You Can’t Make a New World Without Making New Songs

Kenan Behzat Sharpe

Image by June LS

Rough music against austerity.

A handful of people walk down a central street of Concepción, Chile’s third-largest city, in a coolheaded manner. A person draped in the yellow, blue, red, green, and white Wenufoye — the flag of the Mapuche nation — plays the violin. He’s accompanied by a guitarist, a person in a Palestinian keffiyeh, and another wearing the construction helmet and makeshift shield of the riot-ready primera linea. They’re singing a song: the famous folk-rock anthem “Todos Juntos,” by 1970s band Los Jaivas. “What is the sun that shines on us,” they sing, “if we don’t want to even look at each other?” Then an armored cannon douses them with a stream of pressurized water.

The forty-five-second video clip of this incident went viral. Whatever genius uploaded it to YouTube chose the title, “Chile: Riot cops hate music. It reminds them that once they were human.” Where’s the lie? The police have responded to the uprising in Chile, which began as a response to a transportation- fare increase and transformed quickly into a nationwide revolt against austerity, with utter brutality. As of December 2019, the police have killed twenty-nine people and injured hundreds of others by vindictively firing crowd control rounds directly at people’s faces. Numerous people have been raped, assaulted, and harassed in police custody.

If the sauntering singers in Concepción were able to continue singing “Todos Juntos” without being attacked, we would be able to hear its final lines in the video: “Why should we live so apart / if the world wants to unite us? / If this world is made for all / let’s all live together.” Released in 1972 after the victory of President Salvador Allende’s 1970 Popular Unity Party but before the US-backed coup of the following year, the message of Los Jaivas still resonates. Despite the best efforts of Chile’s right-wing elites to make living together impossible, the forces of resistance work to unite people into a new kind of force.

Music is central to this recomposition. Trap MC Pablo Chill-E strolls around shirtless in Santiago braving the teargas to hand out lemons to protesters. Mainstream pop artists like Princesa Alba and indie rock stars like Mon Laferte perform publicly and shout out to the movement during shows. Inti-Illimani performed at the massive Concert for Dignity celebrating the eighth week of the protests. But music is mostly clearly central for the protesters themselves, singing, always singing, in the streets and on the barricades. In these moments, we see the masses setting their country’s long legacy of resistance dancing to new music and new interventions.

This recomposition is not without its difficulties. How could it be, with so many different voices? When the movement began in October 2019, the catalyzing spark was a thirty peso increase in metro fares. After the “evade, don’t pay, struggling in a new way!” campaign led by high school students was met with heavy state repression, teenagers and their allies responded by setting metro stations ablaze and engaging in other acts of targeted sabotage. When soldiers mobilized to crush these actions and military tanks appeared in the streets — a traumatic sight in a country only three decades out of dictatorship — more than a million Santiaguinos gathered for what was affectionately named the “largest march in history.” Mobilizing from Arica, Valparaíso, Temuco, and beyond, the people made it clear that their grievances far exceeded metro prices: Chile’s privatized pension system, expensive highway tolls, patriarchal violence, attacks against indigenous communities, the poor quality of education, student debt, police brutality, the corruption and cronyism of Chile’s billionaire president Sebastián Piñera and his oligarchical friends, and these were just the beginning.

On the evening of October 21, opera singer Ayleen Jovita Romero opened her apartment window and began singing. The military had enforced a curfew and the streets of Santiago were silent. Haunted by the emptiness of the streets, Romero lent her tremulous soprano to a rendition of Victor Jara’s famous 1971 song “El Derecho De Vivir En Paz (The Right to Live in Peace).” As she sang, a violin from a neighboring apartment joined in. This was followed by an accordion from next door and then the voices of other singers. In moments like this, suspended above the curfew, everyday Chileans have used music to draw on the melancholic resilience of previous cycles of struggle, harnessing them to intervene in the present.

