The new song of Santiago

Times Staff Writer

FOR Chileans, Sept. 11, 1973 was the day the music died.

The long, narrow South American country, home to this capital of 5.5 million, once was an international center for Latin pop music, with groups in the vanguard of the rock en espanol revolution and the New Song movement, a politically charged folk revival then sweeping Latin America.

Then came Chile’s 9/11. Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Socialist government of Salvador Allende, whose populist ideals had galvanized artists. Thousands were killed, including singer-songwriter Victor Jara, the Chilean Bob Dylan. Thousands more went into exile.

During the next decade of dictatorship, Chile went dark.


On an October visit to Santiago, I found a place still struggling to overcome its past but working to define its artistic future. Pinochet’s death earlier this month at age 91 may mark a turning point in the country’s drive to reclaim its cultural soul.

Today, Chile’s artistic rebirth is being fueled partly by an economic boom that’s considered a model for Latin American prosperity. (Ironically, some attribute this surge to Pinochet’s policies.)

Signs of new life are everywhere.

I saw New Song-style troubadours leading sing-alongs in coffeehouses and animated santiagueros savoring conversations at sidewalk cafes until the wee hours. I saw street-corner tango dancers on the Paseo Ahumada and colorfully costumed folk groups performing in the colonial Plaza de Armas to help raise money for a statue of Violeta Parra, a seminal New Song figure who committed suicide in 1967 after giving the world the spiritually uplifting classic “Gracias a la Vida” (Thanks to Life).


I caught the hot new rock band Los Bunkers performing for enthralled university students and witnessed young couples joyously waving handkerchiefs as they danced the syncopated cueca, Chile’s traditional folk form that’s seeing a revival.

But the most dramatic sign of change was at Palacio de la Moneda, the stately presidential palace where Allende allegedly committed suicide. Today, the beautifully restored building is occupied by the country’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet, a physician and single mother of three. Bachelet and her mother were imprisoned and tortured before fleeing into exile. Her father, a general loyal to Allende, suffered a heart attack and died in custody.

Facing the palace in Plaza Bulnes, across Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, the city’s main east-west thoroughfare, I came across an outdoor exhibition celebrating Jara’s life and work through his lyrics, drawings and photos.

It was poetic justice as public art.


But the wounds are far from healed. Almost every musician I met mentioned the coup as a cultural point of reference. In Chile, time is still marked as BP and AP, “Before Pinochet” and “After Pinochet.”

Even shopping for CDs in Santiago can be fraught with meaning.

I stopped at a hole-in-the wall music store on Paseo Ahumada, a pedestrian walkway that’s a cross between Broadway and the Third Street Promenade. A young clerk surveyed my selection of albums by Jara and others in the New Song movement and, as glibly as though inquiring where I was from, asked: “Are you a communist?”

Exorcising demons


SOME contemporary artists are actively exorcising the ghosts of the dictatorship.

The latest album by Los Tres, Chile’s acclaimed rock band, opens with the disdainful “No Es Cierto” (It’s Not True), which mocks testimony by a seemingly befuddled Pinochet about alleged human rights violations. The chorus plays on the political double-speak: “I don’t remember, but it’s not true. And if it is true, I don’t remember.”

The trio, which recently reunited after a six-year hiatus, takes a bitter shot near the end of their excellent new CD, “Hagalo Usted Mismo” (Do It Yourself). In the vengeful tune “Bestia,” lead singer and songwriter Alvaro Henriquez wishes he could kill one of Pinochet’s murderous henchmen, whom he addresses only as Beast.

This is certainly not the first time a post-Pinochet pop band has taken on controversial topics. Since the early ‘70s, the pioneering folk-rock group Los Jaivas has been turning up the amp and the beats on traditional Andean flutes and quenas. Los Prisioneros, a revered band from the 1980s, rattled the status quo with rock drive and outspoken lyrics. And in the ‘90s, Santiago saw massive concerts to celebrate the repatriation of groups such as Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun, whose social messages soar with church-like choral harmonies.


The leaders in Chilean pop today are rock bands such as La Ley, Los Bunkers and Los Tres. The last marked its comeback last summer with a concert for 12,000 fans at Arena Santiago.

So my first stop in Santiago was to meet the reunited trio -- Henriquez, Roberto Lindl and Angel Parra, a nephew of Violeta. They chose the folksy restaurant Liguria in the Providencia district, where the household incomes start rising along with the altitude as the city slopes toward the snow-peaked Andes.

Henriquez likes this restaurant because it celebrates the country’s culture and traditions, which he thinks are undervalued.

“It’s very sad,” he says. “It’s as if we were living in exile in our own country.”


A sedate place

SANTIAGO is perhaps the least Latin city in Latin America. It has none of the color and chaos of, say, Mexico City. Motorists here obey traffic signals, and each taxi is painted black and yellow. Some say its restraint is partly due to the influence of English and German immigrants, who contributed sausages and kuchen, or fruit tarts.

