In 1970, political parties across Chile’s left-wing spectrum formed a coalition called Popular Unity. It brought Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist, to elected power. The influential and well-loved Nueva Canción, the New Song movement, gave its active support to the progressives. When Allende accepted power, a banner above his head read, “You can’t have a revolution without songs”.
The Chilean brand of the continent-wide New Song got its inspiration from the Indian folk traditions of the Andes and the folk music of the downtrodden. Víctor Jara was one of the movement’s most prominent figures, referring to his guitar as an instrument of the struggle.
The US, threatened by Allende’s interventions to try to eliminate his country’s massive wealth gap, worked clandestinely with right-wing Chilean politicians and their allies in the military to undermine Allende. On 11 September 1973, Allende was deposed in a bloody military coup – organised with American support.
The new military junta, under General Augusto Pinochet, led a reign of terror. Tens of thousands of Allende supporters were rounded up. At least 3 000 were murdered, and thousands more fled their homeland during the dictator’s 17-year rule.
‘Subversive’ books and records were burned, and members of New Song were specifically targeted. Jara, 40 at the time, was arrested the day after the coup and detained with about 5 000 others at the national stadium in the country’s capital, Santiago. Soldiers interrogated and tortured him in front of his fellow prisoners.
They stepped on Jara’s hands and smashed them with their rifle butts so he’d never be able to play the guitar again. During his mutilation Jara defiantly sang Venceremos (We Will Win), the socialist anthem he’d written for Allende. A few days later, he was murdered. When his wife Joan went to identify his dumped body, it was riddled with 44 bullets.
His wistful, Manifesto, the last song he wrote, released posthumously, feels like an eerie premonition of his death:
My guitar is not for the rich, no,
nothing like that.
My song is of the ladder
we are building to reach the stars.
For a song has meaning
when it beats in the veins
of a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his song
The song is considered his testament, the manifesto of what it means to be a revolutionary artist.
In 1990, the Pinochet regime made way for a democratic government. In 2004, the stadium in which Jara was murdered was renamed Estadio Víctor Jara. Five years later, 36 years after his death, Jara was reburied. Earlier this year, a judge in Chile found eight retired soldiers guilty of Jara’s murder and sentenced each to 15 years in prison.
Countless musicians have covered Jara’s music or paid tribute to him with their own songs. Bruce Springsteen, for instance, sang a cover of Manifesto at a concert in Santiago in September 2013, just days before the 40th anniversary of the folksinger’s death. “A political musician, Víctor Jara remains a great inspiration,” Springsteen told the audience. “It’s a gift to be here, and I take it with humbleness.”
Chile’s junta might have silenced Jara’s voice, but not his music or legacy.