Musician Víctor Jara and the Nueva Canción movement he represents has been a ghostly presence in recent events in Chile. Nueva Canción started in the late 1950s when Violeta Parra and others began collecting folk music from the countryside and adapting it as protest songs. The neo-folk of Nueva Canción pushed against North American musical imports like rock while also challenging the long-standing dismissal of indigenous culture within Chile. Musicians like Rolando Alarcón and groups like Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani proudly sported Andean ponchos and made use of instruments such as the quena, a bamboo flute, the zampoñas (panpipes), and the charango (a ten-stringed lute), alongside acoustic guitar. Famous Nueva Canción gatherings in Havana in 1967 and Santiago in 1969 internationalized the movement and firmed its connections to leftist politics. Jara wrote “El Derecho” as an ode to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese struggle. Nueva Canción musicians in Chile supported Allende’s 1970 presidential campaign, with Sergio Ortega offering his song “Venceremos” as the anthem for Popular Unity. When Allende won the presidency in 1970, he gave his victory speech to the assembled crowds under a banner reading, “You Can’t Have a Revolution Without Songs.”

“No one really wanted to help us / Join the dance of the leftover people / Take my hand, look at me, touch me, we are together.”

Because Nueva Canción was intimately connected with Chile’s left, the genre became a target of General Augusto Pinochet, who seized control of the country with the blessing of the CIA and stormed the presidential palace, killing Allende, on September 12, 1973. As the Pinochet dictatorship rounded up left-wing activists and organizers, eventually murdering or disappearing more than three thousand people, it also made sure to destroy as much left-wing art and culture as it could. Chile’s peñas, or folkloric taverns, were shut down. Performances of Nueva Canción were banned and the musicians themselves targeted. Immediately after the coup, Víctor Jara was detained in the National Stadium in Santiago, which had been transformed into a massive torture site. Before killing him, his captors broke his hands, barking “Sing now, if you can, bastard!”

In defiance of this cruelty, Jara is still among us. On October 25, 2019, people gathered in downtown Santiago for the event “Mil Guitarras por Víctor Jara.” A thousand hands held up a thousand guitars and then joined together in a mass rendition of “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz.” When they sang the concluding lines — “it is the universal song / a chain that will succeed / the right to live in peace” — it was as if not only Jara, but also Violetta Parra, Allende, and all the generations of fighters of Chile had joined together in a resounding chorus.

The records skips. The movement shuffles the decades. In a passing moment shared online, some Santiaguinos are building a barricade with a broken metal fence. Someone turns on the boom box. Los Prisioneros’ 1986 New Wave–punk song, “El Baile de Los Que Sobran” (The Dance of Those Leftover) rings out. A tense guitar intro is joined by tinny synth, and within seconds everyone is dancing, singing along: “No one really wanted to help us / Join the dance of the leftover people / Take my hand, look at me, touch me, we are together.” This anthem describes how betrayed young people in the second decade of the dictatorship felt, with poor education and no opportunities for employment. Yet, it is no less relevant to the austerity that youth suffer today. “Nobody is gonna miss us / Nobody really wanted to help us.” An attack by the riot police (washed up Pinochetistas) stop the protesters around the metal barricades from finishing their song, but we know that some other group can always pick it up again.

On October 20, “The Dance of Those Leftover” showed up again, this time in Santiago’s Plaza Ñuñoa. Hundreds of people gathered in the square improvised a version of the song accompanied by the sound of spoons banging on pans, a sound that when multiplied in protest is given the name cacerolazo in Latin America. Virtually any kind of kitchenware can be used to join in the festivities — not only the casserole pot from which the name derives but frying pans, pie dishes, and measuring cups are beaten enthusiastically with cheese graters, whisks, and potato mashers. The point of this often spontaneous act of protest is that it can be done by anyone, with whatever implements are at hand. Because recent protests in Mexico, Columbia, and Ecuador, have made vigorous use of this tactic, some have named the fall of 2019 a Cacerolazo Latinoamericano.

The cacerolazo derives from the medieval European practice known as charivari or “rough music,” used to shame those who had transgressed community norms. A discordant parade of peasants would come to the door of a man who beat his wife, a couple whose marriage was unholy in some way, or the houses of unmarried mothers. There is nothing inherently emancipatory about the tactic, and it is used by both right and left, but nonetheless, its music can be heard surging through the revolutions of both our time and the past. The earliest cacerolazo in Latin America was directed against Allende and the food shortages of the early 1970s. A decade later it was used again, this time, to express anger about the economic crisis under Pinochet. Crowds performed a cacerolazo in Oaxaca during the 2006 uprising in the city, in Argentina in 2011–2012, and most recently, Puerto Rico in 2019. Under other names, this rough music has appeared in the previous decades all over the world: in Montreal in resistance against austerity, in Iceland during the 2008 financial crisis, and in Turkey during the Gezi Park protests of 2013.

