Playing Because of Passion
A conversation with Jorge Coulon of Inti Illimani
Gabriel San Roman
Inti Illimani, one of the world's best known musical ambassadors of Chile's New Song Movement, visits Los Angeles to mark their fortieth anniversary.
Published on LatinoLA: July 12, 2007
Since 1967, the accomplished Chilean band, Inti Illimani, has created a historic musical legacy by fusing traditional Andean music with Latin America's best known musical forms. As principal musicians in a cultural phenomenon known as Nueva Cancion, Inti Illimani has written and performed some of the world's best known protest songs. Unlike many other musical dissenters, Inti Illimani, experienced the opportunity of singing songs of victory following the historic presidential election in 1970 that brought Salvador Allende to power in Chile. The experience was short-lived, however, as the band was forced into exile following the military coup in 1973.
Decades later, Inti Illimani has evolved to include many new and younger members. The band maintains its masterful musicianship while forging ahead with new musical innovations as is displayed on their forty-third album "Pequeno Mundo." Inti Illimani's sound continues to be a cultural mosaic of Latin America featuring more than thirty string, wind, and percussion instruments. As members of a musical movement that carries with it the wounds of fascism and political exile, Inti Illimani's beautifully melodic arrangements and songs of hope are an affirming testament to Latin America's resiliency.
I spoke with founding member Jorge Coulon directly from Valparaiso, Chile.
San Roman: Let's start by going back in time. Forty years ago, in 1967, what was happening musically and culturally in Chile?
Jorge Coulon: History is complicated because people who live the history have a tendency to rebuild it in a logical order, but things happen in many ways. The situation in Chile was, from my point of view, a very, very depressed cultural situation. We were a colony of the record companies based in Mexico and in the United States. We did not have Chilean music on the radio at that time or in the media. We discovered, at that time, the work of people like Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, and many others who were for many years working with popular music in Chile in the complete underground. Violeta Parra, at that time, invited to Chile some musicians from different parts of Latin America. For us it was a revelation to discover the music from the Andes, from Bolivia, to discover music from Venezuela, and also, at the time, there was a big movement of popular music in Argentina. We began to play music with these roots and it was an explosion. The audience was ready for that. This is the origin of the group. We began to learn to play instruments like quena, pan pipes and the charango. We discovered in Colombia the tiple, which is a smaller steel stringed guitar. We began to blend all these sounds. The response of the public, among the universities students and among the musical underground in Chile was enormous.
Q: And how did you find yourself becoming a member of a band called "Inti Illimani?"
A: I have a family tradition in music. I was a student in electrical engineering at Santiago Technical University, but we have an enormous tradition of music in my family. I was always starting groups. I was in a group before with Max Berru who was another founding member of Inti Illimani. In the year 1967, we met in the University with another couple of friends; Horacio Duran, and Pedro Yanez. With them, we began to principally play instrumental music.
A: Looking back forty years, as a young man, did you ever have a sense in the beginning of what Inti Illimani would become? What the destiny of the group would be?
Q: Absolutely not! We began playing because of passion. We had no ideas of success or anything like that. About four years after the start of Inti Illimani, the first one who spoke about that was an artistic director of a group in Chile who was an Argentinean, and who told us, "Boys, maybe we have here a very important musical question, a very important musical phenomenon. Maybe we are beginning a very important thing." We have played, and I hope we continue to play principally for the passion. We do not play music thinking of making history. We have never had big economical success, anyway. The principal reason to play music is passion and in my case continues to be.
A: Given the history of Inti Illimani, you often say that you don't want the group to become a museum of itself. How do you find a balance between your historic legacy, which your audience desires to see and your new material?
Q: This has always been a difficult balance. In a way, it is one basis of the group. We have always been looking to find new ways to develop our sound and identity. We have a very good audience, we must say, because they understand that. It's true that many people want us to sing the same songs. I think this is the principal problem for a musician because music is part of the life of the people. When you write a song, you don't know how the song will take on its own life and its own road. You don't know how this song will touch people in whatever moment of their life. It happens to everybody, and to me also. I'll fall in love with a song, and this is my song, and when I go to the concert of a musician who plays this song, I want this song to be played, because it's mine more than his. Musicians many times become prisoners of their own songs. We try to avoid that and for that we need the complicity of people. We play old songs, because we like all our songs, but we would like to show you something that we are doing now. Our audience understands that and it's not a big problem now. It was a problem, maybe ten years ago.
A: Since Inti Illimani's very beginnings, political and social commentary have been an important part of the group's legacy. How do you define the political aspect of the group's music?
