Reinvigorating Chile’s traditions at the Galpón Victor Jara

Evenings of cueca dancing and folk performances keep the heritage of Victor Jara, one of Chile’s most adored folk musicians, alive at his namesake performance space in Barrio Brasil.

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Tuesday nights are ‘cueca’ nights at Galpón Victor Jara, a former warehouse transformed into a multi-purpose performance space in Santiago’s Barrio Brasil.

Though in its most traditional form cueca, Chile’s national dance, can seem old-fashioned, here at the heart of Santiago’s most bohemian neighborhood people young and old dance a faster, sexier and altogether more urban version of the dance called cueca brava, or ‘fierce cueca’.

At its heart cueca is a seduction dance, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the Galpón. Young couples from the surrounding bohemian neighborhoods predominate here, mandatory white handkerchiefs blazing as they circle, strut and flirt to the traditional sounds of guitar, tambourine and accordion.

Around the edges of the room, homemade street foods like sopaipillas (fried pumpkin dough with various sauces) and cocadas (balls of dulce de leche rolled in ground coconut) are on sale as are cans of local beer, a steal at about US$1.50 (CP$800) each.

Around 200 people show up each Tuesday for the official event between 7pm and 10 pm. Many of the dancers are regulars, but newcomers are welcomed in – quite literally – with open arms. Those who don’t know the steps will quickly be escorted onto the dance floor for a hands-on lesson. “We come almost every Tuesday,” said Alejandro, an actor and student living in nearby Barrio Republica, as he pulled a giggling foreigner onto the dance floor. “It’s completely Chilean!”

Memory and tradition

The Tuesday night parties at the Galpón have been running for about a year now, alongside the other music and dance events that run Wednesdays to Sundays.

“It’s a tremendously creative event for musicians, for dancers, for anyone who loves cueca,” says Gloria Konig, Director of the Victor Jara Foundation, which runs the Galpón.

Named for the beloved Chilean folk musician from the 1960s, the Victor Jara Foundation’s work honors the memory of Jara as both artist and social activist.

“The idea of the Foundation is to provide a space for artists who carry on folk traditions and honor Chilean roots,” says Konig. Based out of Santiago since its founding in 1993, the Foundation’s projects include a cultural school for under-privileged children from immigrant communities, a public television channel for the neighborhood, and coordination with communities across Chile to promote Chilean heritage.

Cueca success

The cueca nights at the Galpón are one of the the Foundation’s biggest successes, breathing new life into a great Chilean tradition, and they exemplify a growing desire among Chile’s bohemian youth to rediscover and reinvigorate their national culture.

When the Galpón closes its doors at 10pm on Tuesdays, the party doesn’t stop—it moves outside into the square. The band of old timers keeps playing as young musicians join in. As each song is initiated, the whole crowd joins in, knowing every word to songs that are about as old as cueca itself.

This post is also available in Spanish