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Quilapayun - Taking Chilean music global

They’re the Chieftains of Chile, travelling the world as their country’s musical ambassadors. But while Quilapayún completely revived the traditional music of their homeland in the 1960s, as did their Irish counterparts, the Chieftains have had a comparatively cushy time of it over a similar number of years.

For instance, Paddy Moloney and his merry men haven’t been forced to live in exile, unable to return home for seventeen years, or even more brutally, had one of their number tortured, with his instrument-playing hands broken, then executed and his body dumped in a back street, as happened to the iconic Chilean poet and songwriter Victor Jara, who was an early musical director and adviser to Quilapayún.

Patricio Wang wasn’t a member of Quilapayún in the days when Jara,who was also a theatre director, guided the group with musical ideas and stage directions, although as a young music student in Santiago he was very aware of Jara.

“I used to see him every day in the Conservatory when I was studying there,” says Wang. “He was one of the people who, along with Quilapayún and another well-known Chilean group, Inti-Illimani, gave Chilean people a sense of their own cultural identity. Before these groups came along, Chile was dominated by American culture. Our music would be mostly made up of translations of hit songs from America and sometimes Britain but during the 1960s traditional instruments like the pan flute and the charango began to appear. We hadn’t known these instruments before – what little folk music there was wouldn’t have penetrated Santiago – and so we pretty much invented Chilean music as it’s now known.”

Quilapayún, in their early years, were strongly associated with President Salvador Allende, who appointed them official cultural ambassadors. When he was overthrown by the military coup that took the lives of Jara and thousands of others in 1973, they were immediately banned from the airwaves. Just owning LPs by Quilapayún and Victor Jara could lead to Chileans being arrested. Worse might have befallen the group had they not been on tour in Europe and unable to return home, they made France their base. Wang, who was studying composition in Amsterdam at the time of the coup, joined in 1980, having stayed on in Europe in fear for his safety.

“When the coup happened we thought, okay, we won’t be able to go back to Chile for a couple of months,” he says. “Then we began to realise that it might be a couple of years. Of course, it was much longer than that but when I joined Quilapayún, after they asked me to compose some music for them, we were able speak out about General Pinochet and his regime. We weren’t living in Chile but we were in solidarity with the people back home.”

The years in exile weren’t entirely taken up with protest. New influences were taken on board and new musical technology embraced, so by the time Quilapayún were able to return and play to Chilean audiences, there were synthesisers alongside the quena (South American flute), electric bass alongside stringed instruments such as the tiple and cuatro, and Caribbean percussion alongside Latin American percussion instruments.

“It was interesting when we first went home,” says Wang, “because the audiences our own age seemed to want to hear what we were doing now rather than what they remembered the group playing before. And in a way, bringing in new ideas is what’s kept us going. We’ve released a new CD this year, Absolutamente Quilapayún, which was our first new recording in ten years, but we didn’t make it because we felt we had to. We wanted to make something we’d be proud of – and we are, even if it has these old men on the cover. It’s a thrill for me because I was a fan who became a composer for my favourite group and as long as we remain open to finding new ways of making music, we’ll continue to be Quilapayún.”

From The Herald, April 10, 2013.

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