Wednesday’s Wise Woman … Violeta Para
‘From time immemorial
Hell was invented
to frighten the poor
with its eternal punishments’.
Violeta Para (1927 -1967) was a Chilean composer, song-writer, folklorist, ethnomusicologist and visual artist. She was responsible for the renewal and reinvention of Chilean Folk music, bringing it beyond the bounds of Chile onto the world stage and recognised by many as Chilean New Song (Nueva Cancion Chilena)
Violeta was born in San Carlos, a small town in southern Chile. To a poor family who moved from town to town to find work. This was rarely successful and as a result her father, a travelling teacher, became an alcoholic and Violeta had to abandon her studies to support her family. She began singing on trains, in restaurants, small concert halls and circuses.
After her father died; although this loss left the family destitute; her mother worked as washerwoman and was able to finance Violeta´s elder brother through university where he became a professor of Mathematics and a poet.
Violeta moved to Santiago and formed a singing duet with her sister. They were called the Parra sisters and they sang traditional Chilean folk songs. During this time she married and had two children a son, Angel and a daughter Isabel with whom shared her love for music. After the breakdown of her first marriage she married again and had two more daughters.
Violeta was not only a singer-songwriter but also one of Chile’s foremost researchers in Chilean Folklore. She offered concerts and readings throughout Chile. In 1953 after such a concert and reading in Neruda’s house the Chilean Radio offered Violeta a number of programmes so that she could broaden her listening audience into thousands of homes.
Violeta´s name ‘Parra’ in Spanish means ´grapevine´an image that prompted Neruda to write of Violeta ‘Parra you are, and sad wine you will become’.
In 1954 she began travelling in the Soviet Union and Europe and for a while she lived in Paris. In 1956 she she recorded her first album.
Following the sudden death of her youngest daughter; Rosa Cara while still little baby she returned to Chile where she accepted a post at the University as a director of the Museum of Popular Art where she continued her research and went on to record more albums.
By the end of the 1950s she had developed her painting, sculpture, ceramics and tapestry. So with her visual art and her music she traveled again and settled in Paris;where she earned respect as the first South American artist to exhibit in the Louvre Museum. It was about this time when she recorded the famous song La Carta.
Back in Chile in 1960 some earthquakes cut short a tour of the south and also her health was deteriorating. So she was confined to bed. This did not stop her continuing her intricate needlework; that would give her great acclaim in Europe later. While in her bed she met Gilbert Farve, ‘a gringo’ and a conservatory-trained clarinetist who almost twenty years her junior became the love of her life.
She returned to Europe and traveled with her family, again drew appreciative audiences. The Parras won many honours.
In 1964 Violeta’s children; Angel and Isabel returned to Santiago and opened the Pena de los Parra where many of Chile’s best known musicians performed and today it is still the home the Violeta Foundation.
Later in 1965 Violeta returned to Santiago; on the outskirts she set home and a centre of folklore culture called La Carpa. After her exhibition in the Louvre Violeta became a household name compared to Gabriela Mistral, the country school teacher whose poetry won her the Nobel Peace Prize 1945. Like Mistral it was the foreigners who valued her work and not her countryman.
So, she enveloped herself in politics and worked for Salvador Allende who was running for President in a coalition of the Socialist and Communist Party against the Christian Democrat Eduard Frei. Prominent in the campaign were the stars of Nueva Cancion Chilena and the Parras whose lyrics of social criticism and traditional rhythms with a notable departure from the folkloric instrumentation was gaining popular attention especially with the young people. While Allende had lost the 1964 presidential bid. So the present government was not sympathetic towards music committed to the workers struggles. Even the Radio Stations that once were supportive were now reluctant to play the traditional music. Also record companies became disinterested and afraid to associate themselves with potest tunes and turned towards foreign music. La Pena enjoyed public support and La Carpa struggled to survive.
Her relationship with Gilbert was fraught and fragile and ended. Violeta became more and more neglectful of herself and dependant on alcohol and made enemies as a result. Fortunately she had loyal friends and family who would rally round and support her when times got difficult and she in turn was able to mentor and support fledgling groups of musicians
She would instruct them diligently long and hard. When she was satisfied she would say ‘free yourselves the song is a bird without a flight plan, that hates mathematics and loves the whirlwinds.
Meanwhile the neighbours began a malicious fight against the La Carpa and Violeta´s relationship with her youngest daughter now 16 was volatile and troublesome. And for the second time Violeta tried to take her own life but recovered.
It was after the break up with Gilbert that she wrote the the song Gracias a la vide (Thanks to life) a song that brought her international acclaim.
‘I thank life, which has given me so much
It has given me laughter and a flood of tears;
to distinguish between happiness and heartbreak,
the two elements that form my song
and your song, which are the very same song
everybody´s song, which is my own song ‘
Violeta clung to the hope that she reunite with Gilberto but did take other lovers but they proved to be a disappointment. Violeta enjoyed some success in 1966 while touring to Puerto Natales and made a successful album in January 1967. But sadly a depression came with violent mood swings as a result people stayed away from the la Carpa. Without an audience Violeta felt unworthy; so she stayed alone writing, singing and drinking. On one occasion she took her gun she threaten one of her few devoted friends and turned the gun on herself, the moment passed but it was an alarming expression of her mood.
Violeta committed suicide in February 1967.
Violeta Parra was a well loved and respected woman who tirelessly bought folklore tradition of Chile to the fore. Violeta was brave enough to disregard the imperialist rhythms that may have harmed the already fragile culture of Chile.