Levi Artists: Lay Down Your Brushes

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

I was startled when printmaker Doug Minkler of Berkeley, California informed me that Levi Strauss & Co., one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the world, was operating an art printmaking workshop in San Francisco.

Minkler, a longtime artist and social activist, was chagrined that the corporate leviathan was whitewashing its poor labor practices by “branding” itself a champion of working people - and using the arts to do so.

This story really begins in 2003, when Levi Strauss & Co. closed the last of its U.S. manufacturing plants, eliminating thousands of good paying jobs for American workers. The company has since moved its manufacturing operations to nations like Mexico, Haiti, Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia, where wages are extremely low and workers easily exploited.

Now, through the efforts of ad firms and PR agencies, Levi Strauss & Co. is promoting itself as a conglomerate that is “a catalyst for change,” and the free printmaking workshop in San Francisco has been part of the marketing campaign. On August 26, 2010, Doug Minkler published an open letter to the arts community titled, Lay Down Your Brushes, entreating artists to reconsider their relationship to Levi Strauss, and to corporate support of the arts in general. The text of Minkler’s dispatch follows:

“Levi Strauss & Co., Wal-Mart’s largest worldwide strategic partner, is just finishing a two-month long advertising event in San Francisco via their Levi’s Free Printing Workshop. Artists from as far as Sacramento and the East Bay have made their way to the workshop to be part of the giant Levi Strauss advertisement campaign. The colorful and talented artists are not printing Levi’s logos, rather, they are printing their own art work. Most of the artists, especially the activists, would never consider creating advertising for the corporate giant, but somehow they have been seduced into helping Levi Strauss.

Some justify their advertising support by working on projects that will benefit non profits, others claim they have not been duped because they are addressing social justice issues on Levi’s tab.  A Levi’s workshop exhibit of well known activist artists titled ‘Mission Icons In Time Of Change‘ emerged from the Free Print Workshop in order to raise much needed funds for Plaza Adelante, a Mission self-help center for lower and middle class Latino families. So, what could be wrong with artists and the community finally getting a piece of the corporate pie?  I fear a lot.

Artists who accepted the free printing are tacitly saying to both the Levi Strauss corporation and the public that ‘Levi Strauss can use us for cleansing their reputation - their exploitative corporate labor and marketing practices are okay with us. Give us free printing and we will help you sell jeans and a false benevolent image.’ Levi’s co-optation of the artists’ positive image is accomplished by masking corporate advertisement with the legitimizing appearance of involvement in social justice efforts.

In Levi’s cloaked sales campaign, artists are kept far removed from the crass tactics involved in sales, consequently, artists are lulled into thinking that they have not compromised their principles. For the corporation, it is a ‘win win’ situation, but for the non-commercial artist, the ‘For Sale’ jacket they now wear is a problem.

I believe a more critical look at Levi Strauss & Co. is in order before more artists enter into a casual (or not so casual) relationship with this corporate giant.

1.  Levi Strauss & Co. is a worldwide corporation organized into three geographic divisions:  Levi Strauss Americas (LSA), based in the San Francisco headquarters; Levi Strauss Europe, Middle East and Africa (LSEMA), based in Brussels; and Asia Pacific Division (APD), based in Singapore.

2.  By the 1990s, the Levi brand, facing competition from other brands and cheaper products from overseas, began accelerating the pace of its U.S. factory closures and its use of offshore subcontracting agreements.  In 1991, Levi Strauss faced a scandal involving six subsidiary factories on the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, where some 3% of Levi’s jeans sold annually with the Made in the U.S.A. label were shown to have been made by Chinese laborers under what the United States Department of Labor called ’slave like’ conditions.  Today, Levi jeans are made overseas.  Cited for sub-minimum wages, seven-day work weeks with 12-hour shifts, poor living conditions and other indignities, Tan Holdings Corporation, Levi Strauss’ Marianas subcontractor, was forced to pay what were then the largest fines in U.S. labor history, distributing more than $9 million in restitution to some 1,200 employees.

