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Life of Chilean activist Victor Jara celebrated with live music at News Café today

Local artists play nueva canción to celebrate life of Chilean activist Victor Jara

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This September marks the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile, the beginning of Augusto Pinochet's bloody military dictatorship that seized the country for nearly 20 years.

Dissidents were persecuted; thousands were tortured and killed in the days following the coup.

One such dissenter was Chilean folksinger and human-rights activist Victor Jara. Arrested in the classroom in which he was teaching, Jara, along with 5,000 other political prisoners, was taken to the Chile Stadium. There, his hands were broken and he was taunted with an acoustic guitar. He was shot 44 times. His body was dumped at the side of a road.

Jara left a powerful legacy, one that made an indelible impression on local singer-songwriter Hugo Torres-Cereceda, who came to Canada as a refugee from Chile in 1976. He's mounting a celebration of Jara's life and music at the West End Cultural Centre on Sept. 14.

Torres-Cereceda will perform a selection of Victor's songs along with his son, Illya Torres-Garner, and Jessee Havey, formerly of the Duhks. Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson will read poetry by Jara and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda. Hugo's daughter, Natasha Torres-Garner, will perform a dance she choreographed inspired by a poem Jara wrote while imprisoned (the work was smuggled out of the country by the survivors of the Chilean coup following his death).

Torres-Cereceda, a self-taught guitar player who comes from a long line of guitarists, looked up to Jara and other musicians like him who were part of nueva canción, or the new Chilean song movement -- a blend of traditional Latin American folk music with highly politicized lyrics, born out of a turbulent period in Latin American history.

"Those songs reflected the hopes and dreams of the people and they denounced the government," Torres-Cereceda says. "I grew up with that. I had that influence. In my own experience, I'd been doing that too, writing songs with a social-political element. It was an important part in my own development as a songwriter."

Nueva canción musicians faced persecution and censorship, not just in Chile, but in Argentina and Cuba, as well. Recordings of Jara's music exist today thanks to his wife, Joan, who smuggled copies of his albums out of the country.

Torres-Cereceda is proud to be part of such a vital, revolutionary movement, but is all too familiar with the consequences of being an outspoken activist.

"I know a bit about what (Jara) went through just because of his politics," he says. "I was also a political prisoner for eight months."

Torres-Cereceda was one of the lucky ones -- he made it out alive. He was 25 when he arrived in Canada.

"I spent the first 15 years in Canada dealing with the trauma," he says, adding music was his healing tool along with continued political activism.

"It's important to keep talking about it in the hope that it doesn't happen again. Perhaps that's idealistic, but it's important, especially here in Canada. I think many people know (about Chile), but a lot of people live in their own bubble. It's important to express different opinions from different people."

It's critical to Torres-Cereceda to keep the dialogue open and carry on Jara's legacy, which is why it's a thrill for him that his children are involved in the show. Many of the songs he selected were chosen for their message; others were chosen for their beautiful guitar arrangements. It promises to be a personal, emotional evening.

Saturday's show is also especially timely. Last week, it was reported Jara's family is suing Pedro Barrientos, a former Chilean army lieutenant charged with homicide by Chilean prosecutors. It's believed Barrientos fired the initial fatal gunshot.

Torres-Cereceda has mixed feelings about the news. "I'm glad they were able to find someone, but they need to find the person who gave the orders. This person is a scapegoat, following orders from way up at the top," he says.

"Many of those people are walking free in Chile, living comfortable lives."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 12, 2013 C9


Updated on Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 8:15 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds video

10:11 AM: Updates with info on live event

September 13, 2013 at 9:33 AM: Time changed to 2:30 p.m. and adds live player.

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