Get Out Your Handkerchiefs for Chile's 'Cueca'

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Performing 'Cueca'

As Chile resonates with Independence Day commemorations, the air is filled with the sounds of cueca music. The national dance makes elegant use of white handkerchiefs to tell a story of seduction.


Chile takes its national dance very seriously. This week, the country's been marking its bicentennial and cities and villages have been full of the sound of the cueca.


SIEGEL: The cueca is played with guitar, accordion, occasionally with spoons. The lyrics range from the prayerful to the risque. And unlike the tango of its neighbor Argentina, couples hardly touch during cueca.

As NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Santiago, it's all about seduction.

JULIE MCCARTHY: There are numerous theories about where cueca, with its strict structure originated.


MCCARTHY: There are African, Spanish and Arab influences to cueca that arrived in Chile from Peru around the time of independence from the Spanish crown. More refined cueca, such as this one, are played with guitar and harp. But Chile's national dance is also deeply rooted in the popular culture of what's known as the roto chileno, the rough human(ph) court worker, the copper miner, men who built the railroads, and who made the taverns and brothels their entertainment.


MCCARTHY: The music is as wild as the subject it reveres. Cueca echoes this week from the bandstand of Chile's Fondas, back in the state fairs, where local food and folklore are served up.

President Michelle Bachelet inaugurated the Fonda season while cueca groups twined until dawn at the La Yein Fonda, named for the actress Jane. Octogenarian maestro, Manuel Santis(ph), says cueca is the essence of being Chileans.

MANUEL SANTIS: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: It talks about relationships, remorse and envy; all the emotions, he says. There are cuecas for fiestas. Poets write saucy cuecas. We sing happy cuecas at weddings and sad ones at funerals. There are high cuecas for the upper class and low cuecas for the ordinary people, Santis says. But cueca is a mirror of everyday life, he says.

Cueca lyrics are also about wars and revolutions, natural catastrophes and crime. And they erupt, says actor and cueca revivalist, Daniel Munoz, spontaneously.

DANIEL MUNOZ: Suddenly it happen and something in the newspapers, for example, will kill somebody, immediately appear a cueca.

MCCARTHY: Munoz prefers cueca brava, an intense form of the genre in which words are not so much sung as squawked, like a street vendor.


MCCARTHY: She likes to party when her piano is played, goes this line, as Munoz and his group raise their glasses for the traditional salud. Couples pay no heat to the gathering night chill, they promenade arm and arm, some dressed as wealthy wazzos or cowboys with silver spurs and elegant ponchos, others as farm hands in blue jeans and boots. As if on cue, couples twirl their white handkerchiefs and begin circling hoisted skirts swaying, heels stomping.

Twenty-five-year-old Blanca Sotto(ph) beckons her partner with a purple kerchief edged in black lace.

BLANCA SOTTO: (Through translator) It's all about the seduction and concurring the other one. And there's this sustained gaze into your partner's eyes, and there's a lot of things that are said there without saying anything.

MCCARTHY: New on the cueca scene are all women groups. Las Capa Dalinas sing about love of men and country.


MCCARTHY: Long live our Independence Day fiesta and the flowers of spring, they sing. The theme of lost love is the spirit of the cueca solo where a woman enacts the traditional dance of courtship alone. It was a form of protest by widows and mothers of the dead and missing during the dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet. Muñoz says there is an undercurrent of social commentary in the cueca.

MUNOZ: There's a first class and second class. No middle class. There is not tier in Chile.

MCCARTHY: So, this is the second-class expression?

MUNOZ: Yeah. Yeah. Many poor people are finding the cueca catharsis.

MCCARTHY: Reaffirming what it means to be Chilean summed up by the nation's poet Nicanor Parra as laughter and tears in this concert rendition of his cueca.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.


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