3.  The activist group Fuerza Unida (United Force) was formed following the January 1990 closure of a plant in San Antonio, Texas, in which 1,150 seamstresses (primarily Hispanic women), some of whom had worked for Levi Strauss for decades, saw their jobs exported to Costa Rica. During the mid and late 1990s, Fuerza Unida picketed the Levi Strauss headquarters in San Francisco and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins in protest of the company’s labor policies (The above three historical facts about Levi Strauss were resourced from Wikipedia.)

If Levi’s labor practices are not enough reason for you to end your association with them, possibly their recent sexist, homophobic DOCKERS campaign encouraging men to ‘Wear the Pants‘ and welcoming people to ‘MAN Francisco’ will, or their ‘All Asses Are Not Created Equal‘ ad emphasizing variation in butt sizes but continuing to bombard women with images of the unattainable Barbie shape will, or perhaps their ever increasing sexualization of younger and younger girls via their skin tight low rider jeans will, or all of the above will.

In the 90’s, I taught printmaking in the mission at New College of California. One day my class was asked by the administration to create a poster for SF Poetry Week. The first question the students asked me was who were the sponsors? When I informed them that the sponsors were Levi Strauss, Nestle’s and New College, they not only refused the job, but produced protest posters against their college’s involvement. Next, they produced a series of posters that exposed Levi’s U.S. plant closures, their off-shore labor practices and Nestle’s deadly infant formula peddling. These images were either wheat-pasted in San Francisco or hung in the coffee shops in which the poetry events occurred. My refusal to stifle their anger and sense of justice eventually cost me my job.

I am not surprised by Levi’s latest marketing ploy. What I am surprised and disappointed about is how easily such a large number of artists were seduced. To my fellow artists, who oppose the capitalist/corporate model of production and who became artists for reasons other than money, I recommend that you re-evaluate your association with this corporate sponsor and then withdraw your participation.”

Something that author Naomi Klein wrote of in her book, No Logos, seems pertinent to this discussion. Klein noted the omnipresent corporate branding pervading every aspect of life in the U.S., to the point where “walking, talking, life-sized Tommy Hilfiger dolls, mummified in fully branded Tommy worlds,” can be found in all corners of the nation. Klein wrote that the conglomerates behind the marketable brands were less “the disseminators of goods or services than as collective hallucinations.” Artists working at the Levi print shop were aiding - whether they realized it or not - the corporate objective of controlling all public space.

When the Supreme Court voted in January 2010 to strike down restrictions barring corporations from showering political candidates with infinite amounts of money, a substantial number of Americans understood the decision as corruptive to the democratic process. But how is corporate patronage of elected officials all that different from big money sponsorship of the nation’s arts and culture? That is the question one needs to ask when considering the Levi-sponsored printmaking workshop.

The spectacle of Levi Strauss & Co. as a benevolent, socially responsible, and altruistic “corporate citizen” reminds me of a talk given by radical Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. His 2009 lecture, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, examines how charitable giving has become “the basic constituent” of today’s capitalist economy. Žižek contends that “In today’s capitalism, more and more, the tendency is to bring the two dimensions (charity and commerce) together in one and the same cluster, so that when you buy something - your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others, for the environment, and so on, is already included into it. If you think I’m exaggerating you have them around the corner, walk into any Starbucks Coffee, and you will see how they explicitly tell you, I quote their campaign; ‘It’s not just what you are buying - it’s what you are buying into.’ (….) You don’t just buy a coffee, you buy - in the very consumerist act - you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist.”

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

British artist Andrew Park has brilliantly animated Žižek’s incisive lecture for the British Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA). The First as Tragedy, Then as Farce animation is not only enthralling to watch, it offers an essential critical assessment of the type of “cultural capitalism” now being implemented at the Levi Strauss & Co. print workshop.

I have to mention the “We Are All Workers” marketing campaign launched by Levi’s for its new line of “work wear.” With the U.S. economy at a standstill, unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, and millions of Americans losing their homes, Levi’s is promoting its expensive fashion line with proletarian sensibilities. Poster advertisements displaying slogans like “Everybody’s Work Is Equally Important,” “This Country Was Not Built By Men In Suits,” “Ready To Work,” and “We Are All Workers,” have appeared on city walls all across the United States.