The autumn events in Chile show once again how powerful the people’s rough music can be. When the government first began its violent repression of the movement in October, many were scared to enter the streets. The casserole dishes made protesting less anxiety-inducing, bringing older people and children into the streets alongside the youth, and giving protests a festive air. As neighbors met each other in the clanging of pots and pans, they struck up conversations, leading to outdoor potlucks. These potlucks fed into Chile’s “territorial assemblies” — essentially local councils — which are a major source of the movement’s staying power.

Enter Ana Tijoux. The rapper is a child of Chilean exiles in France and has long been a vocal supporter of social struggles in her home country, providing musical anthems for the 2011 student protests, the feminist movement, and so on.

A mere week into this most recent cycle of protests, Tijoux released “#CACEROLAZO.” “Wooden spoon / In front of your bullets / And at curfew . . . / Cacerolazo!” she raps in the chorus. The lyrics are chock-full of vitriol: “Listen, neighbor, increase the benzine / And give gasoline to the barricade / With lid, with pot / against the clowns!” The accompanying music video, with its footage from the streets and its Snapchat aesthetic, pays tribute to the irreverent protesters holding down the streets. The clanging of kitchenware that forms the backbone of the song’s beat expresses collective rage. “No son treinta pesos, son treinta años,” Tijoux raps in an echo of the movement’s popular slogan (“it’s not thirty pesos, it’s thirty years”). The song lays things bare: it takes a lot more than a hike in metro fares to get people on the streets; it took the thirty years of false promises and humiliation since the fall of the dictatorship.

A crescendo of a sort, at least for our narrative, comes more than a month into the protests. On November 20, the feminist collective Las Tesis staged a performance in their hometown of Valparaíso. Five days later they repeated the performance on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, this time with thousands of people joining them outside the Presidential Palace in Santiago. Their feminist flash mob is known as “Un Violador En Tu Camino.” Moving through the streets, groups of women chant in short, haunting bursts:

The patriarchy is a judge
that judges us for being born
and our punishment
is the violence you don’t see.

At that first major performance of “Un Violador En Tu Camino” in Santiago, there was a look of righteous relief on the faces of participants as they moved to the next section, repeated four times with a defiant pumping of the arms and knees: “And the fault wasn’t mine, not where I was, not how I dressed.” The group continues:

The rapist is you.
The rapist is you.

It’s the cops,
the judges,
the state,
the president.

The oppressive state is a rapist.
The oppressive state is a rapist.

When the intervention came to an end that day in Santiago, the group broke out into whoops and cheers, raising their middle fingers at the carabineros parked nearby, the Chilean national police force, now identified as the country’s biggest rapist.

What happened next has been well described elsewhere. The intervention not only went viral within Chile, but was performed in Bogotá, Medellín, Mexico City, Madrid, Nairobi, New Delhi, Beirut, New York, London, Barcelona, and Paris. When women in Istanbul and Ankara performed “Un Violador En Tu Camino,” they were attacked by police and many were taken into custody. Women MPs then performed in the Turkish Parliament in protest of the crackdown. All over the world, “Un Violador” has struck a chord with people facing patriarchal violence.

The origins of the composition are likewise international. Las Tesis — which includes Dafne Valdés, Paula Cometa, Sibila Sotomayor and Lea Cáceres — modeled their first intervention on Italian feminist Silvia Federici’s theory of reproductive labor in capitalism. The title of the collective translates as “The Theses” and they aim to bring feminist theory into the street in digestible, memorable ways. The inspiration for “Un Violador” comes from Argentine-Brazilian anthropologist Rita Laura Segato and her research on sexual violence in the Brazilian prison system as well as her work as an expert witness in high-profile rape cases in Latin America. Her argument — that violence against women is often dismissively coded as private, domestic, and particular — helped Las Tesis describe rape as something general and universal, a crime against all women that is perpetrated by the state, the judicial system, and the police, not only by the individual rapist.

Just as it has made waves internationally, “Un Violador” has inspired further performances all across Chile, making revolutionary feminism an audible and unmistakable part of the larger movement. The Las Tesis intervention has spoken for a section of the movement brave enough to name the enemy — to shout “You!” and then act from that knowledge. You can’t have a revolution without songs, but the most powerful song of all might not even require a melody.