Music as Collective Memory (Nick MacWilliam/Alborada Magazine)

[An archive of music composed, performed and listened to by prisoners of the Pinochet dictatorship is a vital part of Chile’s musical legacy, writes Nick MacWilliam]

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Music as Collective Memory

Nick MacWilliam Alborada Magazine (Issue 1 - Spring/Summer 2015)

Looking around the Chile Stadium in Santiago – at the beatings, the cries, the abuse – Victor Jara scrawled his words on a scrap of paper. The singer and political activist’s poem depicted the fear, and despair of hundreds of people detained inside the stadium by the military. As Jara saw the soldiers coming to take him away, he slipped the paper to a fellow prisoner. His bullet-ridden body was found a few days later, yet another victim of the coup that brought Pinochet to power. But the poem survived, smuggled to safety by a compañero, to serve as testament of the brutality inflicted on so many:

How hard it is to sing, when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living, horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much and so many moments of infinity,
in which silence and screams are the end of my song.

Jara’s final words are today memorialised across an exterior wall of Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights. But 'Estadio Chile' was just one of many compositions to emerge from the detention centres established in the aftermath of the coup. A new project, developed by the museum, seeks to chronicle this extraordinary yield of creative expression, born out of this traumatic period in Chilean history.

Cantos Cautivos (Captive Songs), the brainchild of Dr Katia Chornik, a Chilean academic at Manchester University’s music department, is an archive of music composed, performed and listened to by prisoners during the dictatorship. 'The archive seeks to preserve and promote the musical activity that took place in centres of political detention and torture,' says Katia. 'All the material comes directly from survivors. We encourage people to write down or record their memories of musical activity, or make recordings of repertoires from those contexts.'

Music played a prominent role in the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, who realised the importance of music as a platform for promoting political discourse. Following the coup, many musicians who had supported the deposed government – people like Victor Jara – were targeted by the military.

Ernesto Parra is an ex-political prisoner and a member of the Cantos Cautivos team. Under the Popular Unity, Ernesto was involved with community organisations. 'I worked at what were known as industrial cordons, which included trade unions, local residents, students and peasants,' he says. 'These groups aimed to strengthen the process of political change that was developing prior to the coup.'

He was detained for association with the Popular Unity and imprisoned at Chacabuco concentration camp in the Atacama Desert. 'They arrested anyone who was thought to belong to the left,' he says. 'In prison, music was a form of resistance and of expressing our situation.' Soon after his release, Ernesto was forced into exile. '[Music] allowed us to participate in the solidarity movements and the struggle, and to raise funds to support our friends in the country. In both cases [prison and exile] music made it possible to be directly connected with Chile.'

Many of the songs featured in the Cantos Cautivos archive, such as 'Alma de Chacabuco' or 'Viento Errante', were written and, in the former case, secretly recorded in captivity. Others, like 'We Shall Overcome' or Jara's 'El Cigarrito', are well-known compositions. There are also traditional pieces from Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere. Recordings can be listened to on the Cantos Cautivos website, where they feature alongside the personal testimonies of those involved or affected.

But music was not only a means of defiance. At detention centres such as Pisagua, guards would make prisoners sing as a means of punishment or instilling discipline. Among the songs prisoners were forced to recite while marching were the national anthem and 'Después de la Guerra' by the Argentinean singer Sandro. Ana María Jiménez, imprisoned at the Villa Grimaldi detention centre in Santiago, was ordered to sing Mercedes Sosa's 'Zamba pa' No Morir'. 'I felt a heavy fear,' reads her testimony. 'I decided that my small act of rebellion would be to not sing, to not allow my voice to come out.'

Cantos Cautivos relies on the contributions of ex-prisoners as in most cases there is little physical record of the presence of music in detention centres. Survivors' experiences are vital to building collective memory and ensuring that future generations can engage with the past.

'Music is an artistic expression that reflects the reality of certain situations,' says Ernesto Parra. 'I'd define it as a form of intervention that has been present throughout the history of political and social change.'

In Chile, the aim is to ensure this legacy is never forgotten.

Nick MacWilliam is the co-editor of Alborada magazine

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