But we are not all workers. Certainly those business executives that made the decision to close every Levis manufacturing plant in the U.S. are not workers, nor were their decisions made in the interests of working people.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s “Wear the Pants” and “All Asses Were Not Created Equal” campaigns were created by Draftfcb, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, a firm that handles global conglomerates like Boeing, Dow, and Lilly. The “We Are All Workers” campaign was designed for Levi Strauss by the Wieden+Kennedy ad firm. Perhaps the two should be combined for a new “truth in advertising” marketing campaign - “We Are All Asses.”

Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts

Canto General - David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1968. Lithograph. 23.5 x 41 inches. This is print number 4 from the suite of lithographs created as illustrations for Pablo Neruda's epic poem, "Canto General."

"Canto General" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1968. Signed lithograph. 23.5 x 41 inches. This is print number 4 from the suite of lithographs created as illustrations for Pablo Neruda's epic poem, "Canto General."

On Saturday, September 18, 2010, I will be speaking about David Alfaro Siqueiros at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock California, during a panel discussion sponsored by the Autry National Center of Los Angeles and the José Vera Gallery of L.A.

Titled A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts, the round-table talk will be moderated by Cynthia McMullen - Senior Curator for the Museum of Latin American Art, with fellow panelists including artists Wayne Healy and Luis Ituarte. Art historian Catha Paquette and curator Lynn LaBate, who collaborated on the Autry’s momentous exhibit Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied (which opens at the Autry on Sept. 24, 2010) will also appear as panelists.

The focus of the panel discussion at the Center for the Arts will be Siqueiros “as a print maker and graphic artist advancing a populist political agenda.” Known primarily for his monumental works of public art, Siqueiros in fact produced a number of lithographs, woodcuts, silkscreens, and mono-prints. He saw in printmaking the same capacity for revolutionary art as he did in the gigantic wall paintings that he and his compañeros in the Mexican Muralist Movement created. In my presentation I will spotlight a number of Siqueiros’ prints, the stories behind their creation, and why these socially conscious prints continue to resonate in today’s world. The panel discussion is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

Later that same evening the public is invited to attend a 7:30 p.m. reception at the nearby José Vera Gallery for Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic, the gallery’s showing of prints by Siqueiros that includes his remarkable suite of ten lithographs titled Canto General (General Song). Created in collaboration with the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, the prints were published as illustrations in a special 1968 art book edition of Neruda’s classic 1950 Canto General, an epic work of poetry detailing the history of Latin America. The exhibit runs at the José Vera Gallery from September 4 until October 27, 2010.

In the days subsequent to the Sept. 18th panel discussion, I will post a full assessment of the event (with photos), along with additional details concerning the prints displayed at the José Vera Gallery. The Center for the Arts is located at 2225 Colorado Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90041-1142 (map). Phone: 323-226-1617. The José Vera Gallery is located at 2012 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, 90041 (map). Phone: 323-258-5050.

[ UPDATE: Lecturer and author Gregorio Luke, was originally scheduled to moderate the panel discussion. Mr. Luke had to cancel his appearance in order to lecture in China on behalf of the Mexican government.]

WARP Interview: Against the Machine

WARP Magazine cover for the July 2010 special edition, "Music Against The Machine."

WARP Magazine cover for the July 2010 special edition, "Music Against The Machine."

WARP, the Spanish language glossy magazine from Mexico that focuses on the international contemporary music scene, arts, culture, cinema, and more, conducted an interview with me that appeared in the monthly’s July 2010 print edition.

Under the headline of, “Music Against The Machine,” WARP Magazine #28 was a special edition dedicated to those bands, performers, and individuals who have spoken out in opposition to SB1070, the racist anti-immigrant law recently enacted in Arizona.

