Al norte del sur
The Chilean musical journey in the United States
By Maria Swart
To think about Chilean music is, at least, a particular exercise. And to dissect it even more. Jose Simián, a lawyer by formation and journalist by heart with extensive experience within the music scene in the U.S, provides us with a pragmatic perspective of how Chilean music has evolved in this country.
From artists to platforms and different scenes, his interview helps us all to contextualize the impact (or not) of such a small country as Chile in what we could allegedly define as the most critical music market in the world.
Do you think that it’s possible to define Chilean music? Or that it’s possible to define creations by something so arbitrary as origin, locality or descent?
What a question to ask in 2022... My initial answer would be all of the above: that Chilean music is made by Chileans (or, for the purpose of this interview and publication: Chilean-Americans), whether living in Chile or abroad, but that’s a pointless answer. The real question is, why are we asking ourselves this? Why are we concerned with something being classified as “Chilean” (or “Latinx” music)? Is it a matter of national pride? Or does it add any relevant context to analyze or enjoy it? It’s easy to confuse the biographies of the artists with the art itself if you focus only on their origin or location.
From a deeper perspective, I think it’s more interesting to define Chilean music by having some Chilean element to it—be it having elements of a genre that it’s characteristically Chilean or has deep roots in Chile (tonada, cueca, cumbia, Andean music); deals with themes or perspectives that are distinctively Chilean (the dictatorship and now the revuelta with its larger anti-neoliberal theme come to mind); brings into it some elements of Chilean culture (the use of Chilean poetry, as source of lyrics or an inspiration is the most obvious example here); or transpires a certain Chilean attitude or sense of humor (whatever that may be, or however imperceptible that may be for non-Chileans—but we do have our own unique perspective on the world, being the insular country that we are, and sometimes reveling in a strain of dark humor).
As a journalist, you have seen Chilean musicians come and go in this city. Some have been here for years and others have come for one show only. Is there or was there at some point a distinctive presence of Chilean music? Is that going too far?
I can only answer this question in a frank way: Chilean music is nonexistent in the United States, a drop in the ocean. And by this I mean that its impact in the mainstream culture in the United States, or its influence in scenes or the music of other people, is so sporadic or small in a huge country that it doesn’t move the needle in any direction. There are, of course, Chilean artists who have performed in the United States to critical acclaim, or musicians who have made careers here (a few jazz performers, like Claudia Acuña or, more recently, Camila Meza, come immediately to mind), but those are isolated instances of personal success, not anything that I would call a substantial presence of Chilean music in the United States. That, of course, is not a judgment on the quality or interest of Chilean music. The answer would be the same if you asked about almost any other country in Latin America—even Brazil, and that’s a lot to say for a country that is basically its own continent of music.
They only Latin American countries that have some measurable, substantial impact in the United States musical culture at large are Mexico (for reasons too obvious to mention, and its impact spans across many genres), Puerto Rico (notoriously, through salsa and their impact in the multinational reggaeton phenomenon), and the Dominican Republic (bachata and merengue have had a noticeable impact, from the NYC region to the rest of the country).
My direct experience with this is the 15 years that I spent covering Latinx music in New York (and sometimes the U.S. at large), both at a local TV station in New York City, and writing for the Daily News and other American publications (Billboard en Español had a sweet but short existence), as well as for Chilean publications whenever a Chilean artist seemed to make inroads or have a moment in the United States.
In terms of “success” during the last 20 years, I can only really think of the time, around 2012, when there was some buzz around indie music coming from Chile, with artists such as Javiera Mena, Gepe, Alex Anwandter, Astro and a few others. It became almost a cliché to say that Chile had the strongest indie scene in the Spanish-speaking world at that point. And those artists came to play some festivals and indie venues, and were written about for a while. That same year Ana Tijoux played in the United States, including in Prospect Park sharing the bill with Calle 13, and the year before she had had a song (“1977”) in Breaking Bad. But again: the path for most of these artists is narrow, and their chances of really becoming crossover or mainstream artists in the United States are rather slim. We still haven’t had a Chilean superstar in the United States, and our influence has been marginal or subterranean.
