A Tribute to Victor Jara

Expression and subversion.

…Song, how imperfect you are!
It terrifies me to find myself
Lost in infinite moments
On which silence and shouts
Are the objectors of my song … – Victor Jara

Last summer, I was asked by the Latin American Solidarity Centre (LASC) to participate in a Tribute Concert for Victor Jara. It was under the banner of ‘An Unfinished Song’, and took place at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on 11 September 2003. The purpose of this celebration of song, music, poetry and acting was to commemorate the life and times of one of Chile’s famous heroes, Victor Jara, who died around 16 September 1973, when he was murdered by General Pinochet’s armed forces – assisted, let us not forget, by the then US Government-backed coup of 11 September 1973. The date of the horrific coup, ‘9/11’, serves as a reminder of what in more recent times has caused death and suffering on a huge scale.

So delighted I was to hear about this concert that I told Eamon McCaughey (LASC) that, although I hadn’t yet made plans for my summer holidays, I would ensure that I would be present on the day. Why was I so excited? When I was about ten years old, there were two posters in the bedroom that I shared with my two elder brothers. One was of Che Guevara (the Argentinian ‘Cuban’ guerrilla) and the other was of three or four young soldiers encircled, laughing as they were burning books. ‘Chile 1973’ was imprinted on the bottom right-hand corner of this poster. Where was this country? Who were these soldiers? What was their nationality? Why were they laughing and what books were being burned ?

In the early 1980s my brother Oisín introduced me to the songs and music of Victor Jara. I was impressed by the sincerity of his voice and particularly by the musical arrangements of his songs. Little did I know that thirty years later I would be asked to participate in a concert commemorating the life of this songwriter and political activist. Whilst I don’t normally like to speak at such events, I felt a compelling urge to say a few words. It was as if fate had dictated and I had a meaningful purpose to be present that day and make known my thoughts to the public: my affinity with this artist was real.

I thought of an Irish context. Last year, we in this country were commemorating the life of Robert Emmet, the revolutionary poet/republican who, also, was brutally murdered amd who went to his death two hundred years ago last September. What’s the connection between these two you might ask? For me the connection lies in their youthfulness, their commitment to change, their sheer determination and, I believe, their integrity. Each of them was a victim of the twisted hand of facism. In the short time they each had on this earth, they accomplished what most of us in a lifetime would hope to achieve. They provided inspiration and paid the ultimate sacrifice. They each saw his role as subverting the status quo. They were each messengers.

There is probably not one of you who doesn’t want change to be brought about in society, in some form or fashion. The question posed by Victor Jara’s legacy is: what price are we prepared to pay to bring about that change?

Victor Jara did not choose to be held incommunicado in the national stadium, but it is inconceivable to think that faced with the brutality of facism he would have chosen to be anywhere else, away from his people and in a situation whereby he could not afford solace and comfort through his songs. Perhaps in such circumstances, there is no better manifestation of one’s true character or of ones’ soulful expression than to look death in the eye as Victor did and sing.

Coming from a proud combined tradition of those who subvert the status quo – or push out the ‘artificial’ boundaries imposed by societies – with an instrument in one hand, whether it be a musical instrument, a paintbrush, pen and paper, or indeed, a camera, complimented by the intellectual expression of sound, whether spoken or expressed in song, or alternatively, complimented by the colour of paint onto canvas, Victor Jara belongs to that venerated group of artists who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his artistic expression.

Those who engage in change provide inspiration. Part of this inspiration led us artists to be in the NCH on 11 September 2003. We each came from different backgrounds, but we were joined together as artists to pay homage in the way which comes naturally to us. Through my musical expression, complimented by Martin Dunlea’s instrument – the guitar, which was Victor’s allay – we salute you Victor and Joan, your wife, and the Victor Jara Foundation in Santiago, Chile, for continuing to send out the message.

Published on 1 January 2004

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