WARP Magazine #28 included exclusive interviews with Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine, L.A.’s own Latino/Rock/Hip Hop powerhouse Ozomatli, as well as interviews with Café Tacvba and Molotov - two of the most popular alternative rock bands in Mexico who have been widely admired in that country for some years. Each of the interviewees offered their take on anti-racist activism on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

For my part, WARP staff reporter Chëla Olea conducted the magazine’s interview with me, which offered a brief personal history on yours truly, an overview of my position regarding activist art, reflections on how art can bring about change (quoting from the interview: “The very act of creating art is based upon transformative desire – a yearning for something that does not yet exist. That is what makes art a radical gesture and the very opposite of conservatism”), and my stance regarding the growing anti-immigrant sentiment of numerous people in the U.S.

WARP Magazine cover for the July 2010 special edition.

"Dia de los Muertos" was one of my artworks used to augment the July 2010 interview with me in WARP Magazine.

The interview was published in Spanish of course, so the excepts I am printing here have been transcribed into English for the convenience of non-Spanish speaking readers. When asked what I thought about Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law, my response was as follows:

“Arizona’s anti-immigrant law is racist and unconstitutional, but the law masks a much larger problem in the United States. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer also signed into law a bill that outlaws the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona schools, simply put, this makes it illegal for educators in Arizona public schools to instruct students about the unique contributions made to U.S. society by Mexican-Americans. Ethnic studies programs in the U.S. have customarily included the history of African-Americans as well – so the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona is not just an affront to Latinos, but to truth itself.”

When asked by Olea to give my opinion on what can be done to counteract SB1070, and how art might make a difference, my answer was the same as it would have been regarding the other crucial issues faced by the arts community and society as a whole:

“Artists have an important role to play when it comes to reversing the hateful laws that have been implemented in Arizona. Already a number of artists, musicians, writers, and actors have stepped forward to denounce what is going on in Arizona, and I find that encouraging. The universality of art can sweep away the barriers that keep people divided, though sometimes art must be combined with activism. On May 1, 2010, upwards of 200,000 people marched for immigrants rights in Los Angeles, and I was among the crowd. It is the people that are the engine of history, and so the artist must fight for and protect their rights.”

The entire WARP interview with me (in Spanish), can be read online in .pdf format.

Let Me Tell You About MusicaLatitudes

The bombo, an indigenous drum of the Andean region, sits onstage ready to be played in the Los Angeles performance by the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The bombo, an indigenous drum of the Andean region, sits onstage ready to be played in the Los Angeles performance by the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

A glorious noise emanated from the main cathedral sanctuary of the historic Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles on the night of July 31, 2010, but it was not the sacred music one usually associates with a church. The concert was distinctly Latin American, with no small influence from the indigenous roots of Latinoamérica. More to the point, all of the songs being performed were from the socially conscious, Nueva Canción (New Song) or Nueva Trova (New Troubadour) traditions. As a follower of the New Song movement since the early 1970s, I want to share with readers of this web log my experience of the Immanuel concert, as Nueva Canción has had an abiding impact on my work as a visual artist.

The church’s 80-foot-high vaulted ceilings provided concert hall acoustics for an unusual multi-media presentation by the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble. Hailing from Ventura county where they run a performing arts center, the troupe performed America, Let Me Tell You About Ernesto, their musical homage to the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The performance combined live music, spoken word poetry, and a bi-lingual powerpoint slide show to great effect; but it was the content of the production that truly provided a jolt to the senses. By performing songs and poems written by some of the greatest artists - both living and deceased - from all over Latin America, MusicaLatitudes opened a window into the very heart and soul of the region.

As the ensemble played their cover songs in the original Spanish, the song composer’s name and country of origin were projected on the stage backdrop, followed by the lyrics in English. Much of the time the projected song lyrics were punctuated with stunning artworks or photographs that further conveyed the song’s message. In between songs, Venezuelan born Enoc Cortez Barbera and Chilean born Elizabeth Rosello read poems from legendary poets such as Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) of Chile and Otto René Castillo (1934-1967) of Guatemala, the poetry text also being projected onto the stage backdrop in English. The compelling stage readings drove home all of the despair, rage, hope, and revolutionary zeal inherent in the written words of Latin American poets from down the ages.

