By Gary Lain
All rights reserved.
A broad river the color of red clay; someone mutters that the river is a dump for bauxite waste. On a Blue Mountain hillside a cluster of shanties that turn out to be fruit stands. For two Jamaican dollars (two cents U.S.), baked ears of corn and roasted breadfruit eaten with slivers of salt fish, long strings of tangerines and oranges, bananas off the tree, massive pineapples, and deep red Ethiopian apples.
(Joan Jara): One evening soon after I arrived in Valparaiso, I was walking home as it was getting cold and dark. I saw what I thought was a bundle of rags on the pavement. A hungry-looking mongrel lying beside it snarled as I walked past. When I looked closer, I saw that it was two boys huddled together under a ragged blanket, trying to sleep and keep warm where a furnace vent gave a little heat to the pavement. These were los pelusas, stray children who had run away from their homes in the shanty towns and survived by begging, stealing and scavenging for scraps of food. The sight of them sparked an anger inside me that marked the beginning of my political education.
I’m writing you this letter from the edge of the world.
With an estimated twenty thousand country people a year moving to Kingston every year, the lure of Rastafari provided focus and meaning, an alternative to the limbo of the slums. In 1959 Rasta street riots provoked a formal study of the cult by Kingston University, which made recommendations on behalf of the Rastas. But police equated the Rastafarians with the ganja trade, and where once the brethren had been committed to mental hospitals without evidence, in the early ’60’s brothers who flashed their dreadlocks on the street “disappeared.” In 1963 the pressure got to a group of Rastas: they hacked up a disrespectful gas station attendant in Coral Gardens. Then they burned the gas station, sacked a hotel and killed a guest. The army was called in; after a general round up, in which hundreds of non-violent Dreadlocks were also imprisoned, Rastafari became synonymous with terrorism in the official discourse. Three Coral Gardens Rastas were subsequently hanged.
(Joan Jara): I traveled in the Chilean National Ballet north to Iquique. There we danced in a miniature theater made entirely of wood, with hand-carved seats and balconies. Sarah Bernhardt and other European artists had performed in this same theater for millionaires, the colonial owners and managers of the local nitrate mines (the nitrates used for gunpowder and concrete, the mines polluting the drinking water far downstream in Valparaiso, causing birth defects). There are other memories of Iquique. In 1907, three thousand striking miners and their families were killed by troops sent by the mine owners, who also managed the government.
Two worlds linked by ramps, stairways, funiculars. Bridges end in the sky. All the houses are triangular. Stairs stop halfway, you either climb or fly.
Poverty isn’t itself in the sun — this is Valparaiso’s lie. Its lie is the sun, its truth the sea.
Kingston, the City of Fires. The air is harsh with the scent of burning cane and bonfires. The roadside is a riot of human and animal life and it feels good and comforting to be a part of it, streaming with the traffic down Half Way Tree Street through the heart of Trench Town. The smell of fire intensifies. The sun shines hard through the ashen haze, and one gains a sense of why fire and burning are the prime metaphors of reggae music.
Pablo Neruda, in 1938, burdened by the death of Lorca and the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, read to a group of workers in Santiago. As he read his poem “Espana en el Corazon” the (in his words) “most important event in my literary career took place. Some of the workers applauded, others lowered their heads. Then all turned towards one man, maybe a trade union leader. He stood up, dressed like the others with a sack round his waist, his great hands clutching the back of the chair, and looking straight at me, he said, ‘Compañero, we have never been so moved….’ and then he broke into tears.” It was after this that Neruda decided that his poetry must contain history, geography and the people of his country and his continent. Canto Generalwas written over the next decade when Neruda was in hiding at a time of repression of the Chilean Communist Party.
And this is another feature of the city — blood and its memory. Memory of corsairs — Hawkins and Drake — torture and pillage. Then the Spaniards: torture and colonial oppression for centuries.
Reggae music producer Lee “The Upsetter” Perry is just as concerned with texture, surface and structure as he is with subject matter of Jamaican pop music (love and romance, spirituality, militant expressions of black consciousness, the ephemera of post-colonial everyday life on a tropical island undergoing rapid and chaotic modernization). Whether Perry’s dub records are even more subversive than his work on, for example, Max Romeo’s overly revolutionary single “Revelation Time/Hammer and Sickle” or Bob Marley’s “Small Axe” (If you are a big tree/We are a small axe/Sharpened to cut you down) is an interesting question. But however one analyzes his dub records, they signify his inventiveness as a producer in the service of a fundamental contradiction: voice, percussion and ambient (“found”) audio treated with odd electronic effects to foreground the organic, primitive, “rootsy” nature of the music.
