Songs of political resistance, from Chile's torture camps to the Internet
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Songs of political resistance, from Chile's torture camps to the Internet

After General Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973, triggering a coup d’etát that would turn into a 17-year dictatorship, more than a thousand detention centers were set up throughout Chile to interrogate and torture dissidents and opposers of the regime.

Music played a key role in those centers. As prisoners were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, singing and listening to music became an act of resistance for them and a way of supporting fellow inmates even as they were being tortured.

Music was also used as a mechanism of torture by Pinochet’s secret police to indoctrinate and dominate prisoners, many of whom were forced to sing the Chilean National Anthem and other songs to entertain the guards.

More than two decades after Pinochet’s dictatorship ended, these songs are now available on the website Cantos Cautivos (Captive Songs) thanks to Dr. Katia Chornik, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Manchester’s Music Department, and the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago.

As Dr. Chornik explained at the website’s inauguration, the idea came to her in the year 2000 after reading Alma Rosé’s autobiography, which narrates Rosé’s experience as a violinist in the Nazi concentration camps. The book inspired Dr. Chornik to reflect on the situation of political prisoners in Chile and their relationship with music. She realized it would be crucial to compile songs sung and heard in Chilean detention centers before they were forgotten.

“The idea to make a website came to me when I realized the density of the subject, the striking amount of information to collect, and the difficulties of reaching so many detention centers. There were more than 1,100 and in the majority, there was music; from clandestine facilities to more open ones. So a lot of people had musical experiences,” Dr. Chornik told Latin Correspondent.

The objective of Cantos Cautivos is to gather and preserve the songs written, sung and heard in detention centers and the stories behind them in a bid to contribute to the debate around human rights violations in Chile during the dictatorship. The site invites survivors who had memorable musical experiences to upload them.

The project has become the first resource of its kind in Latin America.

“It’s an important cultural patrimony not only for researchers but also for the second, third, fourth and fifth generations and in general for the country and all of Latin America,” said Dr. Chornik. “It sheds light on the resilience and creativity of people in extreme conditions.”

Visitors to the site can listen to the music, read the lyrics of the songs and find out more about prisoners’ personal experiences.

“There are original compositions of inmates written while captive, there are well-known melodies with different lyrics, there are incidents of forced singing, there are situations where singing was used as punishment. It’s an archive that is constantly growing and people upload their stories directly,” said Dr. Chornik.

Some of the songs in the archive include original compositions of famous Chilean singer and songwriter Ángel Parra, hymns like the Himno de la Alegría (Hymn of Joy), an adaptation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and many others songs and stories.

Since the website went live about a month ago, it has continued to receive testimonies on a regular basis.