The Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement, says Jorge Coubon, is "not just a type of music, but a new way of looking at popular music -- not only as a business but as a responsibility."
Foremost in that movement is Inti-Illimani, the seven-member group of Chilean exiles that performs at Lisner Auditorium tonight. Coubon, a founding member, plays guitar, harp and flute, and sings.
September holds particular significance for Chile, for the group, and for Chilean exiles in Washington. Today marks the 175th anniversary of Chile's independence from Spain. But the month also marks the 12th anniversary of the military coup there that forced Inti-Illimani into exile, and the ninth anniversary of the assassination in Washington of Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier and coworker Ronni Moffitt by alleged operatives of the Chilean secret police.
Inti-Illimani (the name is taken from Aymara dialect for sun and a mountain in Bolivia) has since become an internationally acclaimed folk ensemble whose songs of spirit and resistance are an ever-present thorn in the side of the reigning junta. The music the group produces is a wonderful blend of folkloric rhythms and contemporary lyrics drawn from the interface of Latin America's diverse cultures -- European, African, mestizo. Inti-Illimani uses more than 16 wind, string and percussion instruments as well as gorgeous harmonies to deliver a message of hope and freedom.
Coubon says that when Inti-Illimani first came together in 1967, its focus was "examining cultural roots, rather than trying to establish a political voice. But even though our interest was primarily musical, the political situation in Chile was also very active. Our participation was almost automatic, and our group was characterized as the beginnings of a voice that was very concretely musical."
Although Inti-Illimani is credited as a pioneer in the New Song movement, Coubon points out that "it existed in all of Latin America.
"But in Chile it found a more fertile ground because of the political situation. For us the country is not so much the key as Latin America [is]," he adds, explaining the strong folkloric roots of the music. "There was a need for a cultural identity that lay in this music which was being lost."
What set New Song apart was its melding of traditional folk music with contemporary poetry from writers like Violetta Para, Pablo Neruda, Victor Jara, Patricio Manns and Atahualpa Yupanqui. The union of musicians and poets, Coubon says, was "not so much personal as cultural.
"The commercial music produced at the time was of a very low literary nature, and so we looked to elevate the quality of our music by contacting Latin American poets, who had a history of the Latin American context even before the musicians did, going back to the '30s," he says. "There's a curious phenomenon -- the musicians are from this generation, but many of the poets whose work they have written music for are from the 1930s and 1940s."
New Song blossomed in '60s Chile, very much in tune with Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government. "Our movement in general supported the Allende government, but it never received any kind of official support in an economic sense," Coubon explains. "Like Popular Unity, it was a movement that rose up from the people, and so we understood that the government had many more urgent problems. The contact between Popular Unity and the New Song movement was an ideological one, not a practical one."
The connections were severed in 1973, when the military junta of Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende government in a U.S.-supported coup. Inti-Illimani was on tour in Europe; the musicians have lived in Italy as expatriates ever since. "Last year, two of us tried to return to Chile," Coubon says. "The police came onto the airplane and didn't let us get off. We have nevertheless continued to apply for admittance, through the courts and elsewhere, and we will continue through all the channels possible so that our right to live in Chile is recognized."
Coubon points to a curious phenomenon: "Currently some of the records we produced in Chile are available there. We can't do any promotion on them, but they do sell. In March we did a concert in Argentina, about 500 kilometers from Santiago. Over a thousand people came from Chile, including many who were just children when they left the country. And these people sang along with us on our latest songs, including many that aren't available in Chile. This shows how the music does circulate even if it's not easy for the people to have access to it. The contradiction exists: We can't go in the country, but some of our records are sold there.
"Our concerts have a musical context that is Latin American, but also a spirit that is aligned with justice and the people of the world, such as those who suffer from apartheid in South Africa," Coubon says. "We don't feel music should be used as propaganda -- it's not good for music and it's not good for propaganda. But it is important for the people of the world to get to know each other. Perhaps by knowing each other, by understanding each other's music and culture, we'll be able to live better on this planet."