It was an inspired idea to link the Barbican's protest-pop festival to the events following Chile's own September 11, which occurred 30 years ago. That was when General Pinochet - using British jets - stormed the presidential palace, encouraged the president to shoot himself and initiated a purge of anyone considered seditious. Victor Jara, one of the most gifted and charismatic singer-songwriters ever, had his guitar-playing hands mashed before being machine-gunned to death against a cemetery wall.
But even under torture in Santiago's infamous boxing stadium - in company with hundreds of other activists, artists and intellectuals - Jara had gone on creating. The last lines of his last song - smuggled out by friends on scraps of paper - resonate more powerfully with each year that passes. "What I see, I have never seen/ What I have felt and what I feel/ Will give birth to the moment..." In a public interview after the screening of Companero - in which her husband's short life was movingly chronicled - Joan Jara told us that the stadium had been ritually "purified" by music, and that it had now been renamed after Victor Jara. Yes, "the moment" had come, but, as she sadly remarked, much too late.
The Barbican's festival ranged over four continents and crammed in more concerts, films, talks and workshops than one visitor could take in. De rigueur was Joel Katz's documentary on "Strange Fruit", that Billie Holiday anti-lynching signature tune, which was actually not "hers" at all. And in Philip King's Freedom Highway we got a film that admirably surveyed the musical terrain, from "Ol' Man River" to "We Shall Overcome", from Washington to Soweto, from Woody Guthrie to Tom Waits. As the Scottish singer Dick Gaughan, one of King's interviewees, explained, it was absurd to ask which bits of folk music were "political", because they all were, by definition.
Illness prevented the Waterson family from starring in the English Rebels evening, and we got sub-standard replacements. The pop-punk group Chumbawamba delivered a collection of curiosities in defiantly dour tones: it was moderately interesting to dig up a protest song from the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, but the earth didn't move.
They were followed by the a cappella trio Coope, Boyes and Simpson, whose radical sentiments could not be faulted, but whose styleless ditties drove me out to the bar. Politically speaking, we Brits still have a pretty cushy life, and our drab protest music reflects it.
The African concert came too late for inclusion in this review, but the Chilean night was tremendous. First up was Angel Parra, former colleague of Victor Jara and co-founder of the Nueva Cancion movement. This veteran singer-guitarist has a huge emotional range, and his songs reflect the hard realities that have given birth to them. The expat Chileans in the audience clapped along, joining in reverentially when he sang Jara's much-loved "Te Recuerdo, Amanda".
Next came Victor Heredia, a singer-guitarist from the other side of the Andes, but proclaiming solidarity across the Argentine-Chilean divide in his red-hot tenor timbre. Finally, bearded and greying but still in their trademark black ponchos, came the folk group Quilapayun, whom Jara had led before he struck out on his own. They brought the panpipes and charangas that were once their badge of sedition, and they made each number riveting. They, too, sang "Te Recuerdo" - "I Remember You" - but with Jara's own combative sadness.
'Victor Jara Complete' is out on the Pläne label
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