Full Interview with Oscar Sarmiento
Transcript of Interview
When did you first start playing music and what instruments did you play?
I began playing music when I was probably fourteen years old and the only instrument that I was acquainted with was the guitar…the classical guitar, not the guitar we normally see in the states that we play with metal strings. So, finger style playing was very important for me. Because of my sister who was studying music at the conservatory, I was also exposed to the cuatro (the Venezuelan cuatro), an instrument of four strings.
When and why did you first get involved with Nueva Canción?
My generation was not the generation of Nueva Canción, I would put it that way. I think that it was my sister’s generation or even people before them. So I became more of a teenager when President Allende became elected in 1973. I was a teenager and my college years were under a dictatorship, Augusto Pinochet. I became more aware of being a person, an adult, during the 1970-1973 period, so I associated myself with many events that were taking place at the time, but not as an adult. That’s important I think in terms of my biography. My sister was taking me to so many places. She was in love with Nueva Canción fully….excellent singer, great guitar player, singing in choirs, very sociable person my sister Patricia. She would know everybody, and I would just kind of follow after her and that’s why I became more associated with music. If not for my sister, nothing of that kind would have happened. I was kind of a young person coming in to getting to know these people who were older than me and with an education in terms of what they were singing and why they were singing what they were singing and making connections with previous generations.
Was it dangerous to play music during the Pinochet dictatorship? What role did music play during this time?
It depends on the time period. If you’re talking about the initial moment, everything was dangerous. After the coup d’état…of course. After the months that followed…of course because that was the tragedy of Chile. It was the demise of socialism as we understood it and the demise of any cultural expression that might signify socialism or a different muse under dictatorship. Later on, across the country people started to come together in a heated kind of fashion, and we called that the “resistance movement.” So, different young people were joining the resistance to Pinochet…to the dictatorship. And that, little by little, allowed for more cultural expressions to be out and about. In my case I was singing when I was in college. But, I wasn’t singing songs necessarily by Nueva Canción. Actually, I was singing with my friend. I would write the lyrics and he would set them to music or we would both set lyrics to music. But, the kind of music we were singing was not necessarily the music and lyrics that was proper to Nueva Canción…that is to say, social justice, exploitation, imperialism and so on and so forth. We couldn’t, but it’s not only that we couldn’t – that’s important to me – it’s also that up to an extent maybe we didn’t want to because we wanted to be ourselves and you don’t want to repeat what they are doing. It was a mix: repression and at the same time the need to express yourself in a different fashion. We all had those heroes like Victor Jara and people who went into exile like Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, and Patricio Manns–that’s an important figure. So, yeah, we all knew about them but, from time to time if we were together as youth, as college students, we could sing all of those songs very easily in addition to very silly songs that we loved to sing.
Who would you sing with and what music did you sing?
Throughout the dictatorship we always sang [Nueva Canción] songs among friends, that’s true. Little by little as we were able to open spaces for showing that we belong in a different history of Chile …yeah, people started singing and of course you could sing Violeta Parra’s songs because they were not necessarily – up to an extent – associated with political lyrics. Some of them yes you could say, like singing to her brother being a communist…but not necessarily what she did as a whole I would say. For my generation, this person is crucial and is not from Chile…from Cuba, Silvio Rodríguez. For my generation that’s the singer, and it’s funny because here you have a Cuban person and how did we get the music? We got it and there was no internet at the time, so cassette tapes that we distributed. I was always singing songs by Silvio Rodríguez. That’s my singer. It was really difficult because the guy has a voice range truly difficult to emulate, but I was very good at playing the guitar, so I could play the complex pieces he was playing because I was very good at that. I was trained classically to play classical guitar and so this was a nice combination for me showing off that I was able to play and using my tools since I was trained and training myself to play classical pieces. But, that’s the one! I was in love with this guy’s poetry. And of course I would sing from time to time with my friend, and a lot of Victor Jara. Some of the songs that he wrote, yes, it’s true… Some of the songs that Inti-Illimani wrote…yes, indeed. It was like a fusion coming from different moments because Silvio Rodríguez was much younger than Victor Jara and Inti-Illmani. This has to do with the same idea of being yourself and being