Category: Music and Dance

The Militant Song Movement in Latin America: Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina

Edited by Pablo Vila. 2014. Lexington Books. 292 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7391-8324-3 (hard cover), 978-1-4985-3217-4 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Jennie Gubner, Indiana University

[Review length: 1447 words • Review posted on January 25, 2017]


[Cover ofThe Militant Song Movement in Latin America: Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina]

The Militant Song Movement in Latin America: Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, edited by Pablo Vila, brings readers into the complex nature of politicized music-making in Latin America in the twentieth century. Challenging the tendency to treat the musical practices surrounding the dictatorships of the Southern Cone as a single and unified cultural movement, this collection draws its strength from the many analytical and ethnographic perspectives of its contributors. The fact that the book is written in English is of particular value as it offers international audiences a chance to enter the nuanced and even at times contradictory narratives shaping the history of Latin American militant song.

In the introduction, Vila positions the participants of the militant song traditions in the Southern Cone as complex social actors, moved both by ideological utopianism and the desire to participate in exciting artistic movements. While highlighting the historical and cultural specificity offered in these case studies, he also mentions some commonalities that bridge these movements. Among these are the fact that many artists were willing to risk their careers and lives for the creation of new forms of militancy through music, and that the movements were largely dominated by male musicians, lyricists, and singers.

While men were the protagonists of the militant song movement, the majority of the essays in this volume are written by women, offering a refreshing balance of gender perspectives from both Latin American and international scholars from a diversity of disciplines. The first three chapters of the book are devoted to the Nueva Canción movement in Chile, the second three to Uruguay, and the final three to Argentina. Since Chile and Argentina dominate most international conversations about politicized music-making in the Southern Cone, the three chapters devoted to Uruguay are of particular value, as they offer insight into Uruguay’s unique relationship to militant popular song.

The book is a must-read for scholars and students interested in politicized musical movements in Latin America. The collection also offers valuable perspective to anyone interested in the global political movements of the mid-twentieth century, as the addressed themes can be connected in many compelling ways to the political song movements of North America and Europe from the same time period. Through the carefully selected chapters, one gains both an understanding of the global influences informing these song movements and of the unique local contributions that shaped the rich histories of militant song in the Southern Cone.

In chapter 1, Nancy Morris outlines Nueva Canción (the New Song movement) in Chile, from its inception through what she sees as the three major phases of its development. She positions it as an off-the-radio movement, discussing how music-making practices developed largely through grassroots and on-the-ground networks like peñas and cooperatively run record labels like DICAP (Discoteca de Canto Popular). Next, the chapter covers the period known as the "cultural blackout” following the 1973 coup d’état where cultural centers and record labels were ransacked in efforts to erase any traces of militant song in the country. Lastly, Morris outlines the Andean music boom that led to the development of the less overtly politicized Canto Nuevo movement.

Chapter 2, written by Eileen Karmy Bolton, offers readers an in-depth exploration of the Cantata Popular Santa María de Iquique. This piece, written by Luis Advis in 1969, was the first folk cantata of its kind, bridging the worlds of art music and folk music in new ways. Based on the historical events surrounding a 1907 workers strike/massacre, the piece was released just months before socialist President Salvador Allende’s election in 1970. Through an analysis of multiple renditions of the cantata, Bolton traces how it has been used as a politically charged symbol in and outside of Chile from the time of its release to the present.

Laura Jordán González’s chapter explores Chile’s most signature folk music genre, the cueca. González argues that cueca must be considered one of the key song forms of the revolutionary soundtrack of Latin America from the 1960s through the 1980s. The chapter addresses the history of cueca music in Chile and the contributions of seminal artists such as Violeta Parra and Héctor Pavez. Moving into the realm of comparative analysis, she offers a detailed account of all the recorded cuecas connected to the New Song movement, highlighting particular cases where songs differed from standard song style and form.

