by Vere McCarty
“Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto” – Thanks to life, that has given me so much. Joan Baez has been stirring audiences with this Nueva Canción standard for four decades. The lyrics, by Chilean singer Violeta Parra, are not overtly political, but they outline our connections with life – gratitude, vision, devotion – that lay the foundation for commitment to justice and peace.
In Latin America it was Native Argentine Mercedes Sosa, affectionately called “la negra”, who immortalized this and many other songs. In her resounding voice, to the pulse of Andino instruments, Ms. Sosa also interpreted Julio Numhauser’s “Todo cambia” – Everything changes… but my love does not change.
Arturo Sarmiento, host of “Hispanidades” on KMUZ radio, is a great fan of this music. Listen to his show Thursday mornings 9 to 11.
Nueva Canción, also called Canto Nuevo and Trova, is a movement that started in the 60s, with musical and political impulses comparable to the American folk music revival. Its Brazilian branch, Tropicália, adds Afro-Latin and Bossa Nova rhythms. The roots are diverse, but folk music is the taproot.
Music and poetry, as instruments for justice, are greatly feared by tyrants. Victor Jara, son of mestizo laborers, sang “Te recuerdo, Amanda,” empathizing with a factory worker who runs through the rain on her breaks to spend five minutes with her fiancé, who will soon go to fight and die in the mountains. In his “Manifiesto” the final words are “Siempre será canción nueva.” Victor Jara was assassinated, like his mentor Pablo Neruda, in the CIA-assisted coupe of 1973.
A favorite troubadour of mine is Cuban Silvio Rodríguez. Who else could write a ballad like “Unicornio”, with virtuoso piano, about an obsession with finding a lost blue unicorn? Silvio was allowed to attend Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party in 2009, one of the cultural exchanges that finally broke the ice between the Cuban and US governments.
If I can suggest something to a gringa or güero (like me) who wants to learn Spanish, why not pick out a canción and learn to sing it (especially perhaps if you think you can’t sing, a notion that is rare in Latin America). One may as well learn the rhythm and soul along with the other aspects of the language.
Why does Nueva Canción matter? Because throngs of people clap to the rhythms and sing these songs together. Because it is infused with the realism, and yet the infectious energy and optimism, of Latin America. Because it is an endless flow of lyricism and creativity. And for the reason expressed by León Gieco in the anthem Sólo le pido a Diós: I only ask of God that I may not be indifferent to pain… to injustice… to war… to deception… to the future.
Vere McCarty is a songwriter and former farmworker living in Silverton.