Chilean folksinger Victor Jara (1932–1973) was the voice of his country's dispossessed, an internationally admired songwriter, and one of the founders of a new genre of Latin American song. He was killed by Chilean security forces during the coup that deposed the country's elected president, Salvador Allende, in September of 1973.
Grew Up in Rural Poverty
Victor Lidio Jara Martínez was born on September 23, 1932. His parents were farm workers with minimal resources who lived on a plantation near the Chilean town of Lonquen. Jara and his older siblings had to collect firewood, cutting down small trees with an ax, and haul grass back to the house for the pigs the family raised. His mother, Amanda, went out to the neighboring hillsides to gather herbs to sell. Sheer poverty and the alcohol abuse and violence of Jara's father, Manuel, placed the family under great strain, and among Victor's few positive memories of his childhood were the folk songs his mother liked to sing, accompanying herself with a guitar. To earn extra money the family rented a room to a local schoolteacher, who also played the guitar and showed Victor how to produce a few chords.
No matter how difficult things got for the Jara family, Amanda insisted that the children go to school. Jara moved with his mother and siblings to the Chilean capital of Santiago, where his mother found work in a small restaurant. Their neighborhood was chaotic, filled with street gangs and noise, but Victor Jara and his brother Lalo always showed up on time at the local Catholic school. Victor got additional guitar lessons from a neighborhood resident who noticed that he was unusually talented at making up new songs. Jara rarely saw his mother, who worked at one job or another for almost the entire day, and she died when he was 15. He was deeply upset by her death and sought help
Jara enjoyed the music he heard and sang at the seminary, but he was not cut out for the requirements of the priesthood, particularly that of celibacy. Students had to whip themselves while taking a cold shower if they experienced sexual desire, and Jara complained (according to his wife) that during the two years he spent at the seminary, "everything healthy, that implied a state of physical well-being, had to be put aside. Your body became a sort of burden that you were forced to bear." In 1952 Jara left the seminary, by mutual agreement with its instructors, and 10 days later he was drafted into the Chilean army.
The future revolutionary singer and poet acquitted himself well in the military, rising to the rank of sergeant first class and earning a glowing final report that praised his leadership qualities and identified him as officer material. But he returned to Santiago after his discharge and lived rather aimlessly for some months, staying with friends and working as a hospital porter. His path toward the artistic activities of his later life began when he tried out for the choir at the University of Chile after seeing a newspaper advertisement for the auditions.
Joined Mime Group
His audition was successful, and he appeared on stage in Carl Orff's musico-dramatic work Carmina Burana , dressed as a monk. By late 1954 he had made friends among the choir's membership, traveled with them to the north of Chile to learn about the folk music of the region—the one from which Jara had originally come. He joined a mime group consisting of Santiago theater students who were all much better off financially than Jara but accepted him as part of the group. One of them, Fernando Bordeu, gave him cast-off clothes and encouraged him to apply to the theater program at the University of Chile.
The sporadically educated Jara did poorly on the reading portion of the audition but impressed the judges with his stage movements, and he was admitted on a scholarship. Appearing in several plays, he gravitated toward those with social themes, such as Russian playwright Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths , a depiction of the harshness of lower-class life. In the late 1950s Jara met two women who would alter the course of his life. One was an instructor, Joan Turner Bunster, a British-born dancer and dance teacher who was married to a Chilean ballet star. After her marriage broke up, she and Jara slowly moved toward a romantic relationship. They married in 1965 and raised a daughter, Amanda, along with Joan's daughter from her previous marriage, Manuela.
The other major influence on Jara in the late 1950s was Chilean folksinger Violeta Parra, whom he heard and met at Santiago's Café São Paulo in 1957. It was Parra who steered folk music in Chile away from the rote reproduction of rural materials toward modern song composition rooted in traditional forms. Parra tried to incorporate folk music into the everyday life of modern Chileans, establishing musical community centers called peñas. Jara absorbed these lessons and joined a folk group called Cuncumén, with whom he continued his explorations of Chile's traditional music.
