By Gabriel San Roman
Inti Illimani, one of the world’s best known musical ambassadors of Chile’s New Song Movement, visited Los Angeles and Tijuana this past week to mark their fortieth anniversary.
Since 1967, the accomplished Chilean band, Inti Illimani, has created a historic musical legacy by fusing traditional Andean music with Latin America’s best known musical forms. As principal musicians in a cultural phenomenon known as Nueva Cancion, Inti Illimani has written and performed some of the world’s best known protest songs. Unlike many other musical dissenters, Inti Illimani, experienced the opportunity of singing songs of victory following the historic presidential election in 1970 that brought Salvador Allende to power in Chile. The experience was short-lived, however, as the band was forced into exile following the military coup in 1973.
Decades later, Inti Illimani has evolved to include many new and younger members. The band maintains its masterful musicianship while forging ahead with new musical innovations as is displayed on their forty-third album “Pequeño Mundo.” Inti Illimani’s sound continues to be a cultural mosaic of Latin America featuring more than thirty string, wind, and percussion instruments. As members of a musical movement that carries with it the wounds of fascism and political exile, Inti Illimani’s beautifully melodic arrangements and songs of hope are an affirming testament to Latin America’s resiliency.
I spoke with founding member Jorge Coulon directly from Valparaiso, Chile.
San Roman: Let’s start by going back in time. Forty years ago, in 1967, what was happening musically and culturally in Chile?
Jorge Coulon: History is complicated because people who live the history have a tendency to rebuild it in a logical order, but things happen in many ways. The situation in Chile was, from my point of view, a very, very depressed cultural situation. We were a colony of the record companies based in Mexico and in the United States. We did not have Chilean music on the radio at that time or in the media. We discovered, at that time, the work of people like Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, and many others who were for many years working with popular music in Chile in the complete underground. Violeta Parra, at that time, invited to Chile some musicians from different parts of Latin America.
For us it was a revelation to discover the music from the Andes, from Bolivia, to discover music from Venezuela, and also, at the time, there was a big movement of popular music in Argentina. We began to play music with these roots and it was an explosion. The audience was ready for that. This is the origin of the group. We began to learn to play instruments like quena, pan pipes and the charango. We discovered in Colombia the tiple, which is a smaller steel stringed guitar. We began to blend all these sounds. The response of the public, among the universities students and among the musical underground in Chile was enormous.
A: Looking back forty years, as a young man, did you ever have a sense in the beginning of what Inti Illimani would become? What the destiny of the group would be?
Q: Absolutely not! We began playing because of passion. We had no ideas of success or anything like that. We do not play music thinking of making history. We have never had big economical success, anyway. The principal reason to play music is passion and in my case continues to be.
A: Since Inti Illimani’s very beginnings, political and social commentary have been an important part of the group’s legacy. How do you define the political aspect of the group’s music?
Q: Each one of us has always been personally, not only as musicians but as individuals, very engaged in social questions. Latin America is a very hard continent to live in because there are many contrasts. We have many riches here. We have enormous riches in the mines, the sea, and the woods. We have many resources, but we see that the same time our people live in really horrible conditions. It is difficult not to have a social sensibility in this way. But we don’t want to be a political group in literal sense of the word. Music is a language and we don’t want to use this language to do small politics. But at the same time, music has the right to speak about everything, not only about love, not only about landscapes, but also has the right to express all the passions of human beings. One of the important passions of human beings is politics, the sense of justice, the sense of hope, and the need to build a world where the people can live in peace.
Q: As part of this 40th year anniversary, Inti Illimani has released its latest album, “Pequeño Mundo.” What are your thoughts on the album? What creative risks have been taken?
A: The album takes the risk, for instance, of there not being any political songs! It’s not because we didn’t want to have them. Maybe next album we will have many. We don’t know that because we don’t plan that. But musically, I think it has interesting proposals. There is a song called, “Rondombe,” that is based in rhythms from Uruguay and African-Uruguayan music. There are some improvisations that come more from jazz than from other sources. There is also the last song called, “Tu Pequeño Mundo,” which blends symphonic instruments with our traditional music. It is difficult to speak about our music. I feel a little about uncomfortable speaking about the music that we do, but I think we are completely happy with the record.
Q: What is the future of Inti Illimani?
A: It is a question that I am sure will have different answers if you ask me or if you ask some of the younger members of the group because the perspective of life changes with age. I would like for the group to continue because for me it is like a planted tree. I want the group to continue beyond me when it is necessary for me to leave the group. It would be fantastic if the group can continue like an idea or an institution. New people can come and bring with them new ideas and we can have a group with deep roots in our culture but also one that is living in the society of the times. For me that would be the best. I don’t want the group to end with me. The concept of the group is difficult to explain because normally bands, especially in rock music, depend many times on one leader. Without the leader the band disappears. We have been a real democratic group. The work in creating songs and in rehearsing has been participatory and inclusive of all members. I would like to perpetuate this style, but I can not know what will happen in the future. This is my desire.