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.

One Response to “Let Me Tell You About MusicaLatitudes”

  1. […] by the Chilean group Quilapayún, but it changed my life. I had already heard of Victor Jara and Nueva Canción Chilena, so it was the work of Chile’s artists that made me pay closer  attention to what […]