Jara maintained his interest in theater, studying stage direction at the university, frequently directing plays in Santiago (with sharper and sharper political content) in the 1960s, and even attending rehearsals of the Royal Shakespeare Company on a trip to Britain. He worked for nine years as a stage director at the Theatre Institute of the University of Chile. But music began to occupy more and more of his energy. He left Cuncumén in 1962 and, inspired by Parra's example, began writing songs of his own. At first his songs were personal and autobiographical, but as he began to perform in the peñas that opened in Chile's cities and university neighborhoods his subject matter became more varied. "As I grew closer to him," Joan Jara wrote, "I realized how profound was Victor's necessity for music and how important his guitar was to him. I could have been jealous of it, because it was almost as though it were another person with whom he conversed…. He always seemed to have two or three songs inside him. As he had said to me in one of his letters, 'Something seems to take root in me and then has to find a way of getting out.'"
Stirred Up Scandal with Comic Song
Jara released his first album, Canto a lo humano , in 1966. Early in his recording career he showed a knack for antagonizing conservative Chileans, releasing a traditional comic song called "La beata" that depicted a religious woman with a crush on the priest to whom she goes for confession. The song was banned on radio stations and removed from record shops, but the controversy only added to Jara's reputation among young and progressive Chileans. More serious in the eyes of the Chilean right wing was Jara's growing identification with the leftist social movement led by socialist politician Salvador Allende. After visits to Cuba and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, Jara had joined the Communist Party. The personal met the political in Jara's songs about the poverty he had experienced firsthand.
Jara's songs, many of them reflective stories whose music drew on traditional Chilean forms, were given the label of nueva canción or "new song"; the genre developed on parallel courses in the 1960s in various Latin American countries, but Jara was among its most prominent practitioners. Jara's songs spread outside Chile and were known to and performed by American folk artists such as Joan Baez. His popularity was due not only to his songwriting skills but also to his exceptional power as a performer. Jara took a decisive turn toward political confrontation with his song "Preguntas por Puerto Montt" (Questions About Puerto Montt, 1969), which took direct aim at a government official who had ordered police to attack squatters in the town of Puerto Montt. The Chilean political situation deteriorated after the official was assassinated, and right-wing thugs beat up Jara on one occasion.
Jara composed "Venceremos" (We Will Triumph), the theme song of Allende's Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) movement, and he welcomed Allende's election to the Chilean presidency in 1970. Jara and his wife were key participants in a cultural renaissance that swept Chile, organizing cultural events that supported the country's new socialist government. He set poems by Chilean writer Pablo Neruda to music and performed at a ceremony honoring Neruda after the famous writer received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. Throughout rumblings of a right-wing coup, Jara held on to his teaching job at Chile's Technical University.
On September 11, 1973, however, Chilean troops under the command of General Augusto Pinochet mounted a coup against the Allende government. Jara was seized and taken to the Estadio Chile, a large sports stadium. There he was held for four days, deprived of food and sleep. He was tortured, and his hands were broken by soldiers who told him to try to keep on playing the guitar with his damaged hands. But Jara continued to sing "Venceremos" and began writing a new song describing the carnage going on in the stadium, as many of those imprisoned were killed; the words of the new song were smuggled out by a prisoner who survived. At some point, probably on September 15, Jara was taken to a deserted area and shot. He was taken to the city morgue in Santiago, where his wife was allowed to retrieve the body and bury it on the condition that she not publicize the event.
Tributes to Jara began with an anonymous Chilean television technician who played an excerpt from Jara's "La plegarí a un Labrador" over a Hollywood film soundtrack the night his death was announced in a one-paragraph newspaper item. For many years, however, Jara's recordings were virtually silenced in Chile. Even after the country's politics began to liberalize in the 1990s, there was the problem of locating the master recordings, which had been given to a group of Swedish television technicians by Joan Jara as she fled the country. (She returned after 10 years and became one of the activists whose efforts eventually led to the restoration of democracy in Chile.) In the early 2000s, however, Jara's recordings were reissued by AOL Time Warner in a handsome box set, and he also became the subject of several rock tribute albums by young Chilean musicians who venerated his courage. "They could kill him," Joan Jara told BBC News, "but they couldn't kill his songs." In 2003 the stadium where Jara spent his last days was renamed the Estadio Victor Jara.
Contemporary Musicians , volume 59, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Jara, Joan, Victor: An Unfinished Song , Bloomsbury, 1983 (reprinted 1998).
Austin American-Statesman , May 17, 1998.
Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), September 10, 2003.
Guardian (London, England), October 22, 1998.
Independent (London, England), September 4, 1998.
New York Times , December 23, 2002.
"'They Couldn't Kill His Songs,'" BBC News, World: Americas, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/165363.stm (January 16, 2007).
"Victor Jara," All Music Guide , http://www.allmusic.com (January 16, 2007).