Putsch sent Inti-Illimani on 15-year European tour
U.S. citizens remember September 11, 2001, as the day al-Qaeda fanatics brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York City. For Chileans, however, it was exactly 28 years earlier that another, equally bloody atrocity took place: the U.S.–backed military coup that toppled the social-democratic government of Salvador Allende.
Jorge Coulón wasn’t home that day in 1973, which saved him from becoming one of General Augusto Pinochet’s victims. His friend Victor Jara was not so lucky; tortured before being shot, the charismatic songwriter died in the coup. Coulón and his bandmates in Inti-Illimani got off relatively lightly, as the singer, guitarist, and pan-pipe player explains on the line from his home in Santiago.
“We were on our first European tour when the military putsch occurred,” Coulón says, speaking in mildly accented English. “When we were in Rome we heard about the putsch—and so our European tour was 15 years long.”
Remarkably, Coulón doesn’t sound bitter. Instead, he cites Inti-Illimani’s lengthy exile as a learning experience. “We decided to live with the windows open,” he says genially. “We began to learn about Mediterranean music, Celtic music.…North African music was another surprise, because we have a lot of North Africa in our Spanish roots; Andalusia was an Arabic country when America was discovered. So we discovered a lot of new sounds, and a lot of familiar sounds, in world music, at a time when the term world music hadn’t been invented.”
Then as now, however, the core of Inti-Illimani’s sound came from the Andean instruments that Coulón and company first encountered as engineering students.
“Maybe because our studies were so technical, in our university we had a lot of cultural activity,” he notes. “We fell in love with the music of the Andes, principally Bolivian and Peruvian music, and in 1967 we began to play together.”
The decision to focus on Andean music was primarily aesthetic, he adds; Inti-Illimani’s reputation as a political band was almost thrust on it by Pinochet’s coup. Even so, learning such instruments as the charango, siku, and rondador had an implicitly political dimension: they came from the indigenous people of the Andes, then very much an underclass in a culture still closely linked to Spain.
“Forty-five, 50 years ago, the situation of indígenas was so, so depressed,” Coulón says. “You can imagine about that, I think, because it was not very different in North America. In 50 years, that has changed a lot; in society there has been a re-evaluation of diversity.”
Since returning to Chile in 1988, the members of Inti-Illimani have played a significant role in popularizing South America’s indigenous music, while continuing to expand their own sonic horizons. The group’s most recent release, 2010’s Meridiano, found it teaming up with Québécois singer Francesca Gagnon to cover a selection of Cirque du Soleil themes. Coulón describes the experience as “wonderful”, an adjective he’s also happy to apply to his life as a musician.
“My old university companions are now all big executives in the industry of electricity here in Chile, but everybody tells me ‘I envy you,’ ” he says, laughing. “And my wife tells me I have a profession where, when I work, people applaud. Nobody else has this work!”
Inti-Illimani plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday (April 24).