In September 1973, during the military coup to oust President Salvador Allende, a group of friends sat together in Estadio Chile (Chile Stadium) amidst thousands of other people held captive by fascists. One of the friends, Victor Jara, was busy composing a song on a scrap of paper. Before being dragged away, he managed to pass the song to a friend who hid it in his shoe. This would be his last song.
Victor Jara’s story is told by his wife, Joan Jara, in her powerful biography Victor: an unfinished song (Bloomsbury, 1998). Victor Jara came from a poor and underprivileged background outside Santiago. His mother was of Mapuche Indian extraction and he inherited her gift for playing the guitar and singing folk songs. His mother struggled hard to ensure that her children received an education and Victor developed to be Chile’s most prominent folk singer as well as becoming a theatre director and gaining university posts.
He never forgot his poor background and he loved to travel from his home near the Andes to meet ordinary workers and compose songs about them. He revelled in their traditions, their dances and their folklore, but as well as singing about the beauty of the Chilean people’s culture, he also sang about their suffering.
Life was harsh for the poor people of Chile. During a strike in El Salvador in 1965, for example, miners and their wives were shot by armed police, and when a number of destitute people tried to make their home in Puerto Montt, many of them were shot dead. Jara was deeply wounded by the massacre of Puerto Montt, and he sang a passionate protest song. For some, this guitarist and singer was far too vocal and he became a special target for the fascists in Chile Stadium.
Victor Jara’s friends remembered his warm smile when he recognised them at the Stadium, although he had already been injured. Before being killed by a soldier, his hands were smashed and he was mockingly asked to perform – if he could. Never to hold his guitar again, he sang for the last time. A command was issued to destroy all his works and every recording of his voice. The beautiful sounds of the indigenous musical instruments were also banned.
Jara’s unfinished song successfully left the Stadium in his friend’s shoe and the banned recordings left Chile.
Across the Atlantic, Welsh singers Dafydd Iwan and James Dean Bradfield, of the Manic Street Preachers, have paid moving tributes to the bravery of a man who said in one of his songs that he would die singing. The National Library of Wales holds sound recordings of both men’s tributes to Jara: Dafydd Iwan’s song may be heard on the cassette Bod yn rhydd (1979) and James Bradfield’s songs on his new album Even in exile.
The album’s first song is entitled Recuerda – Remember.