The Sunday Magazine

Exploring the soundtracks of political dissent

Political protests have seized the streets of major cities around the world. Hong Kong, Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Santiago, Chile, to name just a few. And these political movements have soundtracks. Music scholar Katia Chornik -- a classically trained violinist whose parents did time as political prisoners in Chile, discusses the songs that have inspired Chileans from the days of the Pinochet dictatorship to the protests roiling the country today.
A man plays the saxophone as demonstrators take part in a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile, November 20, 2019. (Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters)

Late at night, in defiance of a curfew imposed under martial law, Chilean soprano Ayleen Jovita Romero stood by her open bedroom window and sang her heart out

When she finished, cheers from the surrounding apartment blocks filled the night sky.

She was singing a famous piece called "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz", or "The Right to Live in Peace", by beloved Chilean musician Víctor Jara. It has become an anthem during the anti-government protests currently gripping Chile, and a group of Chilean musicians recorded a new version with lyrics that speak to the current protests.

The protests began in early October, sparked by a fare increase for the Santiago subway, and quickly transformed into a country-wide uprising about inequality. After several metro stations were burned, the government imposed martial law — for the first time since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

"It has been very moving to see this movement soundtracked with songs that are so relevant in the collective memory of Chileans," said Katia Chornik, a music scholar and cultural historian associated with the University of Manchester.

Chornik told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright there is a long tradition of people singing Jara's songs at protests, but "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz" is especially resonant today.

Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez was a Chilean teacher, theatre director, poet, singer-songwriter, and political activist. (STR New/Reuters Pictures Archive)

"This particular song was written originally in the context of the Vietnam War. He's pretty explicit in its message about peace, and unfortunately there has been a lot of violence from the part of the police and the armed forces. This violence is reminiscent of the very high level of repression during the dictatorship," she said. 

"Víctor Jara was one of the most notorious victims of the regime. He was assassinated just a couple of days after the coup … They recognized the power of music. The authorities probably thought he had too much power."

Music from the detention centres 

Chornik is the director of Cantos Cautivos a bilingual archive of music and testimonies from detention centres in the Pinochet era. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Captive Songs: Music in Political Detention Centres in Pinochet's Chile.

She said it's no surprise people turned to music for solace, courage and connection in the detention centres.

Music is a very human activity. I think people, in even in the most horrible conditions, still make music, and the most common thing is to sing.- Katia Chornik

"Music is a very human activity," she said. "I think people, in even in the most horrible conditions, still make music, and the most common thing is to sing."

She first began researching the role music played in the detention centres after reading a biography of Alma Rosé, the director of the women's orchestra at Auschwitz.

"Somehow that struck a chord, and I realized that … I was trying to get to a much more direct story, which was the story of my parents," she said.

Before she was born, both her parents were imprisoned in detention centres for opposing the Pinochet dictatorship.

In one testimony in Chornik's archive, María Fedora Peña tells the story of how she found a fragment of a melody composed by her father Jorge Peña Hen in solitary confinement, ten years after his death.

He was a famous classical composer, and the founder of the first children's orchestra in Latin America.

"He had this social music program to give every child an opportunity to play an instrument, regardless of their parents' income, and somehow that was seen as too dangerous an initiative by the authorities," Chornik said. "He was executed very shortly after the coup in October 1973."

Before his death, Hen wrote 10 bars of an unfinished melody.

"He wrote these 10 bars with a burnt match, and as paper, he used a matchbox," said Chornik.

A demonstrator waves a flag with the image of late Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara, who was detained and killed after the coup d'etat led by former dictator Augusto Pinochet, as protests against high living costs continue, in Santiago, Chile October 22, 2019. (Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters)

Creative forms of resistance 

Prisoners found creative and subtle ways to use music to speak back, even when they weren't allowed to sing explicit protest music.

At the Chacabuco concentration camp, prisoners convinced authorities to let them hold a weekly show. In a testimony in Chornik's archive, Jorge Montealegre Iturra remembers listening to a popular mariachi song called "Volver, Volver, Volver".

"[It's about] a very evil woman — of course — leaving the poor man, who is left abandoned and suffering. There's a particular line in this song that says something about, 'your love tortures me,'" Chornik said.

"The singer in the camp show always sang that particular line with a special feeling, and prisoners laughed. They had all gone through torture centres, so the word 'torture' was an accusation about what had happened."

Demonstrators holding a Mapuche flag take cover from a water spray during a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile, November 20, 2019. (Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters)

'A single choir was formed, free of walls and fences'

Music was often part of how prisoners celebrated special occasions, including when one of their own was released. 

In her testimony, Amelia Negrón remembers a night when she and her fellow prisoners sung a Spanish version of "Ode To Joy". They wanted to be heard by a young girl, nicknamed Lola, who had been released and lived in a nearby neighbourhood.

"She had been with us a few months and when the day of her release came, she cried and cried and cried. At last she was getting out, but she was taking the sadness of leaving us behind with her," Negrón said.

They planned their song for midnight on New Year's Eve.

"The voices of the nearly 120 women political prisoners in Tres Álamos concentration camp began singing "Ode to Joy" as loudly as we could, towards the sky. Beyond the walls that enclosed us, our voices leapt to reach the ears of our male comrades held in Pavilions 1 and 2, as they were called," Negrón said.

"The other prisoners held at Cuatro Álamos, still classified as disappeared because the dictatorship had not acknowledged their arrests, now probably knew where they were being held, upon hearing our song. Not only that, but Lola and all her friends from the neighbourhood, sitting on the curb in front of the prison gates, could hear us as well.

The gates were powerless to stop our voices and the voices of all our neighbours at the concentration camp.- Amelia Negrón

"Although closed, the gates were powerless to stop our voices and the voices of all our neighbours at the concentration camp. That night a single choir was formed, free of walls and fences." 

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.


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