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Travel in music: Chapter 8 - 1996-2000, Chile

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


1996-2000 - Chapter 8 | Chile is a very, very dear chapter. I left intending to spend only 6 months in Santiago, for an internship that was part of my master’s degree. I ended up staying almost 4 years. These were my first steps as an adult (though, at 46, I still struggle to use the word ‘adult’ without having my inner child chuckle insolently). The first time living under a roof other than parental. My first migration. My first job interviews. My first real, direct window into social inequality. My first taste of police brutality and tear gas.

As I look back through the lens of time, these ‘firsts’ seem important. Indeed, I spent formative years in Chile. At the time, however, I did not stop to think that any of it was ground breaking. What elated me were the small daily discoveries. The thrill of being in a universe where everything was new and I was new to everyone. I was like a sponge, absorbing all my surroundings so thirstily, it became my workplace nickname: “Esponja”. I loved everything. The food. The smells. The music. The way a party would improvise itself in seconds. The insane contrasts in landscapes and ecosystems in a country stretching 4,000 km from fjords to desert. (A Belgian humorist used to joke that if you wanted to go from South to North in Chile, you would take the train and if you wanted to go East or West, you would just step off the train on the left or the right quay). Most of all though, I fell in love with the people, who gifted me lasting bonds of friendship that survive to this day.

The political situation at the time was eerie and tense, though resolutely optimistic. It was the second government after the end of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, which lasted 17 years. In 1973 (a few months before my birth), elements of the army led a coup, backed by the USA, to topple Salvador Allende. The repression that followed was savage and tore Chilean society apart. In 1996, a coalition of socialists and Christian democrats was running the government but Pinochet was still head of the army and protected by local amnesty laws. On a fatal trip to the UK though, he was arrested. I remember the day vividly. I was walking calmly in the city center when throngs of people spontaneously emerged on the streets, clapping, cheering, uncorking champagne, singing… I barely had time to inquire why when carabineros appeared out of nowhere to quash the celebrations, tossing tear gas canisters into the joyous crowds with no warning.

If you follow the news, you can see that the social fracture still runs deep in Chile more than 20 years later. Some scars have mended but crowds still invade the streets demanding greater social justice, gender equality, a fairer constitution, access to education, etc. What’s more, they still sing the same songs! For the late 60s and early 70s were a musically fertile period. As elsewhere in the world, a heady mix of anger and utopia was fueling creativity. The “Nueva Canción Chilena” was born roughly at the same time that flower power and opposition to the Vietnam War inspired protest singers further north. It put into song the hopes and dreams of popular masses, while reconnecting with indigenous folk tradition.

The troubadours of Cuba, with Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés at the helm, had forged the path. The first successful leftist revolution on the continent buoyed faith in a new dawn with less exploitation and poverty. Artists in Chile and the rest of Latin America followed. Little did they know then that Cuba would turn into a repressive, dogmatic dictatorship and the USA would quickly kill those seeds before they grew. For Chile was the lab where the USA first put into practice the brand new economic theories of ultra neo-liberalism and perfected the tools of state-sponsored repression to quash all resistance.

Víctor Jara was the ultimate social poet. He was revered and adored for his angelic voice and for the impossible dreams his lyrics inspired. Soldiers arrested him on the day of the coup and murdered him a few days later. They broke all his fingers, shot him and dumped his body unceremoniously in a shantytown alley. Martyrs become symbols though. Ironically, his spirit lives on every time the crowds of Chile sing this song during protests.


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