Quilapayun, the legendary folk music group, is the closing act of Torontoâe(TM)s 4th annual Salvador Allende Arts Festival for Peace held at Harbourfront November 9 to 11, 2007. The group, renowned for their involvement in the socially conscious Chilean New Song Movement (Nueva Cancion), returns to Toronto after more than three decades.

The name of the group (pronounced keela’pye’yun) translates into “Three Beards” in the Mapuche indigenous language. It derives from its three original members sporting beards, but in an interview with rabble.ca, Quilapayun member Ricardo Venegas said it also has a broader meaning. “We specifically did not choose a Spanish name but a Mapuche name and the beard was a symbol. To wear a beard was a revolutionary mark,” Venegas explained, in the context of the 1960s student protest movement and the struggle against imperialism in Latin America and elsewhere.

Formed in 1965, the Quilapayun ensemble contributed many topical folk songs to the emerging Nueva Cancion. They played with Andean instruments, including the quena (indigenous flute), pan flutes, shakers and rattles, the charango and other types of Latin American guitars, and they used Andean rhythms, something not well known in Chile at the time. Venegas said, “We made music in our own way to say things. We would listen to the people and make songs important to them.”

Victor Jara, akin to Woody Guthrie and tragically the most famous victim of the Pinochet dictatorship after Salvador Allende, was Quilapayun’s first musical director. Jara was very important for the musical development of the group, according to Venegas. Jara was always opening them up to new explorations in rhythms and harmonies and used his experience as one of Chile’s foremost theatrical directors to give Quilapayun a strong stage presence. “Jara gave us ways to present our work on stage. The concerts are like a theatre piece. The way we play the guitars and flutes, speak to the public, the lights. If you have something to say, it has to be well received by the people.”

Quilapayun has lots to say. The DICAP record label, formed by the youth wing of Chile’s democratic-oriented communist party in the late 1960s, issued as its first release Quilapayun’s Por Vietnam in 1968. The album contains international protest songs including several denouncing the U.S. invasion of Vietnam.

In 1970, Quilapayun entered into one of its most important musical works, according to Venegas, when it collaborated with composer and academic Luis Advis on his La Contata Santa Maria de Iquique. This historical cantata is a profoundly beautiful yet stirring and solemn tribute to the striking nitrate workers and their families who were massacred in the early 1900s in northern Chile. Nitrate miners were paid in company coins to purchase overpriced goods at company stores and were punished severely if they protested their slave-like conditions. Together with their families they marched to the port city of Iquique and waited at the Santa Maria school to negotiate with authorities. Instead soldiers arrived and opened fire in December 1907, killing 3 000 people.

Artists in the Nueva Cancion were heavily involved in the first democratically elected socialist government in Chile. Joan Jara, wife of Victor, called Quilapayun “the sound of Popular Unity.” Quilapayun played at all major political rallies in the presidential elections of 1970. In recognition of the importance of the arts, the 40th measure of the Popular Unity platform was government support for popular arts programs and a new cultural agency. Joan Jara poignantly notes that it was a time when “the whole people had learned to sing.”

Salvador Allende appointed Quilapayun cultural ambassadors. The group was on tour abroad during the brutal U.S. government backed coup in 1973. Forced into exile in France for the next 15 years, Quilapayun along with Inti-Illimani became the heart and soul of the cultural wing of the democratic opposition to Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

Pinochet’s fascist torturers detained tens of thousands in makeshift torture centres across the country and murdered and disappeared at least 3 200 people. On September 12, 1973, a day after the coup, Victor Jara was herded into the Chile Stadium along with 5 000 others. Victor Jara’s last poem written in the stadium days before he was murdered documents the conditions of the political prisoners:

How much humanity
exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain,
moral pressure, terror and insanity?

âe¦.One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.

âe¦..What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.

Even amidst the horror and atrocities, Jara offered comfort and songs to his fellow inmates and resistance and hope in his last poem:

But suddenly my conscience awakes
and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,
only the pulse of machines
The blood of our President, our compañero,
will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!

In the stadium, Jara was repeatedly beaten and tortured and the bones in his hands and upper torso were broken. His bullet-ridden body along with other bodies was dropped in front of the Metropolitan cemetery in the outskirts of Santiago on September 16. According to the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, “Jara’s body, with his hands and face extremely disfigured, had forty-four bullet holes.”

The political repression of Pinochet’s dictatorship was accompanied by severe cultural repression. The strength of the Popular Unity government was that it was democratic and legal. The mass movements of students, workers, peasants, left-wing intellectuals and artists that had elected Allende had altered the political culture in Chile. The Allende government represented a cultural revolution, not a military one. To put a stop to this, the right-wing dictatorship targeted all forms of free expression.

Cultural resistance nonetheless continued, initially in highly indirect and metaphoric ways, then in the mid and late 1980s in more open ways and public spaces. In November 1988, days before a plebiscite on extending Pinochet’s presidency, Quilapayun triumphantly returned to Chile for a “No” concert before an estimated crowd of over a million Chileans calling for a return to democracy.

Another of the organizers of the “No” side was Rodrigo Barreda, a founder and artistic director of the Salvador Allende Arts Festival for Peace in Toronto. A son of two political refugees from Chile, Barreda returned to Chile at the age of 14 without his parents to carry on political organizing. At 17 years old, he headed the Ramona Parra muralist brigade and along with other high school students would go to the city centres and paint “NO” in black and “+” in red. The “NO+,” Barreda says, had multiple meanings: vote no in the referendum, no to more torture, no to more disappearances, no to cultural repression.

Barreda, as part of the Latin American Canadian Arts Project (LACAP), the group organizing the Salvador Allende Arts Festival for Peace, was instrumental in getting the city of Toronto to name a “Victor Jara Lane” in the Shaw and Davenport area last year. The Victor Jara Lane Project will be painting a mural of Jara in the area and is also looking for donations to the Shaw/Davenport public library of books, CDs, records, cassettes, docs and other resources by and about Victor Jara.

In addition to playing the song Santa Maria de Iquieque, Quilapayun will perform several of Victor Jara’s songs and music from their latest album Siempre (Always). Venegas says the album’s title reflects how the dreams and ideals of the group remain the same as when they started. “We are the same as always. In exile our recordings had increasing European influences, now we are coming back to our roots musically. We have songs about peace, justice, solidarity and love, songs that denounce human rights violations and are dedicated to the disappeared people. We also have children’s songs and humourous songs. And a song for the Nueva Cancion movement that names all the founders including Violeta Parra and Victor Jara.âe

Quilapayun is playing at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre on Sunday, November 11 at 7 pm. For ticket information, contact the Harbourfront Centre Box Office at (416) 973-4000. For a full listing of the theatrical, musical, workshop, and other events please visit: http://www.harbourfrontcentre.com/noflash/festivals/salvador.php