In chapter 4, Abril Trigo offers a history of Uruguayan popular music, illustrating how the development of a local song movement in Uruguay occurred much later than in surrounding Latin American countries. After outlining the three phases of the genre’s development, Trigo focuses on the first phase in which artists like Alfredo Zitarrosa, Daniel Viglietti and the duo Los Olimareños began looking beyond the popular international styles of the time and began writing new kinds of songs incorporating local song styles. The article also addresses the process of building local music industries, and the centrality of grassroots cooperatives like the Center for Uruguayan Popular Song. For scholars interested in collectivism and cooperativism, this chapter offers rich insight into the specific histories of these kinds of alternative forms of cultural production from a Uruguayan perspective.

Chapter 5, written by Argentine scholar Camila Juárez, explores avant-garde popular music traditions of the 1970s in Uruguay. She argues that institutional support of national music programs in the 1960s contributed heavily to the boom of conservatory-based forms of popular music in Uruguay in the 1970s. In the second half of the chapter, Juárez turns her attention to a series of courses started by Uruguayan musicologist and composer Coriún Aharonián, who became a driving force behind a politicized avant-garde music movement in Uruguay in the 1970s.

In the final chapter on Uruguay, Maria L. Figueredo analyzes the relationship between literature and militant songwriting, arguing that rhythm—both in poetry and music—was used as a powerful mode of engendering feelings of shared identity during times of political crisis in Latin America. Based on extensive data collection and fieldwork conducted between 1992 and 1999, she discusses how the militant song movements in Uruguay produced many “hybrid texts” in which poets and musicians collaborated in efforts to produce politically charged music. Her analysis includes a discussion of the different collaborations between poets and songwriters, drawing on her data collection and fieldwork.

Chapter 7, written by Carlos Molinero and Pablo Vila, positions Atahualpa Yupanqui as a precursor to Latin American militant song movements, focusing on his interest in bringing visibility to indigenous subjects in Argentina, and his dedication to offering critical commentary on the socio-political conditions of his time. While underscoring the importance of Yupanqui as a symbol of political music-making, they analyze the ways in which later movements in the 1960s distanced themselves from his ideological and musical approach to songwriting. The authors also speak to Yupanqui’s own complex character, including his romanticized ideas about indigenous life, his conservatory training, his complex relationship to the gaucho identity, his conflicts with Peronism, and his criticisms of later generations of militant musicians.

In chapter 8, Molinero and Vila provide a comprehensive overview of militant song in Argentina, moving from Yupanqui’s composition of “El Arriero Va” in 1944, to the creation of the Nuevo Cancioniero, into the censorship by the “triple A” anti-communist alliance, and through the music produced during the military dictatorship. Drawing on multiple rich ethnographic interviews with artists, the chapter includes an analysis of the contributions made by Horacio Guarany and Mercedes Sosa as well as less internationally renowned artists such as Marián Farías Gómez of the group Huanca Hua.

In the final chapter, Illa Carrillo Rodríguez, provides a compelling analysis of gendered tropes of political agency and identity-construction as they relate to the Nuevo Cancionero movement. Through the chapter, she identifies and analyzes gendered tropes found in NCM works: the feminized “new man” as represented in tributes to figures like Che Guevara; the few instances when women are positioned as protagonists of revolutionary action; and the masculinized representations of compañeras as montonero militants. The chapter shows how the NCM, while still an overwhelmingly male-dominated artistic movement, was able to disrupt some normative gender roles through the production of creative works.

Whether they read through it as a comprehensive and diverse study of politicized song movements in Latin America, consult it as a reference book for scholars of militant song, or use it as a teaching tool, readers will not be disappointed with the contents of Vila’s collection. Each chapter is thoughtfully constructed and the translated chapters are carefully edited to read smoothly. In conclusion, I can only hope that more volumes of a similar nature emerge, continuing to untangle the many inspiring music-making practices that emerged from one the darkest periods in Latin American history.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.