A projected image of Violeta Parra illuminates the side of a building during a ceremony in Santiago, Chile, 13 October 2017. Dozens of artists performed in front of the balconies of La Moneda, to pay tribute to the late Chilean singer-songwriter, born on 4 October 1917. (Image by ELVIS GONZALEZ/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
In October 2017, celebrations were held across the world to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Violeta Parra (1917-1967), one of the most prolific and influential figures in the Spanish-speaking world. She was a singer-songwriter, poet, painter, embroiderer and sculptor. Her life and work were hardly conventional: a fiercely independent and audacious woman, her art was and continues to be provocative, denouncing injustice and hypocrisy, and calling for consequent thinking and action.
Parra was the first Latin American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Louvre. She is recognised as a pioneer of the Latin American folk revival and as ‘the mother’ of Nueva Canción (‘new song’), a movement of multiple roots born in the mid-1960s, which represented the spirit of progressive political struggles of the epoch. Found throughout Latin America and popularised through mass media, Nueva Canción is characterised by explicit political criticism in lyrics, and the use of traditional genres and musical instruments.
Innumerable covers of Parra’s songs have been released in the past 50 years in Chile and abroad. A notable 21st-century example is the rock album Después de vivir un siglo (After living a century) with tributes by a variety of artists. Her songs have also been performed by well-known English-speaking musicians, including U2, Joan Baez, Robert Wyatt and Faith No More.
A folk prodigy
Violeta Parra was born on 4 October 1917 in the province of Ñuble, Chile, 220 miles south of Santiago, to a peasant mother and a schoolteacher father. She began singing and playing the guitar at the age of nine, busking with her siblings in circuses, ballrooms and bars. She moved to Santiago to finish her secondary education, yet she would quickly drop education in order to pursue her musical interests and earn a living.
In the early 1950s, encouraged by her eldest brother Nicanor, she began collecting and learning hundreds of folk songs from across mainland Chile and its islands, which she disseminated widely through her own radio programmes and recordings. This research was crucial for the development of her creative oeuvre.
In 1955, Parra travelled to Warsaw, Poland, to perform at the World Festival of Youth and Students, subsequently moving to Paris where she lived until 1956. Here, she performed at Quartier Latin nightclubs, made recordings for the label Le Chant du Monde and for the Musée de l’Homme.
During a short trip to London in 1956, she gave a concert at Canning House and made recordings for the BBC archives as part of a series run by US ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.
Back in Chile in the ensuing years, Parra recorded further LPs of traditional and original songs, and founded and managed the Museum of Popular Art in the southern city of Concepción.
From this period comes a 22-page untitled poem of striking virtuosity, which Parra dedicated to Miroslav Skarmeta, a young Chilean man of Yugoslav descent she met at a park fair. Parra affectionately nicknamed him Anteojitos (‘little glasses’). The poem was later titled ‘Centésimas: décimas numerativas’ and was partially musicalised by Parra herself.
The first page of manuscript. Recently donated to the Violeta Parra Museum by Miroslav Skarmeta. (Used with permission from Museo Violeta Parra)
First stanza of ‘Centésimas: décimas numerativas’, English translation by Patricia Vilches
Speaking to History Extra, Miroslav Skarmeta recounts the story of the poem: “As I was interested in popular poetry, I asked Violeta about the so-called décima espinela, a ten-line stanza originating in 16th-century Spain, which had been known in Chile since colonial times.
“She answered by improvising four stanzas of décimas. I was impressed by the perfection of her metric. It seemed a marvel that she could improvise verses with a rhyme as complicated as ABBAACCDDC, and could even number them.
“She said it was very easy and that if she hurried she could reach 300 verses. I must have put on a face of disbelief, because two days later she gave me a pile of handwritten papers with numbered décimas, ending with the number 300.”
Inspiring political activism and protest
Back in Europe between 1962-65, Parra performed on French and Swiss television, and exhibited her paintings, tapestries and sculptures at the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs. She also toured the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany and Italy.
One of Parra’s works exhibited at the Louvre, the 1964 embroidery ‘Cristo en bikini’ (Christ in bikini). (Used with permission from Museum Violeta Parra)
When in Paris, Parra recorded some of her most explicitly political songs, which she handed out to her son Ángel Parra so that he could sing them in Chile, in support of the 1964 presidential campaign of the socialist doctor Salvador Allende.
Among these songs, released posthumously in the album Canciones reencontradas en París (1971), is ‘La Carta’ (‘the letter’), Parra’s sorrowing response to the arrest of her brother Roberto for supporting a strike.
Ángel himself would become a political prisoner at the National Stadium in Santiago and at Chacabuco concentration camp in the Atacama Desert, during the brutal, coercive civic-military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. The dictatorship lasted from 1973, when a junta formed by the heads of the armed forces and the police overthrew President Allende, to 1990.
Violeta Parra’s songs were also present in Pinochet’s political detention centres and used by prisoners and guards in various ways, as seen in testimonies. ‘Run Run se fue p’al norte’ (‘Run Run Went Up North’) was sung at the National Stadium to inmates who were about to be transferred to Chacabuco concentration camp. ‘Qué dirá el Santo Padre’ (‘What Will the Holy Father Say’) was sung at La Serena’s Buen Pastor (run by Catholic nuns) when prisoners were taken to a torture centre. ‘Volver a los diecisiete’ (‘To Be Seventeen Again’) was used at Santiago’s Cuartel Borgoño to humiliate a tortured detainee. And ‘Pa’ cantar de un improviso’ (‘To Sing by Improvising’) inspired prisoners held at Puchuncaví concentration camp to build musical instruments.
But Parra never learnt about these events as she put an end to her life six years earlier, in 1967, aged 49. She died in La Carpa de La Reina, a circus tent she had set up in Santiago’s borough of La Reina upon her return from Europe, with the purpose of promoting Chilean popular culture.
The project failed to attract the attention and recognition she had hoped for. Parra’s last LP, recorded in 1966 and titled Las últimas composiciones (The Last Compositions), augured her tragic end. From this album comes her most famous song, ‘Gracias a la vida’ (‘Thanks To Life’).
Violeta Parra’s life and work were pivotal for the development of the Nueva Canción movement in Chile. Some of its key members – Víctor Jara, Ángel and Isabel Parra, and the groups Inti-Illimani and Quilapayún, among others – actively participated in Allende’s campaigns and subsequent government.
After the military junta overthrew Allende, Nueva Canción artists were targeted with imprisonment and assassination – the most famous victim being Víctor Jara, another famous Chilean folksinger and activist – as well as exile. During the dictatorship, Nueva Canción became globalised, and some of its most iconic musicians in exile were instrumental in creating international awareness of human rights violations in Chile and in building up international support to restore democracy.
Activist Victor Jara marches in Santiago, Chile. (Image by Marcelo Montecino /Contributor/Getty)
A year-long programme of events in Chile and abroad that has just concluded further shows that Violeta Parra’s legacy continues to live among new generations.
On 26 November 2017 (at 04.06-5.00 and 14.06-15.00), the BBC World Service will broadcast the radio documentary The Music of Time: Chile, on Violeta Parra and the New Song movement.
Dr Katia Chornik is a cultural historian and music scholar affiliated to the University of Manchester. She is the founder and director of the digital project Captive Songs (www.cantoscautivos.org), and is a regular contributor to the BBC and other media outlets.