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Haiti and Chile: Singing strength

March 6, 2010

In the aftermath of the 8.8 earthquake that killed hundreds in Chile, many are making the inevitable comparison between Chile and Haiti, where a smaller earthquake killed more than 200,000 people.

NPR and other news sources have focused on how Chile was more “prepared” — its buildings more sound, its infrastructure more “developed,” its people more accustomed to the earth shaking under their feet. This focus leaves out the legacy of violence and intervention in both countries.

A strange window is opened up by “natural” disaster, one that allows outside witnesses to forget the history of a country’s suffering in light of the immediate horror of the moment. But the past and present suffering are inseparable.

In 1973, the U.S. helped knock down democratically-elected President Salvador Allende in Chile, replacing him with a dictator who killed thousands and terrorized the country. In Haiti, the U.S. has intervened militarily countless times over the course of the country’s 200-year history. The Haitian economy has been crippled by the cycle of dependence and debt brought by international loans and privatization.  And the uncritical call for “helping Haiti” threatens to continue that cycle, throwing loans and — among other useless things — Jessica Simpson’s shoes at Haitians.

But musicians in Chile and Haiti have resisted this cycle with their bodies and their voices. When outside powers threaten to impose, music can be a powerful way to communicate personal and political boundaries. While money and shoes may flood in, music flows out, communicating the humanity and strength of a people in a way that disaster footage does not.

In Chile, musician Victor Jara and the rest of the  Nueva canción movement, blazed by Violeta Parra, resisted dictatorship and supported Allende during the second half of the 20th century. In a speech before the Lannan Foundation in 2002, Arundhati Roy spoke of Jara’s death at the hands of Pinochet’s death squad:

“Chileans tell the story of how the musician Victor Jara had his hands cut off in front of a crowd in the Santiago stadium. Before they shot him, Pinochet’s soldiers threw his guitar at him and mockingly asked him to play.”

Nueva cancionista and Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa was forced to flee her own country because of the political threat posed by her music during the Argentine Dirty War.

Haiti has its own history of folk music and hip hop. The documentary  Ghosts of Cité Soleil tells the story of gang leaders in a Port-au-Prince slum who sling guns and compose politically charged hip hop. A trailer for the documentary Haiti: Redemption Songs shows musicians speaking about the importance of music in their lives in the aftermath of the 2004 coup against Aristide.

Haitian political folk singer and activist Manno Charlemagne sang out against military rule and the ruling classes. He faced exile twice in the 1980s and 1990s. Charlemagne became such an important popular figure in Haiti that he won a race for mayor in 1995. He now lives in the United States.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the tradition of folk music may provide a forum for songs about suffering. The New York Times recently highlighted a musician who continues the folk tradition after the earthquake by singing of the suffering that belongs to the Haitian people.

Beyond those voices, and perhaps most importantly, there are the ones we don’t hear.

Video: Music by Haitian folk singer Manno Charlemagne and footage that shows poverty and military intervention before the earthquake.

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