your own generation…that you link up with something that feels current and that is representative of your own imagination, if you will. So, that’s why intersecting Silvio Rodríguez with Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, Inti-Illimani – you name it – was so important to us. That’s called La Nueva Trova Cubana. La Nueva Trova Cubana was so important for my generation, and we knew what we were doing. Oh! I didn’t say this, [Silvio Rodríguez has] got these very traditional lyrics that are surreal, so it was difficult to decode for a person that was not acquainted. But, we knew that the message was a message of resistance, rebellion, socialism and so on and so forth…coming from Cuba. So, for my generation the Cuban revolution was important in the sense that it made us believe that Salvador Allende, Cuba, socialism might take place across the Americas. We trusted that this was a good future for many countries. So, a way to resist for me was to sing Silvio Rodríguez. I don’t have a way to compare his lyrics to any musician in the states…I wish I could, but he could be singing for example of snakes like in a dream or a unicorn, we sang that song for so many years. A Unicorn/El Unicornio by Silvio Rodríguez. You know what a unicorn is? Nobody’s going to tell you that you are demonstrating against fascism or something like that. The rich kind of connotation and the connections we were making were always a piece of resistance. And later on, I realized that Silvio Rodríguez is singing about a unicorn, the lost unicorn is missing because in fact the Cuban revolution is gone, so it is a song of desperation, disillusion and so on and so forth, but that’s what we were singing.
Were you ever targeted by Pinochet’s regime?
I suffered repression because of my political views and not only my views but because I wanted to do something about the situation. So, in that regard yes, but I couldn’t single myself out. I was just one more person among many, and I attended a number of demonstrations against the dictatorship. then I had to suffer the consequences, but it was because of that not because I was singing.
What were the reactions of the people on Nueva Canción Music?
In Chile, we have a culture that can be very conservative. I mean a sort of culture that is fake in my view that would like to portray like the countryside as something very middle class, normal, ordinary and kind of nice…quote, unquote joyful that pertains to the stereotypical view that some people in the elite have in relation to popular culture. One main group representative of that is the group Los Huasos Quincheros. During the dictatorship I suffered through many shows on TV having Los Huasos Quincheros singing because that was the way that the dictatorship and the most conservative side of the country viewed folk-popular culture in Chile. Violeta Parra detested this kind of culture. Victor Jara wouldn’t go along with this. It’s a way to trivialize what is truly unique about popular culture. It is truly this clash between social justice songs promoting changes and a culture that wants to keep you in place doing the same thing and not questioning or challenging anything. So, Los Huasos Quincheors are representative of that for me, the status quo. But boy, did I have to swallow that constantly.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us that you haven’t had a chance to?
Because of my sister I went to peñas, like a small quote, unquote coffeehouse where you would go eat traditional food and listen to Andean music and also some Nueva Canción music. This took place when Violeta Parra was still alive during the sixties, but it kept being alive even under the dictatorship a bit. That was my life maybe at times with my sister during Salvador Allende’s government. And Because of that I got exposed to different instruments and musicians and people. So, what I’m trying to say is that we had specific sights and locations that make the music alive and the cultural resistance and cultural social justice alive. For me, in terms of my memory, it was so important to go to what Salvador Allende created which was this building. At the time it was called the UNCTAD, and nowadays is called GAM. Nowadays it’s a cultural center. You can go there and see photography shows, you can go see theater, and dance and music and it’s in the downtown area of Santiago. But, prior to that, I could go eat. I was just a high school boy and then I would go to the UNCTAD and I knew food would be cheap and was good, so I would just go…hangout. In addition, sometimes there would be Inti-Illimani singing, Quilapayún, all the Nueva Canción from Chile was there. So, that was the location for us to make the music and the culture alive and vibrant. That space is ingrained in my memory. Without that space I don’t think that Salvador Allende’s government exists even for me because it was, you know, my place to hang out. And for many people who associated themselves with Nueva Canción, peñas were the locations to go. Sadness…south side of the story, under the dictatorship they became more and more just places to feel sad whereas before those were places where you could feel alive. So, it was like a reminder of the expressions from a left that was dying and that could no longer be what it was if that makes sense. So, it was like the past but we are now singing Silvio Rodríguez! So, no more peñas…it was dying out.
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