’s entrenched structures of injustice. These days, in the music called Nu Folk, millennial musicians like Evelyn Cornejo and Nano Stern are reinterpreting Chile’s traditional instrumentation and beats with a contemporary sensibility.
No one exemplifies Chile’s rich tradition of folk music more than the composer, songwriter, folklorist, and ethnomusicologist Violeta Parra, a Nueva Canción pioneer who obsessively began collecting folk music from Chilean campesinos in 1952. Born in 1917 in the Ñuble Province and raised in rural poverty, Parra devoted her life to creating recordings, live performances, workshops, books, and popular radio programs that endowed her country’s música típica with dignity and brought Chilean campesino culture to urban centers and to the world stage. She also painted, made sculpture, wrote poetry, and embroidered arpilleras (folk tapestries); she was the first Latin American artist to exhibit solo at the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Her best-known song, “Gracias a la Vida”—written shortly before she committed suicide in 1967—was made popular by Argentina’s Mercedes Sosa and is one of the most covered Latin American songs in history.
As Grammy-nominated Chilean hip-hop artist Ana Tijoux told Billboard in 2015, “Violeta is the mother of our music, our mother muse, and our mother voice.” To find out more, Hip Latina spoke with Karen Kerschen, Parra’s only English-language biographer (Violeta Parra: By the Whim of the Wind), about Parra’s unique contributions to world music.
Hip Latina: Why was Violeta Parra so obsessed with preserving Chile’s folk music?
Karen Kerschen: I think she was looking back at a Paradise Lost. She was raised steeped in music, from baby’s lullabies to the elegies of death. Her mother had a beautiful voice; her father was a music teacher and a noted instrumentalist on stringed instruments. She spent a good deal of time collecting music from elderly people in the mountains, trekking in an isolated environment where traditional observances and customs continued. Much of that music had to do with how [suffering] is caused by things outside of one’s control. Her original compositions reflected that as well. As she became more aware of her surroundings in the broader geopolitical sense, her music began to reflect the fact that circumstances were not caused so much by fate but by the power structures. She really pioneered that in Chile.
HL: How did Chilean society regard folk music when Parra started collecting and performing it in the 1950s?
KK: It was then pretty much relegated to national holidays, although in the rural areas music would be sung all the time. It was part of the life cycle: at harvest festivals there was always dancing and music, at deaths there was the velorio, when somebody was married there was the tradition of serenading them all night. But outside [rural areas] music was influenced by the United States, spread through the radio waves.
HL: Why should we care about Violeta Parra’s legacy?
KK: She was a tremendous spokesperson for the 99 percent of the world, in a very humble way. Her emphasis was always singing songs about Everyman. It was that notion—to raise consciousness about ordinary people and their sufferings—that triggered the more outspoken music of Nueva Canción. She touched on the human condition and human vulnerability on a level no other musician even came close to.