Arts, Culture & Media

This singer is reviving songs from the 60s and 70s that brought down dictators

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Erin Patrice O’Brien

Singer Ani Cordero is reviving the "nueva canción" style of music from Latin America that combines politics and love-laced folk songs.

“You can’t have a revolution without songs.”

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That was the phrase on the banner behind Salvador Allende at his first appearance as Chile’s president-elect in the fall of 1970.

It’s also a good way to think about nueva canción, which means “new song” in Spanish. It refers to a school of folk-based, activist songwriters that rose up in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, rejecting the era’s dictatorships.

And the movement continues: Musician Ani Cordero opens her new album of nueva canción music with the song “Deja La Vida Volar,” by the Chilean songwriter Víctor Jara. He was a known supporter of Salvador Allende, who was one of Latin America's first Marxist leaders. Jara and thousands of others were killed by a military junta that took power in 1973.

Cordero studied this history in college with Allende’s nephew Juan, a professor and mentor of hers. But it was another nueva canción singer who got her started on this project. A friend played her a song by the Argentinean singer Piero. “I immediately had such a strong, physical reaction to song that I was a bit confused,” Cordero remembered recently.

“I didn’t understand why I was having such a strong reaction. And the next day I was talking with mother about some serious stuff and was looking for a way out of the conversation. Finally I said, ‘Mommy, do you happen to know an artist Piero, because I just discovered him and he’s so awesome and I thought you might like it?’ And she said, ‘Nana don’t you remember? I played that Piero record all the time when you were little.’”

Piero’s songs can be political, but a lot are also about love. That’s the case with “Tengo la piel cansada,” the one Cordero covers on her album.

In fact, the theme of love runs throughout the album. Cordero says it helps balance things out. “Sometimes the full weight of a straightforward political song can feel a little bit heavy."

Also, she says, nueva canción sees love as part of the struggle. “It uses, in many cases, love as a way of being brave, similar to how the civil rights movement used nonviolence as a way of protest.”

Cordero also broadens the nueva canción movement to include people like her, who’ve moved between cultures.

Her parents are Puerto Rican and she grew up between Atlanta and San Juan. She now lives in New York, where she wrote new lyrics for a Puerto Rican classic called “Choferito.” Her version speaks about how expats long for home. In the chorus she urges a choferito, a driver, to "step on it" because she’s headed back to San Juan.

In the last verse, she sings about going back to her grandmother’s house to hear all the latest gossip. The verse ends:

The problems are serious on this island of enchantment, but so are the parties, and that’s why I sing.

The album closes with Cordero’s version of a song by the late Venezuelan singer Alí Primera. It’s a political call to action. The chorus urges birds to take up singing because, “Our tame people are now wild and brave.”

I asked Cordero why she wanted to bring nueva canción to new audiences.

“Why is it important to remember our history? Why is it important to remember the sacrifices that people made for the liberties that you now have?” she replied. “I think it’s important to remember. And, they’re also really good artists.”

In her latest version of Chavela Vargas’ song “Macorina,” Ani Cordero’s writes, “I chose to record this song because it is such a beautiful dedication to her female lover, and I find it so brave that she would sing this in a time period where being in a gay relationship was not accepted."

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