In February 1992, a Venezuelan colonel called Hugo Chávez, together with other officers from a movement that had formed within the military, led an unsuccessful coup attempt against the country’s repressive and deeply unpopular government. Two years later, on the very day he was released from prison having served time for his role in the failed coup, Colonel Chávez was asked by a journalist if he had a message for the people of Venezuela. ‘Yes’, he announced, ‘Let them listen to Alí Primera’s songs!’. Within five years, having formed a new political organisation and mounted a campaign rooted in Alí Primera’s songs, Hugo Chávez had been elected president of Venezuela with fifty-six percent of the vote, thus becoming the first head of state without links to the country’s establishment parties in over forty years.
Who was Alí Primera, and what role did his songs play in Chávez’s widespread political appeal and repeated electoral successes in Venezuela? These are the questions that have inspired my recent research into the politics of popular music in Venezuela in the Chávez period.
Latin American popular music, and the dynamic ways in which marginalised and subordinated sectors of society use it, has always fascinated me. Indeed, it was through music, or more specifically through the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement within which Alí Primera operated as a cantautor, that I first learned about Latin American politics and became active in solidarity campaigns in the UK as an undergraduate in the 1980s. Emerging in the late 1950s in the Southern Cone, with roots partly in a neo-folklore revival, Nueva Canción was a broad and heterogeneous movement shaped by massive rural-urban migration and by the social and political struggles of the time. A reaction to the dangers perceived to lie in the increasing influence of the recording industry and to the massive penetration of foreign music which threatened to stifle local production, the movement brought together singer/songwriters, leftist intellectuals and large sectors of the public throughout the continent at a time when the success of the Cuban Revolution acted as a powerful source of inspiration. Nueva Canción practitioners believed that popular culture was absolutely central to effecting the change in collective consciousness which they considered to be a necessary precedent to the radical re-organisation of society in the interests of the masses.
Diffusing their music via direct contact with their audiences, and via sales of records produced independently or for labels affiliated with leftist political parties, Nueva Canción practitioners combined vernacular, poetic and often socially committed lyrics with musical forms influenced principally by folk and troubadour traditions. Crucially, Nueva Canción artists aimed not only to protest against social, political, racial and economic injustices but also to propose alternative ways of seeing, experiencing and organising society, to affirm alternative readings of their daily experiences and of their nations’ histories, to support leftist revolutionary struggles throughout the world, and to celebrate previously denigrated indigenous, African, mestizo and popular values. During the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, Nueva Canción provided large sectors of civil society in Latin America with a symbolic political language with which to resist state repression. In exile, Nueva Canción artists played an important role in the struggles to raise awareness of human rights abuses in Latin America.
Though it was an emblematic music of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Latin America, brutal authoritarian regimes in the Southern Cone, combined with the Central American counterinsurgencies of the 1980s, appeared by the 1990s to have largely eradicated leftist movements in the region. Moreover, the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent isolation of Cuba together with the electoral demise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1990 seemed to mark the end of a viable socialism. On the threshold of the twenty-first century, many assumed that the fragmentation of the political left rendered Nueva Canción and its associated values and ideas no longer relevant. However, Chávez’s use of Alí Primera’s Nueva Canción legacy to construct a political persona and to forge a profound connection with the historically marginalised masses shows the opposite; that popular music can remain in the collective memory in complex and dynamic ways, and that its power reaches far beyond the temporal and geographical contexts within which it was originally composed and circulated.
State support for Alí Primera’s Nueva Canción legacy in the Chávez period allowed the government to represent itself as a break with the previous order, and as bringing to fruition the goals of the Nueva Canción movement within which Alí operated. Thus popular music provided Chávez with the cultural resources to successfully identify himself with the poor and marginalised masses in Venezuela, and they with him. In Latin America, music is often much more than mere entertainment; it embodies political values, memories and feelings. Music constitutes a realm in which political ideas and social identities are asserted, resisted, contested and negotiated. Venezuela in the Chávez era offers a unique case study of these complex and dynamic processes.
Thanks for really interesting insight into the interactions between music and politics, Hazel! If you want to get in touch, Hazel‘s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org