The local club scene also is sedate.

“They killed it,” Henriquez says of the dictatorship. “They killed the nightlife, the Bohemian atmosphere, and it’s taken a lot to recapture it.... We still have very few places to hear live music.”


As we spoke, graceful strains from a piano wafted up from the main dining room below. And soon, one of the musicians appeared to greet the members of Los Tres. This tiny older man, wearing a double-breasted suit and showing quick wit, is Pepe Fuentes, king of the cueca.

Henriquez bends his towering frame to hug the pixieish musician, who also plays bass in a tango band every Tuesday and Sunday at a pub called Golden Music, in the Nunoa residential district.

Fuentes and wife Maria Esther Zamora keep the folk flame alive in Santiago by hosting private soirees once a month for musicians and folkloristas at their home, dubbed La Casa de la Cueca. The public can get a glimpse of their invitation-only parties on a short video interview posted at, an excellent cultural website. (Go directly to the video at

The dapper man with the gray goatee conducting the interview is Mario Rojas, another musician and devoted defender of the cueca. I arranged to meet Rojas, who promised to take me to the one place in Santiago where the public can enjoy real cueca singing and dancing until dawn.


It was close to midnight when we arrived at El Huaso Enrique, an out-of-the way restaurant in a residential neighborhood. It was established in the early 1950s as a place to re-create authentic cueca atmosphere in Santiago.

In the 19th century it was an atmosphere of bordellos and Bohemians. “Very marginalized but very pure,” Rojas says.

The cueca, a form of both song and dance, is often associated with the idealized figure of the huaso, a counterpart of the gaucho, with his knee-high boots and oversize spurs. It’s considered an offshoot of the zamacueca and a cousin, albeit a very aggressive one, of the graceful Peruvian marinera, which is also danced with handkerchiefs.

The cueca is heavily syncopated and played with guitars, accordions, tambourines and clapping saucers. Singers adopted their piercing, high-pitched projection from pregoneros, street vendors calling out their wares.


Pinochet pronounced it the official dance of Chile, locking the style into a nationalist stereotype, as Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco did with flamenco. As a protest, women who had lost their sons or husbands under the regime danced the cueca without partners in front of government buildings or police stations, often wearing pictures of their lost loved ones. (Rock singer Sting spotlighted the protest in his song “They Dance Alone.”)

At El Huaso Enrique, a hangout for artists, journalists and politicians in the 1950s, young people gather on Thursday nights to reclaim the original spirit of the cueca, minus the prostitutes and the huaso costumes.

“This is a living cueca,” Rojas says, “rescued from museums and put back on the streets.”

Inside, the restaurant is like a cozy ranch house, painted dishes and framed pictures of horses and fishermen lining the walls. On rustic tables are large pitchers of pisco, the sweet but potent national drink. The wooden floor is so decrepit that dancers have to avoid holes and creaky, spongy planks.


The dance is a kick to watch. Imitating a mating ritual, men make passes at their partners, lunging aggressively while twirling their handkerchiefs. The women elegantly deflect the pass by spinning away, but the partners keep looking at each other. At the end, they meet and kiss.

Everybody smiles.

It was sometimes hard to tell the dancers from the musicians, because they kept trading places. Rojas got up to sing and also proved he could still dance.

I called it quits after 2 a.m. Like a true cuequero, Rojas stayed.


Troubadour Alley

THE Crowne Plaza, my hotel, is where Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins meets a bend in the Mapocho, the river that traverses the city. Across the river is the Cerro San Cristobal, a hilltop park featuring spectacular views accessible by funicular and traversed by a Swiss cable car.

At the foot of the hill is Barrio Bellavista, the closest Santiago comes to an arts and entertainment district. The inviting neighborhood streets are lined with restaurants, shops, clubs and cafes. Chatty diners pack sidewalk tables, and couples kiss on park benches.

One night, I came across a strip of coffeehouses on a street nicknamed “la Calle de los Trovadores,” or Troubadour Alley. It’s actually one block of Antonio Lopez de Bello between Constitucion and Malinkrodt, close to one of the homes of Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda, now a museum. I was drawn by the sound of solo singers with their guitars, performing the inspiring New Song standards from the ’60 and ‘70s.


This is typical Latin coffeehouse culture. Young fans sing to the sophisticated lyrics by Chile’s Parra and Jara, Cuba’s Silvio Rodriguez or Spain’s Joan Manuel Serrat, many penned before they were born.

For singer Fernando Lavoz, it’s a living. But there’s something missing.

In the old days, there was a communal sense to the scene in Santiago. People believed they were changing the world together. It was at such gatherings that Jara and Inti-Illimani got their start, sparking a cultural movement with a song.

Today, it’s every musician for himself.


“We have people who are very gifted on the guitar,” said Lavoz, who stopped to chat on the street during a break. “But they’re in search of a reason for moving their fingers.”

Santiago needs somebody like Jara to rally around again.