The entire MusicaLatitudes Ensemble onstage. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The entire MusicaLatitudes Ensemble onstage. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The life of and death of Otto René Castillo is indicative of the grim and painful realities Latin Americans have had to suffer through over the decades - actualities that have been consistently dealt with in Nueva Canción. In 1954, when Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a U.S. backed military coup orchestrated by the C.I.A., Castillo fled into exile. Longing for a free and independent Guatemala, he clandestinely returned to his homeland in 1966 to take up arms against the military regime. He joined the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR: Rebel Armed Forces), heading that guerilla organization’s education and propaganda unit.

In 1967 Castillo was captured by the military and taken to an army barracks where he was viciously tortured along with his girlfriend Nora Paíz Cárcamo. The military killed the two by splashing them with gasoline and setting them on fire. While most people in the U.S. have never heard of Castillo, Guatemalans still remember him as their greatest poet - and they have not forgotten how he met his end. So goes the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. Knowing that troubled history, as well as the story of Castillo, when his poetry was read from the stage I openly wept - it would not be the only time tears came to my eyes that evening.

Ecuadoran-American bass player Juan Carlos Rosales. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Bass player Juan Carlos Rosales. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The talented MusicaLatitudes ensemble is led by a core group; Greek-Venezuelan-American composer, vocalist, and keyboardist Pantelis Palamidis (who is also the musical director of the troupe), Ecuadoran-American bassist Juan Carlos Rosales, and American drummer-percussionist, Bill Davis.

The Mexican born Jose Cruz Gamez Baroza played led acoustic guitar, and proved to be more than a competent vocalist as well. Puerto Rican born Mayra Bermudez and Guatemalan born Andrea Zúñiga provided commanding backup vocals - sometimes being showcased as lead singers; I was completely enthralled by Zúñiga, who stole the show with her impassioned delivery and powerful vocal range.

The Venezuelan born Clara Alvear played the cuatro (a small four-stringed guitar-like instrument commonly found in South America) along with Latin American percussion instruments; “Guiro” (a scraper made from a dried and notched gourd), large-sized “Tumba” conga drums as well as the smaller “Quinto” congas, and the “Bombo” - the indigenous drum of the Andean region that is played with a stick and mallet.

Clara Alvear playing her bombo drum. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Clara Alvear playing her bombo drum. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Spanish poet León Felipe (1884-1968) was the only non-Latin American whose works were included in the program, but for very good reason. Having fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco and his fascist army, Felipe was forced into exile once the fascists won the war. Like many other anti-fascist Spaniards, he went into exile in Mexico, where he lived and worked until his death in 68.

Interestingly enough, when Che Guevara was captured and executed by the C.I.A. and the Bolivian army in 1967 (more on that later), the executioners found a green notebook in the guerrilla leader’s backpack.  It was filled with poems El Che had written in his own hand - poems by León Felipe, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo of Peru (1892-1938), and Nicolas Guillen of Cuba (1902-1989). According to ensemble director Palamidis, the publication of Guevara’s notebook in 2008 served as the basis for the troupe’s presentation of songs “from the decades of struggle and oppression that several Latin American countries went through in the 70s and 80s.”

Mr. Palamidis further stated that the music and poems performed by MusicaLatitudes were a tribute “to the new awakening of Latin America in its search for its definitive socio-political and cultural independence, just as Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara, and many Latin American revolutionary leaders dreamt for centuries. Let these poems and songs become the antidote that will relieve our souls from the unjustified wars, the killing of innocents, the devastation of families, the financial corruption, the manipulative mainstream media, the increase in discrimination, the deterioration of our environment, and the amazing paralysis of a big majority of our society, which we unfortunately witness day after day.”

Mayra Bermudez listens to fellow ensemble member Clara Alvear play the cuatro. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mayra Bermudez listens to fellow ensemble member Clara Alvear play the guitar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The pan-Latin American phenomenon of Nueva Canción and Nueva Trova continue to have deep resonance in América Latina, but most people in the United States are still blissfully unaware of the genre.

