The music of Latin American revolution

Daniel Antonio Villar explores the legacy of the Nueva Trova

Let us play a little game of word association. Caribbean Music. What do you imagine when you read those words? Scantily clad women moving their hips in tropical rhythms on the beach? Men in guayaberas dancing the night away between swigs of rum? How about biting social commentary, and the basis of political movements? Because that is precisely what the Nueva Trova Cubana, and other associated movements across Latin America, were.

Between the rhythms and the dancing, there was denunciation of poverty, of landlords and exploiters, all, a constant jeremiad against “imperialismo yanqui”.

The nueva trova began in Cuba, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Combining the traditional rhythms of Cuban music with new political lyrics, it was an attempt of the artists to bring the revolution into people’s lives in an artistic manner.

Its most prominent practitioners on that isle were revolutionaries who ever faltered in their belief that 1959 was the birthdate of a new dawn in Cuba.

They were men like Carlos Puebla, who spoke of how before the revolution the rich “conspired against the people, continuing their exploitation, but then arrived Fidel, and he ordered that to end”, and Silvio Rodriguez, whose moving ballad ‘Playa Girón’ about the cruel US-attempted invasion inspired a generation of revolutionaries to honour the memory of those who died against the American empire.

The nueva trova may have begun in Cuba, but it quickly spread from there to other countries. Outside Cuba, the greatest practitioner of the nueva trova was Victor Jara of Chile. A revolutionary, who used his music to help Salvador Allende win the Chilean presidency in 1970, his lyrics spoke of the poor and oppressed in Chile, and sang praises to those, from Allende to Che Guevara, who would help them fight capitalism.

So dangerous was Jara, that Pinochet had him murdered after his coup launched fascism in Chile. It was under the dictatorships that were fostered upon Latin America by the United States that nueva trova was at its most revolutionary. Under democratic or revolutionary states it was easy enough being a lefty musician, but under fascist dictatorship nueva trova became a song of resistance.

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In Nicaragua, Carlos Mejía Godoy gave succour to Sandinistas as they liberated their nation from Somosa’s oppression; in Uruguay Daniel Viglietti was arrested and beaten by the fascist military po- lice; and in Argentina the music of Mercedes Sosa was sung in secret by those who wished to overthrow Videla’s regime.

When you listen to nueva trova without knowing the lyrics, it sounds like any other popular mu- sic: fun, and very easy to dance to. But this is music with a purpose: to energise the people to fight their exploiters, be they American imperialists or native capitalists.

The time when the CIA would overthrow any palest pink social democratic government is over, but the exploitation of the peasant and worker in Latin America still continues. And so long as it does, there will still be a place for nueva trova.