When Victor Jara was six years old, he used to work with his father in the maize fields. Sometimes as a treat he would get to ride on the harrow, but mostly he remembered trudging along the line of the furrow, helping to guide the heavy oxen as his father plunged the primitive wooden plough into the earth, backwards and forwards the whole day long. These memories inform his song written decades later, ‘El Arado”:
I tighten my grip
and plunge the plough into the earth,
for years and years I have worked…
no wonder I am worn out.
Butterflies are flying, crickets singing,
my skin gets darker and darker,
and the sun glares, glares and glares
sweat furrows me, I make furrows in the earth
on and on.
A face appears, disappears… a trace is found, lost. I’m haunted by all the folklore of dreams. I wonder if those dreams are really mine, or if they are part of a totality, a gigantic collective dream of which the entire city may be the projection.
At Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio the front office is occupied by a group of musicians watching an 8mm pornographic film on a sheet hung across the wall. Perry emerges wearing a pair soccer shorts and brusquely claims he’s too tired to talk. “Soon de come, mon. Soon de come.”
On the way out one of the young Rastas dressed in a British khaki uniform emblazoned with the Rasta colors–red, green and gold, topped by a blood red beret with a map of Africa insignia–looks up from a spliff.
“Why Rasta wear army clothes? Because I fight yahso every day. I love de soldier, so I wear his clothes. It means, get involved. The soldier and de musician are tools for change. Dat is why I were created.”
In 1963, Victor Jara established a folklore institute in Santiago. With his enthusiastic students Victor’s methods were “unscientific.” With a bottle of wine and his guitar, he encouraged respect and friendship, the exchange of experiences being the basis for any true folk music. This work was vitally important, as the global expansion of the music industry was swamping Latin America, which became a dumping ground for second-rate North American and European product. Pop stars from the US arrived, promoted by their record companies; as long as they were young and blonde, they were assured success. The radio network was owned by corporations and large land owners. Only a handful of local stations were open to progressive political views, to Chilean folk music. Any views of which the official culture did not approve had virtually no access to the mass media.
Victor worked at the local level, sometimes with the support of disc jockeys. Informed by his deep love for the underprivileged of Chile, his themes evolved from the personal and intimate to the denunciation of social injustices. As a singer and songwriter he sought fundamental change, but indirectly, as he told a journalist: “I am moved by what I see around me…by the poverty of my own country, of Latin America and other countries of the world. I have seen the memorials to the Jews in Warsaw, the panic caused by the Bomb. But I have also seen what love can do, what real liberty can do, what the strength of people who are happy can achieve. Because I desire peace, I need the wood and the strings of my guitar to give vent to sadness or happiness, a verse which opens up the heart like a wound, a lyric which helps us to turn from ourselves to see the world with new eyes.”
I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances, a world of mediations. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. But memory is to one what history is to the other–an impossibility.
At the studio next day, a different vibe: huge speakers are pumping reggae music. Through the studio window, a number of small children are handling the instruments, the mixing board, the microphones and headphones with proficiency. When Lee Perry finally enters, his Roast Fish, Collie Weed and Cornbread album is given a spin and Perry starts singing along with the record to the song “Soul Fire.” He has a painted briefcase with him and when he opens it, it is filled with all kinds of stones: “Stones be de creation of de Earth and Jah gave us life…” Lee is smoking weed from an ordinary household water tap turned upside down.
At the mixing console of his Black Ark, he has scattered a Sagittarius horoscope; a small, gold-painted statue of a lion; set of hand exercise grips; book on Buddhist yoga; note pad full of lyrics; several Perry records with weird phrases scrawled on the covers; claw hammer; pink plastic airplane; cheese grater; book on space travel. He wears a blue denim suit open at the neck, a number of copper chains and ornaments, horn-rimmed glasses, a battered straw hat, no shoes. During the interview he occasionally stands on his chair and anoints his feet with some clear, aromatic liquid poured from a rum bottle.
