Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 1990 Concert: A Non-Religious, Liturgical Event in Post-Pinochet Chile

Above we have two songs that Richard Elliott features in his article "Reconstructing the Event: Spectres of Terror in Chilean Performance" written for the British Postgraduate Musicology journal.1

The song on top is Victor Jara's "Te Recuerdo Amanda."
The song on the bottom is Silvio Rodriguez's "Unicornio."

English translations of the lyrics can be found in the above article.

I ran across this article by chance for a class on Worship and Politics. We're reading William Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist,2 which witnesses to the horrifying acts of systematic torture perpetuated by the military dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile in the 70s and 80s. Cavanaugh also documents the painfully slow response of the Catholic Church in Chile to be a prophetic voice against the atrocities committed by the state. A major component of Cavanaugh's argument is that the church responded slowly due to a theology that advocated an "untouchable 'spiritual' space for the church which is both interior to the person and transcendent to the state."3 As a result of putting this theology into practice, the church left matters of social justice and common good to the state, forming a partnership with the state that Cavanaugh refers to as The New Christendom. With the church left neutered of its power to speak against the state, and the state systematically destroying any threat of opposition in the form of political parties, labor unions, and most other organizations, the Chilean people suffered.

The above article hints that a voice for the voiceless existed outside of the church in the form of musical movements for social change such as the nueva cancion. The church would eventually play a major role in advocacy for the Chilean oppressed, but during times when it was silent, folk protest songs spoke on behalf of the people. Elliott explores one particular concert as an event of personal and communal transformation that gave the people back their memories, identities, and voices. It is noteworthy that this event took place outside of the boundaries of the church. I'll ask more questions about this fact below.

In the article, Elliott talks about a concert that occurred in Chile in 1990, soon after Pinochet was voted out of office and democracy was restored. This concert featured the Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez and formerly exiled Chilean folksinger Isabel Parra, both prominent members of socially-committed musical movements within Cuba and Latin America, the nueva trova and the nueva cancion movements respectively. The concert was held in an arena in front of 80,000 Chileans and was recorded on video.4 Rodriguez dedicated the concert to Victor Jara, a Chilean musician and artist who was closely associated with the campaign that brought Marxist Salvador Allende to power in the early 70s. Jara was arrested, tortured, and murdered by Pinochet's military forces following the coup. We have a video of a live performance of Jara on the left.

Elliott argues in the essay that the concert (featuring prominent voices of resistance and their songs of protest, loss, and hope) functioned as a cathartic event in which Chile could participate in a communal act of mourning. But this performance was not only a looking-back, but a looking-now, and looking-forward. By providing the concert attendees the opportunity to publicly come together and reflect and hope and simply be together in a safe space, the concert opened up hopeful possibilities for the past, present, and future. Elliott describes this phenomenon referencing Walter Benjamin's use of the Jewish concept of "Messianic Time." There are certainly religious connotations here. Elliott asks, "Can we see performative musical events such as the stadium concert as ritualistic processes analogous to other ritualistic events (sacred or non sacred)?" Although I doubt whether Elliott is writing from a religious perspective, there is no doubt that he is aware of the transformative potential of the concert and the spiritual element at play therein.

As this concert opened up a performing space in which Chileans could reclaim their identities individually and communally, the concert stood as a drama in direct opposition to the drama of state-enacted torture that ruled the Chileans' lives for so long. Whereas torture divided communities into suspicious-minded, broken individuals, the concert brought them back together through familiar and emotionally-cathartic music. Whereas torture conflated time to the horrifying present, the concert recalled the past, and gave hope and possibility back to the present and future. Whereas torture broke down their bodies and minds, sometimes splitting the two apart from each other, the concert brought mind, body, and spirit back together in communal song. Whereas the torture was private and the scars made invisible, the stadium concert was as public as can be.5 Although it is a bit much to say that the concert mended what torture had torn apart, the concert at least became symbolic of the movement back towards wholeness. Elliott is right to note that the video recording is a testament, a monument even, that can serve as tangible evidence of this movement. Part of this movement involves the exorcism of the right-wing terror that had inhabited the Chilean people. This is a powerful image. Can communal song expel the demons of torture?

Communities that are dislodged from time, identity, body, etc., take comfort in anything that can bring them back to the ground of their existence. Elliott notes that there was a great attempt in the concert to provide this ground. The songs above, for example, were well-known tunes, but they also featured lyrics that carried connotations of loss and disappearance that jogged vivid memories for the concert attendees. Perhaps in these songs, the attendees rediscovered (at least for a time) their grounding in history.

This all sounds awfully familiar: analogies to Christian worship, anyone? The concert provided a liturgical experience of transformative healing outside of the church. Was this worship? I have more questions than I have information. I wonder whether the concert goers treated the concert as worship. I wonder what the Chilean Catholic Church's view of the event was, and what their stance was on these radical, musical, social movements in general. I wonder what the Chilean people's view of the church was by the end of the Pinochet years. I wonder what healing role the church tried to play around this time.

Beyond these historical curiosities, from a theological perspective, I would want to wonder about God's presence in non-religious, liturgical events such as this concert. Certainly I would affirm the concert as a site where transformation happened. I would also want to ask: What IS the role of the church in providing healing for the victims of torture? What can the church offer that a non-religious event cannot, if anything? And vice versa, what can a non-religious event offer that the church cannot, if anything? More specifically, is it presumptuous of me to ask what this concert provided that the Chilean churches could not? I realize that I'm taking one historian's interpretation of history in picking out one specific event to represent the healing of the Chilean people. There would certainly be other events to choose from. From what I gather of the structure of Cavanaugh's book, he gets to examples of how the church provides the site for transformation as well (I'm not there yet). I can guess one example: Eucharist.

PS. If you have time please read all of the Elliott article. It's fantastic.

1Richard Elliott, "Reconstructing the Event: Spectres of Terror in Chilean Performance," British Postgraduate Musicology 8 (Jun. 2006).
2William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998).
3Ibid., p.181.
4Since the above video on the right is cited as from 1990, I wonder whether the performance is from this very concert!
5Cavanaugh, pp. 21-71.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Tyler,

    Thank you for writing about my article so sympathetically. You are right to surmise that I was not writing from a religious perspective, although, as you also note, I had potential religious parallels in mind when I wrote. The important point for me was that events such as the one I wrote about provide a special (and, if you don't object to my using the word in this way, sacred) space for reflection, communion, the assertion of faith and the potential for resistance.

    You are also ought about the video. The clip you posted is from the concert I was writing about.

    Thanks again and best wishes,

    Richard Elliott