Each February Chile’s summer vacation season is interrupted when the coastal city of Viña del Mar hosts its famous International Song Festival. In the run-up to the six-day musical extravaganza, the city takes on a different character, and the local press of full of expectation that takes on a fevered pitch as the Festival’s start approaches. For Chileans, these six magical days are known only as “el Festival”.
Chile’s biggest and most glamorous musical event had humble beginnings in 1959 when a group of musicians showed off their skills at a fair in the gardens of Quinta Vergara neighborhood of Viña del Mar. The Director of Tourism and Public Relations of Viña del Mar at the time, Carlos Ansaldo, saw great potential in the young musicians and 12 months later booked them for a musical festival.
And so it was that on Feb. 1, 1960, the first Festival was born. With a modest stage covered with plywood, and only three policemen in charge of security, spectators watched the show while seated in front of the stage in folding chairs.
The five-day event nevertheless burst with light and joy and immediately captured the imagination of the Chilean public. The host during the inaugural year, Ricardo Garcia, was joined by a mostly Chilean line-up of musical groups including Los Huasos Quincheros, as well as the comedian, Carlos Helo. The competition consisted of the performance of six songs accompanied by the Orchestra of the Viña del Mar Casino. The winner received 500 escudos in addition to the prized “Lira de Oro”, or Golden Lyre, the most coveted award of that era in Chile.
The Festival’s success the first year led the organizers to construct a modest open-air amphitheater the following year with a wooden stage composed of an “acoustic shell” that helped project the sound toward the audience as well as insulate spectators from the chill of the Viña del Mar evenings. The shell has since become an icon of the Festival.
The popularity of the Festival meant that for many years, the majority of the spectators were scattered on the adjacent hills of Quinta Vergara, an annual activity that became a provincial ritual. In 1964, the amphitheater was remodeled and the original stage disappeared. Then, in 2002, a monumental five-story building was constructed, providing Viña del Mar with a setting on a par with any international festival.
The Festival, with the passage of time, has turned into what is considered by many the most important musical event in Latin America. Over the years, the show’s organizers have revamped the festival and streamlined its operations. Especially during the 1980’s, the number of prominent international performers expanded significantly to include such star groups as: The Police, Air Supply, Sheena Easton, Jose Feliciano, Neil Sedaka, Gloria Gaynor and Thomas Anders (of the group Modern Talking), among others.