In the late sixties the term “protest song” came into fashion. In a 1969 interview, Victor Jara had this to say: “The U.S. cultural invasion is like a tree which prevents us from seeing our own sun, moon and stars. To see the sky we must cut this tree off at the roots. The dominant culture understands the power of communication through music. The culture experts have commercialized protest music; they have created idols of protest music who suffer the same creative constraints as pop idols. These idols are useful in neutralizing the spirit of rebellion in our young people. The term “protest song” is no longer valid; I prefer the term “revolutionary song.”
Later that year, Victor embarked on a long tour of concerts throughout Chile. He sang in big cities and remote country villages, from the oil fields of Tierra del Fuego to the mines of the northern desert. This new kind of folk music was part of a revolutionary social and political struggle. As Victor said, “Artists must be authentic creators and therefore in essence revolutionaries… as dangerous as guerrilla fighters because of their great power of communication.”
Instead of scorning mankind I turn to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. To call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful history.
I want to understand injustice and then react–like Guevara, like Mandela–with indignation.
What is your favorite record this week?
“This mornin’ I find a old sankey by Fay Dillon, ‘Don’t Touch Me Tomato.’ I produced dis record, di dub version afterward.”
Perry spins this sexy, funny song, detailing a young woman’s struggles with a boyfriend via an extended sexual metaphor. Though Fay’s singing voice is lovely, it’s hard to know what has caught Perry’s attention. The song lopes along its “rock steady” three chord riff, punctuated with a cheesy Farfisa organ break, never really going anywhere before the fade-out at three minutes, two seconds.
“Okay now, irie fe I dub” Perry cues his dub at incredibly high volume. The difference between the two is subtle. Perry has treated the percussion instruments (timbales, congas, cowbell… pots and pans?) electronically, so that they shimmer and bubble beneath the mix, altering the timing in odd and arresting ways. The most compelling effect is the delay echo used on Fay’s vocal at the bridge, “All you do is feel up, feel up,” the final up triggering the effect to repeat her voice across the mix, seemingly without end. It’s a riveting moment, the transformation of a banal utterance into a claim of endless yearning.
Campaigning for the 1970 election of Salvador Allende, Victor works as part of a committee organizing musicians, dancers and painters in support of the Popular Unity left-coalition party. About this work Victor said: “Our desire is to work together, unite our efforts to elect a popular government. This common aim has led to artists in different fields getting to know each other. Artists are used to working alone; their worries are individual. Now abstract painters, modern dancers and folk musicians are working together as friends sharing in a common struggle. We feel that we can work hard for an idea, a dream, which now has become a strong force in action.”
Naturally I will fail. The unhappiness I discover is as inaccessible to me as the poverty of a poor country is unimaginable to the children of a rich one. I have chosen to give up my privileges, but I can do nothing about the privilege that has allowed me to choose.
But it is now, for the first time, that I perceive the marriage of unhappiness and memory, and towards which I slowly, heavily, begin to walk.
Why does water form a major theme of your music, from ambient recordings to lyrical references?
“Water de universal solvent: it break down de barriers between, crosses di spaces between. Water de Mother, don’t the I know? I ya it in I dreams, I ya it in I kitchen, I ya de streams in de jungle forest, I ya de juu water on de tin roof, captured in de barrel in de yard. And so do you, you English, you Americans, you ya it on I records, buried in de mix and so the I ya it in your dreams too. Water, which is yahso fe water de garden and de flowers, to let de trees grow, let de children chant, de birds peenywally, let di air be free from pollution.”
After Allende’s fiercely contested election in 1971, Victor embarked on a long concert tour of Latin America to represent his county. He sang about Chile in concert halls, on the radio, on television, at trade union meetings and at universities from Mexico to Buenos Aires. The most moving experience of the tour was in Costa Rica, where he was flown to a banana plantation owned by the United Fruit Company to give a concert. On an open-air stage he sang to a mass of workers who received him with such enthusiasm that the concert ended in an ecstasy of solidarity, with many workers storming the stage to sing with him and to carry him off on their shoulders among cheering crowds shouting, “Viva Chile.”
At home, business interests continued to fund efforts to subvert the Allende government through their control of the media apparatus and through a campaign of planned shortages and acts of political violence.
War is embedded in all memories. I think of a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, fragments of war enshrined in everyday life.
You sing well, you have an engaging delivery.
