Chilean music has gone through a journey through the years, and the many sounds which form the Andean country’s identity – cueca, folklore, boleros, cumbia, pop, rock, hip-hop and electronica – are all well worth taking a look at.
Chilean music can be summed up by looking at two different Chilean notions:
Huachaca is a way a Chilean might describe himself, shying away from any formal definition but championing three defining features: “Humilde, Cariñosos y Republicanos” (humble, affectionate people of the Republic). They oppose class discrimination, all things “cuico” (posh, pretentious) and the privileged classes´ focus on foreign culture. Huachaca also describes a social movement that promotes humble living and simple pleasures.
Choro – another distinctly Chilean word – refers to a brave person with a strong personality who is both graceful and daring.
These two ideas are reflected in the energy behind Chilean music, resonating in styles as varied as folklore, classical plays, and urban and popular expressions. Below is our guide to the most important moments and figures in Chile’s musical past and present.
Cueca, roots-music and folklore
Chile has a very rich traditional music that has three different geographical zones: northern, central, and southern, each with their own characteristics and sounds. It also has other musical expressions like Easter Island music and Mapuche music.
Cueca is the national dance in Chile. It is danced at traditional formal events and varies greatly depending on the region in which it originates.
Interestingly, Cueca has been taken by the young generation and made into Cueca Brava – recreated in such a way that drives away its tradition and inflexibility. In doing so, it has become chora and popular.
Boleros and traditional male singers
Chileans generally experienced a change in their taste in music during the 1950s, when bolero music – a form of dance originally from 18th Century Spain popularized through song in Cuba in the late 19th Century – overtook tango as their preferred music genre.
Lucho Gatica, who has combined folklore and bolero music, could be regarded as the king of his genre, emerging as one of the most well known Latin American songwriters.
One of Chile’s most well-known songs was by Osmán Pérez Freire (1880-1930). His famed tune Ay Ay Ay has been reproduced around the world by the likes of Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nana Mouskouri. Peréz Freire was a true innovator who blended diverse styles of Chilean and Latin American music with then modern rhythms like the fox trot.
The song La joya del Pacífico describes in its lyrics the port of Valparaiso. Like a type of folklore, it is sung generation after generation. Songs such as these are a part of any traditional Chilean band’s repertoire.
The years between 1930 to 1960 saw a rebirth of traditional Chilean folklore, initially promoted by the group Los Cuatro Huasos. The movement took folk country music, popularized it and spread it not only around Chile but also in others countries in Latin America and America.
After them appeared a lot of important folkloric groups such as Los de Ramon, Los Huasos Quincheros and El Duo Rey Silva.
Violeta Parra, Victor Jara and the ‘New Chilean Song’
Violeta Parra (1917-1967) revolutionized traditional folkloric music. Dubbed as South America’s ‘first punk,’ by the 1950’s, she was already recognized as the most important Chilean folklorist because of her work rescuing and distributing peasant poetry and chant.
An example of her ability can be seen in her ‘anti-cuecas,’ such as Gracias a la Vida – a song that eventually had a very broad international distribution. After the arrest of her brother, Parra was motivated to write La Carta (The Letter) – where she protested and denunciated the matter through music while including clear influences of indigenous rhythms. Parra’s family, amongst whom her brother and children also received notoriety, developed a genre committed to social causes, creating La Peña de los Parra – a famed gathering place for progressivism and revolutionary bohemians. Notable figures joined this movement were Víctor Jara, Quilapayún, Inti Illimani, Payo Grondona, Charo Cofré, Amerindios, and Tito Fernández.
Victor Jara – who was brutally murdered in the opening days of Pinochet’s regime – left a legacy of socially conscious songs such as Te Recuerdo Amanda, which features the love affair between two factory workers, and Luchín, a poor young child who plays beneath the legs of a horse in a yard. These are among the best known songs representing Chile’s national voice worldwide.
The dictatorship years and the “New Chant”
A young group of musicians remained in Chile during the military dictatorship, producing the genre known as “The New Chant.” During the dictatorship years, curfews and tight art laws meant that artists such as these found shelter in universities and gatherings known as peñas.
The voice of the 80’s was markedly antiestablishment, the “New Chant” combining different styles and influences while paying close attention to the lyrics of songs in order to express ideas that are politically risky and/or taboo.
The most popular band was Los Prisioneros, whose songs are still said to represent the youth of the entire generation. Other notable examples of the movement include Congreso and Los Jaivas, bands that either remained in Chile or returned from exile.
New days, new innovations
In recent years, various local Chilean musicians have achieved international acclaim. Mauricio Castillo, better known as Chinoy and otherwise known as the ‘Bob Dylan of Chile’ combines acoustic guitar with electronic instruments and internet technology.
Various Santiago-based bands are making a splash on the local circuit. One such marvel is an outrageous 10-piece collective who play cumbia and carribean-influenced music – Chorizo Salvaje. A trip to Santiago and an eye cast around some of the posters in the city should yield a performance of this local wonder.
Other pop artists have been lauded in Europe after launching singles on the internet and releasing them around Spain, with El País recently describing Chile as a ‘new pop paradise’. Highlighted artists have been Javiera Mena, Gepe, and Dënver, three distinctive and promising musicians whose unique sound characterizes the Chilean pop-music scene today.
Ana Tijoux, perhaps Chile’s best-known leader of urban music, grew up in Southern France and adopted the loose and fluid rapping style that embodies French hip-hop. After returning to Chile for a stint to record her recent album 1977, she was finally nominated for a Grammy.
Ricardo Villalobos is a Chilean DJ that was born in Germany to exiled parents. He now lives in Europe and has a tremendous youth following. His rhythms – described as minimal techno, microhouse, and Latin percussion – are popular in both Europe and Latin America.
Other interesting artists include a rising New York-based star, Nicolas Jaar, who already has his own record label, catalogue of featured singles, and schedule of gigs around the world. Jaar was recently featured on one of the world’s most influential music websites, Pitchfork Media, and is expected to go from strength to strength in the coming years. Together with fellow Chileans Matias Aguayo, Luciano, Cristian Vogel and Dandy Jack, they form the cutting edge of the contemporary electronic music scene in Chile.