“Something has to come out of this,” the singer said.

Honoring Jara


LIKE New York tourists drawn to the Dakota building where John Lennon was shot, I could not leave Santiago without visiting the sites where Jara lived his last days. Buildings have been named after him and statues erected in his honor, another sign of Santiago’s effort to reclaim its artistic past.

One monument is at the entrance to the Universidad de Santiago de Chile, where Jara taught and where he was arrested on the first day of the coup.

The campus is easily reached by the subway line that runs east-west under Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins. (The city’s subway system is safe, cheap, efficient and attractive, with vivid murals decorating some stations.)

Visitors entering the campus across from Santiago’s main train station, Estacion Central, will find a surrealistic sculpture in the form of a guitar with a neck that turns into an outstretched hand reaching to the heavens. It was unveiled three years ago, marking the 30th anniversary of Jara’s death. The work, a ton of bronze with a green and turquoise patina standing 12 feet high, is best appreciated up close.


Only last month, the campus also inaugurated a performing arts hall named for the singer. His British-born widow, Joan Turner, author of Jara’s biography, “An Unfinished Song,” attended the ceremony.

From the university, I walked through the shops at the train station to a nearby sports stadium formerly known as Estadio Chile.

Jara and the other prisoners were forced to march to this venue where he had once performed. It was here that he wrote his last poem, “We Are 5,000,” immortalized by fellow prisoners who smuggled out the text and, just to be sure, also committed it to memory.

Jara’s body was later found dumped in a neighborhood, just days before what would have been his 41st birthday.


Two years ago the stadium was renamed Estadio Victor Jara. I found it gray and gloomy. An employee showed me around and, for a moment, left me alone in a corridor behind locked iron gates. It made me queasy and claustrophobic, a slight hint of the horror the prisoners must have felt.

I was glad to get back out in the sunlight.

‘Its rightful place’

MY last stop was Palacio de la Moneda. This year, a sleek and dramatic cultural center was inaugurated beneath the expansive plaza facing the building along O’Higgins. The inscription at the entrance seems like a good slogan for the new Chile: “Where cultures meet and dialogue.”


At the Jara exhibition across the street, I stopped to read the poem the singer had smuggled out of the stadium before he died.

We are 5,000 -- here in this little part of

the city

We are 5,000 -- how many more will


there be?

In the whole city, and in the country

10,000 hands

Which could seed the fields, make run


the factories.

How much humanity -- now with

hunger, pain, panic and terror? ...

The military carry out their plans with



Blood is medals for them, slaughter is

the badge of heroism.

Oh my God -- is this the world you



Was it for this, the seven days, of

amazement and toil?

As cars rushed by, it was hard not to feel emotional, but Juan Carlos Garrido put it in perspective.


“In Chile, everything has taken its rightful place again,” said Garrido, formerly Inti-Illimani’s manager. “Everything has returned to a natural harmony.”




Essence of Chile


From LAX, nonstop service to Santiago is available on LAN, and connecting service (change of planes) is also offered on LAN, as well as American, Delta and Copa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,215.



To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 56 (country code for Chile), 2 (city code for Santiago) and the local number.


Crowne Plaza Santiago Hotel, 136 Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, Santiago; 638-1042, Convenient to downtown, clean and efficient American-style hotel. Doubles from $133.

Hotel del Mar, Avenida Peru at Los Heroes, Vina del Mar; to dial this number, use the country code of 56, but do not use the code for Santiago; instead, dial 32, then 250-0800, A luxurious getaway about 75 miles northwest of Santiago in the seaside resort that hosts Chile’s annual song festival. Chic design with spectacular ocean views, adjacent to the Casino del Mar. Doubles start at $200.


Hotel Santiago Park Plaza, 207 Avenida Ricardo Lyon 207, Providencia, Santiago; 372-4000, This is an affordable, European-style boutique hotel catering to the business traveler and tucked away on a quiet street in the busy Providencia district. Standard rooms start at $126.


El Meson Nerudiano, 35 Dominica, Barrio Bellavista, Santiago; 737-1542, This charming restaurant features fusion Chilean cuisine in a literary atmosphere with live music. Entrees $10-$20.

Liguria Manuel Montt, 1373 Avenida Providencia, Providencia, Santiago; 235-7914, The menu at the restaurant, a favorite of artists and intellectuals, has an Argentine touch, but the atmosphere is puro chileno. Meals $6.50-$15.


La Casa en el Aire, 01250 Antonio Lopez de Bello, Barrio Bellavista, Santiago; 735-6680, Munch on empanadas, pizzas and picadillo dishes in a cafe atmosphere while being serenaded by singers of Troubadour Alley. Light meals starting at less than $3.


To hear samples of Chilean music, go to



Chilean Tourism, (866) 937-2445, and

For links to sites on Chilean arts, culture, tourism and history,

Chile Information Project,, a group of expatriates exploring everything about living in Chile, night life as well as human rights.

-- Agustin Gurza