“The voice just an instrument, but wid de human quality. But know dat Reggae Music, soul music, rock music-every sankey is a sign. But the I haffi be careful of de type of sankey and vibration dat the I gi di people, for woe be unto those who lead my people astray.”
Perry passes the pipe. Haze. Motorbikes roar in and out of the yard outside.
In 1973, the Washington Post documented the covert activities of the CIA in Chile. The feeling was that the conspiracy to close the door on social progress continued. But while the right wing opposition was aggressive, the working class was mobilized to counteract political violence. Defense committees were set up in factories, universities, schools and government buildings to prevent sabotage.
Victor was the target of threats. Once, stopped at a traffic light, he glanced over at the enormous blue Chevrolet idling next to him. The driver, recognizing him, reached into the glove box and pulled out an enormous knife which he brandished, his face contorted with hatred.
I’ve understood the visions. Suddenly you’re in the desert the way you are in the night; whatever is not desert no longer exists. You don’t want to believe the images as they appear — chains anchored to the prison cell wall, blood pooled on a dirt floor — but you must.
What’s going on in Jamaica now, in 1975?
“Not so-so Jamaica. Look at Africa. Look at Vietnam. Jamaica is run on de idea dat so-so people kyan afford fe send fe their children fe school. That makes de people brindle, and deirs is a righteous anger. If the I don’t have literacy the I can’t have peace of mind. Listen, Trench Town, Kin’ston is no different dan L.A., Chicago, or anywhere else. Violence comes gaan fe bed tribal war, mon. Youths who cannot tan’ poverty and confusion kill each other. The bans system puts de fear on people, but now dey start fe revolute and think about their rights. Do the I understand?
In June, 1973 Victor traveled to Peru, where he was invited to perform across the country. He was able to visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, perhaps the culmination of all of his travels, taking him to the roots of Latin American identity. There he was able to touch the massive stones, to share the feelings of Neruda and other Latin American artists. He was photographed holding his guitar, poised high above the ruins of the citadel, with the sky and the high Andes around him. These are some the last photographs taken of Victor.
Near Cuzco, he sang to a group of peasants, “So many years of history seemed to pour over me as I sat with them. Songs began to sprout, one after another. I told them about Chile, about the land, the agrarian reform. I told them Chilean riddles… some of them smiled, shyly. The sunlight was transparent and I could hear the rushing of the Apurimac River. When I finished, one approached me and began to sing. I felt that we had clasped hands. With a mixture of exaltation and joy I heard his song of antiquity, of the high mountain peaks and the lyricism of the rivers… song is like the water that washes the stones, the cleansing wind, the fire that joins us together and that burns within us to make us better people.”
Dancing on a volcano. Dancing — this is dancing. The volcano is war. War has marked this landscape, this climate heavy with murder.
Everywhere today people are struggling to overcome social barriers — overcome race, class, religion — and pop music has become a sort of soundtrack to this struggle.
“Words fe de wise. Listen yahso now: I and I a soul man, a Rastaman. I see de truth around me — that dere be blood in every color.
But still we suffer dese inequities: how are goin’ fe feed de hungry, clothe di naked, shelter di homeless? This is de struggle of which I am speakin.”
(Jane Jara): It took me months, years to piece together what happened to Victor in the week following the military coup that toppled the Allende government.
When he arrived at the Technical University, Victor could see Hawker Hunter jets, hear the rockets exploding as they landed on the Moneda Palace where Allende was holding out, refusing to relinquish the presidency as the palace was destroyed by fire. That morning at the university Allende was to speak: instead, Victor was trapped there with six hundred other teachers and students by the military curfew.
During the long hours of their confinement, Victor sang and got the others to sing with him to raise their spirits. They had no weapons to defend themselves from the troops massing outside.
The next day the assault began. Some who tried to escape were shot outright. Tanks fired their cannons into the university complex, destroying classrooms, libraries and laboratories.
Then the troops herded everyone into the central courtyard; butting them with their rifles and kicking them with their heavy boots, the soldiers forced everyone to lie face down with their hands behind their heads. It was here that Victor hid his identity card in the hope he would not be recognized.
They were then forced to march to the Estadio Chile, where Victor was identified by a young officer with the words, “You’re that fucking singer, aren’t you?” The officer felled Victor with blows to the head and then kicked him in the stomach and ribs.