It’s important to note here that the language barrier is extremely difficult to break in the United States. In my dream world, Americans are able to appreciate music in Spanish, and artists from the Spanish-speaking world (not only Chile, but also from all Latin America) are appreciated and listened to. But even if you’re a musician who sings in Spanish and tries to have an impact in the Latinx world in the United States, you face a tough challenge: it’s not just a world but a collection of worlds, fragmented in geographic, cultural and social terms—all hard factors that affect our taste and the art that we can appreciate.
What efforts by Chilean artists have been more successful? Are there any styles in particular that have been more popular?
It’s a bit exhausting to measure music (or art) in terms of “success,” but as mentioned above, the only Chilean musical “phenomenon” I can think of in the last 20 years was that brief focus on Chilean indie around 2012. It’s still a bit of a mystery to me why that even happened. And what I mean by this is that you had a group of good artists making very good music in Chile at that time (yet not necessarily groundbreaking, which makes us think that there was a narrative associated with it that took hold), and then that music had to get some critical mass for it to be noticed and written about, which in turn had to make the small industry of indie Latin music in the United States to take notice, sign those artists, and bring them to play in New York or L.A. (Sometimes, this doesn’t take that many steps as, for instance, the main festival of Latin indie music in the United States, the LAMC, is owned and organized by Nacional Records, the main label of the genre.)
The other foray into the mainstream (as suggested above) was that of Ana Tijoux. When she was at the peak of her notoriety, in 2015, she took part in one of the most interesting events of Chilean music in New York in the last two decades. It was a concert tributing Violeta Parra that took place in the auditorium of Pace University, right next to the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge on the Manhattan side. The lineup was Illapu, Colombina Parra (with Nutria as a guest musician) and Ana Tijoux. That was one of the most fascinating showcases of Chilean music I have seen—going from hip-hop to Andean music to rock with both a folk tint and a punk attitude, all with the irrepressible spirit and the songs of Violeta Parra in mind. I can only wish we had more of that.
In terms of milestones, what do you think have been the most important events in Chilean music in the United States?
Speaking as a journalist and a music fan, I don’t think there’s really a “history” of Chilean music in the United States—just isolated cases of musicians who have lived here, recorded here, or have had some isolated instances of recognition. (Maybe a proper historian will correct me, and I’d be happy to learn that there is actually something that connects what I see as separate events.)
From a very personal perspective, I will mention two albums that were recorded or published in the United States in the last 20 years and should get more recognition. One is Roquerío, an album recorded by Nutria (Christian Torres Roje) in New York in 2004. In it, Nutria really mixes some Chilean genres, influences and attitude with indie rock and a bit of what was going on in Brooklyn at that time, and both musically and lyrically is a powerful document of the experience of a Chilean immigrant in the United States.
The other album that I will mention —and this is a stretch, but still— is Reina de Todas las Fiestas by Chico Trujillo, an album that for my money would serve as an answer to your first question about what defines Chilean music. In that album (an EP in some versions), Chico Trujillo mixes cumbia with brass-and-drums music from La Tirana. It’s not an American album per se, but besides including an appearance by Rebel Díaz, a Chilean-American hip hop group from The Bronx, it was formally re-released in the United States by Barbès Records, a small Brooklyn label owned by French musician Olivier Conan—someone who has contributed to expanding Latin American music in the United States with the label and his band Chicha Libre. Even if Barbes is a small label, and Chico Trujillo (or their side project Bloque Depresivo, also published by Barbès) are not mainstream stars, I still celebrate its publishing in New York as a small victory of a sound that I consider essentially Chilean but with cosmopolitan ambitions. Conan —a fan of Chilean music— hears this, and has championed Chico Trujillo’s approach to Chilean music as something that should interest people from all over the world.
How do you envision a potential progress of Chilean music in the U.S.?
I don’t think it will necessarily gain any ground in terms of commercial success or mainstream recognition—but then again, I don’t know if that’s the right question. As an immigrant and someone who enjoys cultural mixes, I would love to see more Chilean musicians either talking about the immigrant experience through song, or bringing Chilean genres or attitudes when they make music in the United States.
Anita Tijoux at Prospect Park Bandshell for LAMC, 2019
Gracias a la Vida: The Rebel Spirit of Chile’s Legendary Voice. Featuring Illapu + Colombina Parra + Ana Tijoux, 2015
Nutria (Christian Torres Roje)