The only equivalent musical movement in the U.S. would be the early Folk scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan sang topical “protest” songs, but Nueva Canción largely turned its back on Western influences and instead embraced indigenous instruments and rhythms for inspiration. Moreover, the form has a decidedly left-wing political orientation that focuses on the critical problems of the region, Yankee imperialism, poverty and its causes, social inequality, the legacy of colonialism, and racial oppression.

Nueva Canción went hand-in-hand with, and was an outgrowth of, the various political movements for radical social change in América Latina. It should also go without saying that it has commonalities with the socially conscious literature of the region; it is probably a safe thing to say that nowhere else in the world is poetry so closely linked with popular song. But there is also an obvious tie to the social realist visual arts of Latin America - here the Ecuadoran master painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999), or the Mexican Muralists come to mind.

The New Song movement has been so closely intertwined with left political movements that it has been impossible to separate the two. For instance, in 1973 the Chilean Nueva Canción singer Victor Jara wrote the song ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! as an anthem for the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. The song was further popularized when it was sung at marches and rallies in Chile by the Nueva Canción group - Quilapayún (this video shows the group performing the song in front of Chile’s Presidential Palace just days before the country’s military coup).

Allende was overthrown and murdered in 1973 during a U.S. backed military coup, along with at least 3,000 other Chileans - including Victor Jara. His song has since been transformed into an iconic international anthem of the left, and the chant of ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!), is today heard at demonstrations around the globe. Two songs by Jara were featured in MusicaLatitudes’ program, his timeless numbers El arado (The plow), and Juan sin tierra (John without land: sung as a Mexican style corrido), but Jara’s influence on music warrants an entire concert in his tribute. Of course, the Clash made mention of Jara in their 1980 song Washington Bullets - but a contemporary Spanish rock band has also immortalized him.

Juan sin tierra is in the repetoire of the Spanish Ska-Punk band, Ska-P. Currently one the most popular Ska-Punk groups in Europe, the group’s name pronounced in Spanish (es’kape) is a clever pun involving the Spanish word for “escape,” with a reference to Ska and P(unk). Their name and music more than suggests “escaping” the stranglehold of contemporary society, and their songs attack war, fascism, capitalism, and the abusive power of the state. By performing Victor Jara’s work, Ska-P shows just how relevant - and popular - Jara’s songs continue to be. Hopefully other artists, working in a multiplicity of musical genres, will embrace Jara’s compassionate songs as their own.

Acoustic guitar player Miguel Heredia in contemplation between sets. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Acoustic guitar player Miguel Heredia in contemplation between sets. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The name of the evening’s program came from a song with the same title by the Cuban Nueva Trova singer, Silvio Rodriguez.

Possessing an extraordinary voice, and highly skilled at writing political songs in the most flowery poetic language, Rodriguez is today’s prime exponent of Nueva Canción.

The MusicaLatitudes Ensemble performed moving covers of his América, te hablo de Ernesto (America, I tell you about Ernesto), La Maza (The flail), and Cita Con Ángeles (Appointment with Angels). Released in 2003, Cita Con Ángeles tells the story of the angels in heaven being horrified and helpless before the great horrors committed on earth by the unjust - with political assassinations amongst these crimes. In the song Rodriguez recounts the dismay with which the angels met the killings of Giordano Bruno, José Martí, Federico García Lorca, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lennon.

The angels, Rodriguez tells us, were also disconcerted over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but when Rodriguez tells of how the angels became inconsolable over the carnage of September 11th - the heart breaks. At that point during the MusicaLatitudes’ performance, a photograph of the Twin Towers exploding into a massive fireball flashed upon the stage backdrop, and one could almost feel the collective sadness rippling through the audience. But in the very next stanza, Rodriguez reminds us that 9-11 also stands for another catastrophe; on September 11, 1973, the U.S. engineered a coup d’état against the elected government of Chile, a coup that not only took the life of President Allende and some 3,000 Chilean civilians, but turned the country into a torture camp where democracy was extinguished.

