Chile is famous for the quality of its wines and the virtues of its grape vines, in a land privileged by nature and climate.
One of the most valuable vines in this fertile land is the family of artists, singers, poets and writers whose last name literally means “grape vine” in Spanish: the Parra family.
Nicanor Parra Alarcón and Clarisa del Carmen Sandoval were the founders of this prodigious family, starting their lives together in southern Chile in the beginning of the twentieth century. The couple taught each of their children the arts of music, literature and performance.
The most well-known of their offspring are Violeta Parra (1917 – 1967) – considered one of the best folk musicians in the history of Chile – and Nicanor Parra (1914 – ), famous poet and winner of Chile’s National Prize for Literature. The soul and spirit of the lower classes, in both the countryside and the metropolis, are expressed in the authenticity of the siblings’ verses. Violeta’s songwriting – which was both experimental and deeply rooted in popular tradition – inspired a generation of new artists, including her children Ángel Parra and Isabel Parra, as well as Víctor Jara and Cuncumén.
In the early 1960’s, Violeta Parra wrote the song La carta (“The Letter”) for her brother Roberto, who had been the victim of police repression. Recorded by folk group Quilapayún, the song became the emblem of Chilean protest songs, and gave rise to the genre of music now called nueva canción chilena (“the new Chilean song”).
Among her most beautiful compositions was the ode to life, Gracias a la vida, (“Thanks to life”), a universal song that has been interpreted by many artists in many languages, including Joan Baez, Elis Regina and Mercedes Sosa.
Roberto and Eduardo Parra devoted their efforts to revolutionizing Chile’s national dance in a popular urban style known as cueca chora, marked by a sensual sexuality and fluid steps in comparison with the traditional cueca. The brothers experimented with different versions of fox trotl, inventing a style of music termed jazz guachaca. Roberto authored a play as well: the Décimas de la Negra Ester, (“Black Ester’s Ten-Line Stanzas”).
The siblings – but mostly Violeta – started a popular cultural center in the 1960’s, named the Peña de los Parra, where Violeta and like-minded artists performed la nueva canción chilena. After Violeta’s death in 1967 and the military coup in 1973, the Parra clan began to disband a little. Violeta’s son Ángel was detained at the prisoner camp in Chacabuco, and Violeta’s daughter Isabel went into exile, where she continued composing songs and started spreading Violeta’s work to a wider international audience.
The next generation
With the return of democracy and the end of political exile during the 1990’s, the Parras returned to the public spotlight. This time, it was Violeta’s grandchildren – Ángel Parra Orrego and Javiera Parra Orrego – who conquered the stage. Javiera became famous as the singer of the pop group Javiera y Los Imposibles, while her jazz guitarist brother formed the band Los Tres – one of the most popular Chilean music groups in decades. Los Tres’ repertoire includes aspects of jazz guachaca and the cuecas choras that were pioneered by Ángel’s uncles, Roberto and Eduardo. Later, Ángel also went on to form his own jazz band, the Ángel Parra Trío.
Tita Parra, the daughter of Isabel, is also part of the contemporary Chilean music scene as a singer-songwriter, performing in duets with her mother and interpreting the music of her grandmother. Tita has incorporated elements of rhythmic jazz, bossa funk and pop-rock to her foundation of folk music. Meanwhile, Colombina Parra – daughter of the famous poet Nicanor Parra – has entered the music scene with a decided rock ‘n roll influence, becoming one of the newest names for young audiences in the 21st century.
This diverse and prodigious family always returns at some point to the songs of Violeta Parra, bringing the rhythms of the moment to the enduring wisdom of Violeta’s words. Nicanor, one of the foremost authors of Spanish literature and poetry, dedicated a poem to his famous sister, Defensa de Violeta Parra (“Violeta Parra’s Defense”). In the first verses, he writes:
Sweet neighbor of the green jungle / Eternal host of flowering April / Sworn enemy of blackberry brambles / Violeta Parra. / Gardener / potter / seamstress / Ballerina of transparent water / Tree filled with singing birds / Violeta Parra.