Time stopped when I first heard Víctor Jara sing. One of my favorite podcasts, Alt.Latino, had included Jara’s music in an episode that looked at protest music from across Central and South America. Jasmine Garsd, the podcast’s co-host, had preceded his song with a description of his importance in his native Chile and his brutal murder at the start of the Pinochet regime. As disturbing and poignant as this biography was, nothing prepared me for the beauty of his music.
The needle dropped on “Un Derecho de Vivir en Paz,” Jara’s song in protest of the Vietnam war. Over a bed of harpsichord and arpeggiated guitar, Jara sang in a disarmingly straightforward voice. His tenor had a reedy tone and a substantial quality that anchored the melody. Like many of its North American counterparts, the song had a memorable melody that could invite singalongs. Where many songwriters north of the border tended towards straightforward production however, Jara’s song featured a psychedelic instrumental break in which a ragged guitar freakout alternated with a bobbling analog synth part. The song ended with what sounded like a spontaneous choir of “la la la”s, which reinforced the spirit of community for which Jara’s time was known. As understated as Jara sounded, a current of sadness and hope ran through his voice, and that emotion made me want to listen to it again and again.
After hearing about his grotesque death, I found myself wanting to see Jara as he was alive. Some excerpts from a live concert he performed for Chilean television came up on YouTube. Seeing and hearing this man, with his steady, weathered voice and his everyman appearance, made him more real for me but also made the tragedy of his death that much more palpable. I was drawn to the honesty of his voice and the lyrics I could understand, but the experimentation in his music beguiled me as well.
In time, I was able to get a boxed set of Jara’s albums through inter-library loan, as well as a copy of An Unfinished Song, the biography his wife Joan wrote about him. I also have been attempting to read The Shock Doctrine to better understand the Allende administration and how Pinochet came to power. Through my interest in Jara I learned that two bands I quite like have paid tribute to him in song—Joe Strummer name-checked him on Sandinista! and Calexico recorded a song called “Víctor Jara’s Hands.”
In spite of these tributes and the praises of other big-name fans, Jara is not well known in the States. To that end, I will be working through his discography and writing reviews for Popshifter when time permits. Víctor Jara created music that both spoke to the people of its day and is still prescient in this day and age. His work deserves a larger audience and I’d like to do what I can to encourage readers to track down his music.