Music News


If you're just joining us, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.


LYDEN: This is the music of the Chilean folklorist Violeta Parra. Her work to preserve, record and perform traditional Chilean music was considered groundbreaking in the early 1950s. Now, a new film from her homeland explores her personal story and reveals the complex life of a woman considered the mother of Latin American folk music. KPFK's Betto Arcos, who frequently contributes to our show, has more.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: In this scene from the film "Violeta Went to Heaven," Violeta Parra, accompanied by her son, Angel, is walking in the countryside in search of a woman whose songs she wants to learn and record.


ARCOS: Her son asks her: What if we can't find this lady? Isn't she old?


ARCOS: Violeta responds: Of course, we'll find her. But if she's not there, it will be very sad that no one will remember her.


ARCOS: Remembering people and their music was Violeta Parra's mission.

EMILY PINKERTON: She brought the sounds of the Chilean countryside to the city and by doing that inspired people as well to do a similar kind of thing.

ARCOS: Emily Pinkerton is a singer and songwriter and ethnomusicologist who teaches Latin American music at the University of Pittsburgh. Pinkerton says Violeta Parra's work was a revelation to a lot of people in Chile.

PINKERTON: Though the traditional songs she sang, through the songs she composed inspired in that music, she also brought rural musicians and their lives and experiences and practices to the radio, just really bringing the reality of Chilean rural culture to urban centers.


ARCOS: Violeta Parra grew up in rural southern Chile. She learned how to sing and play guitar when she was 10 and soon joined her relatives who had a traveling show. In the early 1950s, she began to research, document and record Chilean folk songs. Many of those songs inspired her to write her own compositions like "Casamientos de Negros" or "Black Wedding.


ARCOS: Parra's son, Angel, picked up her research, and it's his memoir that provides the basis for the new film. Director Andres Wood says there were two reasons he wanted to make the movie.

ANDRES WOOD MOVIE DIRECTOR: The main inspiration is, of course, is admiration for her. But the second one is actually getting to her work and trying to actually put all this energy, all her knowledge, all her life in one movie was a very big task that we wanted to try to do. And we failed because we decided not to put everything.

ARCOS: Parra had a complex life. She was a sophisticated songwriter and performer who toured Europe in the mid-1950s. She was also a visual artist whose work in painting, embroidery and sculpture was exhibited at the Louvre in Paris. But Parra had an emotionally complicated personality with sudden bouts of depression. She committed suicide at the age of 49.


ARCOS: Film director Andres Wood tried to get at her life through her work. "Violeta Went to Heaven" is anchored by a fictional television interview. In this scene, Parra is asked if she's a communist.


ARCOS: Not at all. Who told you that?


ARCOS: Look, I'm so communist that if you shot me, my blood would come out red.


ARCOS: Parra is played by Chilean actress Francisca Gavilan who says it was a huge responsibility to portray such a revered figure.

FRANCISCA GAVILAN: (Through translator) The first time I met Andres Wood and he told me that I was going to be Violeta, I felt like I was carrying a heavy backpack on my shoulders. And I think it was one of the most difficult, most painful, most beautiful jobs I've ever done.


ARCOS: Emily Pinkerton says Violeta Parra's efforts to popularize traditional music still reverberate with folk musicians across the continent.

PINKERTON: And she fused this specific sound and all these different traditions to her desires and aspirations for a better future for Chile and for Latin America.

ARCOS: As difficult as it was to capture Violeta Parra's life on film, Director Andres Wood says there's one thing that comes across loud and clear.

DIRECTOR: Violeta Parra is very transparent through her work. So you can know a lot about her, almost everything about her just reading her or just watching her paintings.

ARCOS: Or just listening to her songs. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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