Q: Each one of us has always been personally, not only as musicians but as individuals, very engaged in social questions. Latin America is a very hard continent to live in because there are many contrasts. We have many riches here. We have enormous riches in the mines, the sea, and the woods. We have many resources, but we see that the same time our people live in really horrible conditions. It is difficult not to have a social sensibility in this way. But we don't want to be a political group in literal sense of the word. Music is a language and we don't want to use this language to do small politics. But at the same time, music has the right to speak about everything, not only about love, not only about landscapes, but also has the right to express all the passions of human beings. One of the important passions of human beings is politics, the sense of justice, the sense of hope, and the need to build a world where the people can live in peace. Song has the right to speak about all these questions. I think that a popular musician or singer who sings only love songs in some ways is also political by avoiding other things such as social questions.
Q: As part of this 40th year anniversary, Inti Illimani has released its latest album, "Pequeno Mundo." What are your thoughts on the album? What creative risks have been taken?
A: The album takes the risk, for instance, of there not being any political songs! It's not because we didn't want to have them. Maybe next album we will have many. We don't know that because we don't plan that. But musically, I think it has interesting proposals. There is a song called, "Rondombe," that is based in rhythms from Uruguay and African-Uruguayan music. There are some improvisations that come more from jazz than from other sources. There is also the last song called, "Tu Pequeno Mundo," which blends symphonic instruments with our traditional music. It is difficult to speak about our music. I feel a little about uncomfortable speaking about the music that we do, but I think we are completely happy with the record. It is a very accomplished record. It is a record that you can hear and say this is Inti Illimani but at the same time say wow, there are some strange things!
Q: As someone who has traveled the world numerous times, and visited its various regions, how have your travels influenced you as a person and as a musician? People who come to see Inti Illimani will hear more than just Chilean and Andean music, will they not?
A: Since 1973, when we became exiled musicians after the coup in Chile, we began to come in contact with different musical realities. I always say you can not immediately translate your experiences in music. An experience like the coup in Chile and living in exile was not immediately reflected in our music. But with time, you began to process in your unconscious all these experiences and sooner or later it comes out in the music. Since, in more than thirty years, we have come in contact with many different musical experiences I think it necessarily comes out in the music we are doing today. In that sense, I'm sure that we are a group that has a less local and more universal sound today. But at the same time it is our life and I think that we must be honest. We are musicians of today, living today. I have two million frequent flyer miles from American Airlines. This is my life of today. I would like to bring to this world of the twenty-first century my roots, but living today, not in the roots, but in the top of tree.
Q: Since the controversial split years ago in which some original members left and ultimately formed another group under the same name, Inti Illimani has invited both new and young members. There are detractors who criticize this group as not the "real" or "true" Inti Illimani. How do you respond to such views?
A: Every view has an authority. They have the right to think. I'm sure our group is not the Inti Illimani that they have in their minds, but I don't know. The group has been playing permanently during these forty years and we have never stopped. We have had twenty-two musicians in our history. This is Inti Illimani of today, of continuity and of the consequence of these forty years of work. If you have a fixed idea about what is Inti Illimani, well, it has always been different. This Inti Illimani is not the same as the Inti Illimani of fifteen years ago and the Inti Illimani of fifteen years ago was not the same as the Inti Illimani of the beginning. Life is like that. Life is always changing and we are always changing.
Q: Years ago, Horacio Duran, before he left the group, would say that his friend likened Inti Illimani to an archetype.
A: Archetype, yes, this is a good definition. We are in some way like societies. The United States of America is not the same country as in George Washington's time. But in some way, the organization, the organism, the identity of the country is changing, but there are things that are the same. It is difficult to explain or discuss this. I am sure that many people who like Inti Illimani like the group of thirty years ago. When I hear our records from that time, I say "Wow we did wonderful things. Why don't we play this song? That was a wonderful song." It has happened to me. But it is necessary that if you are alive, you are changing. You have no choice.
Q: Speaking about life and changing, what is the future of Inti Illimani?
A: It is a question that I am sure will have different answers if you ask me or if you ask some of the younger members of the group because the perspective of life changes with age. I would like for the group to continue because for me it is like a planted tree. I want the group to continue beyond me when it is necessary for me to leave the group. It would be fantastic if the group can continue like an idea or an institution. New people can come and bring with them with new ideas and we can have a group with deep roots in our culture but also one that is living in the society of the times. For me that would be the best. I don't want the group to end with me. The concept of the group is difficult to explain because normally bands, especially in rock music, depend many times on one leader. Without the leader the band disappears. We have been a real democratic group. The work in creating songs and in rehearsing has been participatory and inclusive of all members. I would like to perpetuate this style, but I can not know what will happen in the future. This is my desire.
Gabriel San Roman:
Gabriel San Roman co-produces Uprising, a popular drive time public affairs show on KPFK Pacifica Radio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org