Victor was separated into a gallery for “dangerous” prisoners. Friends saw him there: he flashed them a wide smile across the horror they were witnessing, despite his bloody face and head wound. There he was mocked by the young officer, who mimicked playing a guitar, and then quickly drew a finger across his throat. Victor remained calm.
Later he was returned to the general population of prisoners. He could barely walk, he had been so badly beaten. His friends shared some biscuits and jam with Victor: he asked them for a pencil and piece of paper and began to write his last poem.
Finally, in the torture chambers Victor passed along to a comrade a message of love for his wife and two daughters. Before he was dragged away he gave the comrade his last poem, which the comrade saved, hidden in his sock.
Legends are born out of the need to decipher the indecipherable. Memories must make do with their delirium, with their drift. A moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector. Madness protects, as fever does.
What is to be done?
Perry laughs bitterly: “I have bex enough in I own affairs. When I burn down I old studio, protest against de dub business, dey call I mad.”
He gets up, agitated, paces around the room, takes a huge hit from his pipe. Smoke covers his head and upper torso, from the cannabis cloud his voice emerges: “All I kyan do is speak fe de struggle my own truth. As I art de temple, I art de future, I art de mirror, I art de music and de music art I, and I live in the music and de music live in I de Father — this is de harp, Sam Sharpe.”
There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the country?
are ten thousand hands which plant seeds
and make the factories run.
How much humanity
exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain
moral pressure, terror and insanity?
Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten so badly I could never had believed
a human being had been beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror —
one jumped into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.
Nothing matters to them.
To them, blood equals medals,
slaughter is an act of heroism.
Oh God, is this the world you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work?
Within these four walls only a number exists
which does not progress,
which slowly will wish more and more for death.
But suddenly my conscience awakes
and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,
only the pulse of machines
and the military showing their midwive’s faces
full of sweetness.
Let Mexico, Cuba and the world
cry out against this atrocity!
We are ten thousand hands
which can produce nothing.
How many of us in the whole country?
The blood of our President, our compañero,
will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!
How hard is it to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
what I have felt and what I feel
will give birth to the moment…
We arrived at the station (the September sun on the steps), and wandered the city until dusk. At nightfall, like a stage set unfolding, the megalopolis broke down into villages, with its country cemeteries in the shadow of banks, the piazzas emerging from the gloom like islands of light. Each district once again became an ingenuous little town, nestling amongst the skyscrapers.
After taking our pleasures we left the city; we camped on the beach.
When factories and motels dent this skyline, we all shall long for such a morning-the waves along the beach like radiant green glass.
Lee smokes. He stretches, yawns expansively. His mood shifts. He decides that being interviewed makes him thirsty. “Come and walk with I now; let’s a go for de Red Stripe, for de Mount Gaye rum.”
Walk out into the tropical night punctuated by laughter, boasting, banter, toasting, children playing, the whine of motorcycles, the deep reggae bass of a distant sound system and further, toward the heart of Trenchtown, gunfire.
Victor’s bullet-ridden body is later recognized by a woman from the barrio, saving him from the cruel anonymity of a mass grave. She followed the white van carrying his body to the overflowing morgue. Victor’s wife Joan was notified and she rushed to reclaim his body, burying him the next day in the city cemetery.
Neruda died of cancer shortly after the coup, heartbroken. His funeral procession was the site of the first demonstration against the Pinochet dictatorship.
Joan and her two daughters were exiled for years in Great Britain. When she eventually returned to Chile to campaign against the dictatorship, she was heartened to learn how widely, and how well, her husband Victor Jara was remembered by the Chilean people despite years of official censorship, the burning and prohibition of his records, his songs.
Finally, in that city at the edge of the world we met peasants who had come to know themselves through the struggle. Concretely, it had failed. At the same time, all they had won in their understanding of the world could have been won only through the struggle, the struggle for a better, more just future — a future that knew no war.
(For this text I have quoted with extensive modification from Reggae Bloodlines and Reggae International by Stephen Davis and Peter Simon; from an email by Dutch reggae fan Nico at the Eternal Thunder website; fromVictor, an Unfinished Song, by Joan Jara; and from five screenplays by Chris Marker — Le Jetee, Sans Soleil, Valparaiso, Letter from Siberia andDescription of a Struggle.)