Music was used to torment victims of torture in prisons and concentration camps during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, new research has found.
Some 40 years after the dictator came to power, Dr Katia Chornik from the University of Manchester has revealed songs were played during torture sessions at high volumes, sometimes for days at a time.
According to former prisoners she spoke to, George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord; the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange and Joaquin Rodrigo’s Aranjuez Guitar Concerto were among the LPs played.
Torturers also played the protest anthem Venceremos, and songs by Julio Iglesias.
One former prisoner told how torturers would sing the Italian pop hit Gigi l’Amoroso especially for her as they took her to the interrogation room. They would continue singing while they tortured her, while the recording played in the background.
More than 3,000 people are estimated to have been killed during Pinochet’s 1973-1990 regime.
When the dictator seized power on 11 September 1973, the majority of the almost 40,000 political opponents imprisoned in more than 1,000 detention centres endured physical and psychological torture.
But while music was often used to torment victims, Dr Chornik also found prisoners used it to cope with the reality of not knowing if they were going survive.
Two former prisoners remembered listening on a pocket radio to Harry Nilsson’s Without You; Alone Again by Gilbert O’ Sullivan and Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens, to build up courage before imminent torture sessions.
Many prisoners sang, and in the less violent camps they were able to play musical instruments and put on shows.
“Half of my family fled Europe as a result of anti-Semitism and my parents were political prisoners during Pinochet’s dictatorship, and even got married in a prisoners’ camp,” she said.
Dr Chornik, who required psychological help after conducting her research, added: “Detention centres in Pinochet’s Chile were terrible places. Music in connection with torture or other form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is immoral, as was the use of electric shocks and many other common methods of torture used by the Pinochet regime.
“Discussing any of these experiences requires a lot of empathy from the researcher, and I think I am able to tune to my interviewees’ feelings. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by what my interviewee tells me.
“My research contributes to the ongoing debate about human rights in Chile, which has intensified around the 40th anniversary of the onset of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
“The project adds new insights into what music is and can do for prisoners and jailers.”
Professor Catherine Clinton, a historian based at Queen’s University Belfast, told historyextra: “I was absolutely chilled reading about the unification of the torturer and tortured through music. This research provokes an incredibly emotional reaction.
“Many of us will have seen films and programmes like 24, which tell us about the use of music for torture. But the idea of music having a redemptive quality for those suffering, and uniting those suffering, is fascinating.
“Dr Chornik helps us to think differently about the power of sound.
“There are many people who may not take comfort from the idea of an afterlife, but they do take comfort from music’s ability to go above and beyond the temporal. It allows people to escape.
“With this research we are learning something profound about the human experience.”
Brian Ward, a historian based at Northumbria University, said: “Dr. Chornik’s finding are fascinating. Particularly the notion that singing often provided torture victims with an important sense of comfort and solidarity.
“We only need to look at the US civil rights movement with its magnificent freedom songs, often sung in the face of brutal treatment in the most fearsome southern jails or by activists and communities on the front line of a life-threatening struggle for freedom, to find other examples of how music can help people summon up the courage to endure the most terrifying of ordeals.”
Dr. Roger Fagge, a historian based at the University of Warwick, said: “The selection of material used by the torturers is interesting, and unexpected.
“It suggests a degree of thought in even the musical accompaniment of these despicable acts, using music that the victims would have known and probably liked.
“This goes to show that music can capture people at their very worst, and their very best.”