The Legacy of the Nueva Canción: An Interview with Patricio Manns

Patricio Manns, Chilean poet, author, singer and songwriter is one of the few whose work is a testimony to history. Despite current trends and contemporary politics, which contribute a difference to ideology and culture, Manns remains committed to the universality of the Nueva Canción, and continues to be a revolutionary voice, recognizing the necessity of it and promoting the movement through his numerous works.
More than three decades ago, in September 1973, the world witnessed the horrors unleashed in Chile following the military coup of right wing military dictatorship Augusto Pinochet. But prior to the coup in Chile, there was a movement that elevated music to a higher consciousness. The Nueva Canción was the revolutionary song of Chile and other Latin American countries, and its strength lay in its loyalty to the people and delivery of its political message and social change.

In adhering to the social message within the music – fighting injustice, oppression and dictatorships, several artists of Nueva Canción suffered when their home countries were flagellated by right-wing regimes. For instance, Victor Jara was tortured and brutally murdered in the Estadio Chile.

The Pinochet regime was so concerned with the powerful message of the Nueva Canción that it strived to ban the genre of music, together with traditional musical instruments associated with the revolutionary style of songs. Other prominent singers and groups, such as Inti Illimani, Quilapayun and Patricio Manns were exiled.

Today, Nueva Canción artists are of a lesser number. Patricio Manns, Chilean poet, author, singer and songwriter is one of the few whose work is a testimony to history. Despite current trends and contemporary politics, which contribute a difference to ideology and culture, Manns remains committed to the universality of the Nueva Canción, and continues to be a revolutionary voice, recognizing the necessity of it and promoting the movement through his numerous works.

Patricio Manns’ song, De Pascua Lama, has been chosen to represent Chile in the Festival de Vina del Mar 2011. The Pascua Lama mining project, located in the Andes south of Atacama, has been the source of controversy ever since Barrick Gold obtained permission to mine for gold in the area, which straddles the Chilean – Argentinean border. Despite numerous protests and petitions, both the Chilean and the Argentinean governments approved of the project, which has left many families pondering the situation of their livelihood.

On its website, Barrick Gold claims that the Pascua Lama project is subject to more than 400 conditions that strive to ensure the protection of the glaciers and the environment. The project is described as one that will create thousands of jobs for Chileans in the area over the projected 25-year span of the mine. Barrick Gold has stated that it will not be mining the gold partially lying under the glaciers, after outrage from environmentalists at the proposal of shifting the ice from the glaciers to the Guanaco glacier, which lies on the Chilean – Argentinean border.

However, many Chileans have expressed doubt over these statements. The Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza Glaciers, which are located in Pascua Lama, are described as a vital source of water for farmers in the area, which suffers from rain shortages and relies on water from the glaciers. According to Chilean environmentalist group Sustainable Chile, the Toro 1 and Toro 2 glaciers have already suffered damage from mine exploration.

There is also an abundant oasis in the Huasco valley which is nurtured by careful irrigation of water that comes from the glaciers. It is the source of livelihood for the 70,000-person community living in the area. Farmers fear the water being used for irrigation will be contaminated by cyanide from the mines.

The mining is perceived as incompatible with agriculture, there is a fear of destruction of the eco-system in the area, displacement of the community, and the settling of dust on the glaciers will cause them to melt more quickly. The white hues of the glaciers reflect light from the sun and the process might be reversed. The dust will absorb the heat, causing a more rapid meltdown of the glaciers and a possibility of draining the reservoirs.

According to an extract from “Exile of the Cóndor: Transnational Hegemony on the Border: the Mining Treaty Between Chile and Argentina” (Moon, Padilla and Alcayata, Santiago, 2004), the vicinity of the Estrecho River is being used as the site for waste rock dumping, maintenance of mine equipment and the storage of explosives. The Estrecho River is considered to be the only remaining source of uncontaminated water in the area.

De Pascua Lama voices the people’s concerns about the mining project, just as a few decades ago the Nueva Canción served to unite the people in a wave against right wing dictatorships. The necessity of the Nueva Canción will prevail. As Patricio Manns states in his interview, there is also the need for people to realise that the conditions necessary for the revival of the song are with us today – the artists must take up the opportunity once again.

Ramona Wadi: How did the concept of memory change throughout the exile years? How would you define the exile period?

Patricio Manns: It is a well known fact that memory betrays – that is, it alters our recollections through a strange process. I had the occasion to experience this betrayal of memory during my exile, which lasted thirty years, and again on my return to Chile. For some reason, streets, plazas, faces, hills, rivers and seas appeared to me as something that was not part of, or very different from my ‘memories’. I noted these modifications in a book of memoirs. “Far from the certainties of your own surroundings, amid your observations of exile, separated from that luxurious pleasure of inhabiting the familiar, among your own people, you are never secure, you are never sure of anything, never. Every day, you go deeper into that otherworldly trance where we barely begin to realize that we are becoming endlessly, deeply, irrevocably corrupted. Corrupted by the imaginary.

RW: Is there any difference between the songs you wrote prior to the exile, the songs written during the exile, and those written after?

PM: Think of it as almost equivalent to my life. My first songs are babbling questions, small musical pieces that try to say something without finding the right words. But as you progress through life, your understanding, your appreciation of things, changes. If you manage to achieve the power of your craft, those same songs, or their themes, will be much more reflective, more perceptive, expressed in greater depth. This depth did not exist before my exile experience. And that is fundamental for an analysis of my work. During my exile I saw the world, I saw people, I learned other languages, and I came into contact with another kind of music. I returned to Chile another person. The person who left Chile was stuck somewhere on the planet, and is now no longer necessary.

RW: What is the importance of the Nueva Canción today in Latin America, where socialist movements have gained strength?

PM: The original spirit of the Nueva Canción has been lost; the replacement generation has not yet appeared. And cultural policies do not facilitate its appearance. I feel I am an orphan in my work to conserve the premises and ideals of that movement, but I have continued to emphasise the importance of the Nueva Canción — and this has made my work necessary.

RW: Did the Nueva Canción undergo any changes in its messages to the poblacion?

PM: I believe that in Latin America, song continues to develop. Although it seems to me that at times there are pauses. The vehemence and creativity of the past no longer exists, and many people of the Nueva Canción have died, people who today would be essential for its revival. Furthermore, there are concrete facts: singing to a triumphant movement is not the same as singing to a defeated movement. Triumphant movements inspire suspicion and mistrust toward the creator. Because it is an act in perpetual movement, its days are unpredictable.

RW: Is the Nueva Cancion universal? Would you say its message is relevant today within the West, where capitalism seems to be the order of the day?

PM: The Nueva Canciónes (of various countries) are universal. I receive people from all over the world several times a year, who ask me questions about the Nueva Canción, from Hong Kong to New York. The movement is still a political and cultural reference, at least in the West.

RW: How does the Nueva Canción explore society? The political through the social or vice-versa?

PM: The Nueva Canción has given extraordinary power to popular song, stripping away the residue of nostalgic memories and patriarchal shadows, replacing them with pride, perseverance and resistance – these are the materials we are working with. For example, right now in Chile the conditions exist for the revival of the Nueva Canción, if those who are called to revive it can perceive it in that way and understand the opportunity.

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog at

More information about Patricio Manns and his work can be found at which is mainly in Spanish with a few links of his work translated into English.