MusicaLatitudes performed a single song by the celebrated Argentine singer, Atahualpa Yupanqui - his poignant homage to Che Guevara, Nada Más (Nothing More). An artist of great consequence, Yupanqui (1908-1992) is considered one of Argentina’s most important singers, and is known to have written more than 12,000 musical compositions. He became an ethnomusicologist of sorts, traversing his native Argentina in order to study the songs and musical traditions of the country’s indigenous people.

In the 1960s Yupanqui was rediscovered by a younger generation of artists who were to comprise the Nueva Canción movement. A youthful fellow Argentine, Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009) was one such person, and although her music was not performed in the MusicaLatitudes program of July 31, it could be said that Sosa took up Yupanqui’s banner to become a leading Argentine exponent of Nueva Canción (here Sosa performs the Violeta Parra song Gracias a la Vida with Joan Baez. It was Parra who set the foundations for Chilean Nueva Canción). In addition, Victor Jara was another deeply influenced by Yupanqui and Parra.

Towards the end of their program, the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble performed what is widely hailed as the anthem of Latin America, Canción con todos (Song with all), composed in 1969 by Argentine singer César Isella, with lyrics by Argentine poet Armando Tejada Gómez. In 1976 the Argentine military staged a coup that shut down all democratic institutions; the military’s “dirty war” against the civilian population began. Upwards of 30,000 civilians are thought to have been killed by the authorities during the repression - with left activists taking the brunt of the army’s ferocity. Canción con todos was banned by the military authorities, who eliminated all things perceived to be in opposition to their rule; the fascists ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

I first heard Canción con todos in the early 1970s, and I still consider it to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written; it speaks of pan-American solidarity, and how all the people of the hemisphere are one. The song carries a gorgeous melody, its lyrics conveying an unquenchable thirst for liberty and independence. One particular line from the song’s ending, “toda la sangre puede ser canción en el viento” (all the blood will be songs on the wind), sums up the implacable human spirit intrinsic to Nueva Canción - all of our collective tragedies will be transformed into victories, provided we never forget what is true and beautiful (here Isella performs a remarkable version of Canción con todos before a Chilean audience in 2003).

Ensemble members Jose Cruz Gamez Baroza, Mayra Bermudez, and Clara Alvear. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Ensemble members Jose Cruz Gamez Baroza, Mayra Bermudez, and Clara Alvear. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

At the close of the evening the ensemble  performed the most famous of all songs written about Che, Hasta Siempre Comandante (Forever Commander), penned by the Cuban Nueva Trova singer, Carlos Puebla (1917-1989).

Puebla wrote the song in 1965 upon hearing that Guevara had renounced his Cuban citizenship and resigned from his positions in the Cuban government in order to make revolution throughout the world. Che’s decision ultimately took him to Bolivia where he attempted to initiate an insurrection against the U.S. backed military regime of General René Barrientos. After 11 months in Bolivia, Che was captured with the help of the C.I.A. and immediately executed without benefit of a trial. Performed by innumerable artists over the decades, including the notable Buena Vista Social Club, the MusicaLatitudes Ensemble became the latest group to cover Puebla’s iconic song.

Interestingly enough, it has been the French actress and pop songbird Nathalie Cardone, who has done more to immortalize Puebla’s song in recent times than any other performer. Her 1997 version of Hasta Siempre was a runaway international hit, selling well over 800,000 copies in France alone. Her accompanying video to the song is an astonishing melding of commercial pop and faux “agit-prop” sensibilities. While not a Nueva Canción singer, Cardone has certainly brought new interest to the genre.

The MusicaLatitudes Ensemble delivered one of the most ambitious left cultural events to have been presented in Los Angeles in many years, and their opening the door to the world of Nueva Canción was in many respects a wonderful gift to the people of my city. In the past the ensemble has offered concert performances in tribute to the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. The ensemble will offer a tribute to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda at their performing arts center in Ventura in the months to come, watch for it - no doubt it will be a production not to be missed.