If South American popular music were an endurance contest, Los Jaivas from Chile would have to be one of the front-runners.
After 34 years and 11 albums, this Chilean band – whose name means “The Crabs” – still know how to cultivate a happy dance vibe. They did just that at their gig last Saturday, mixing rock and Andean music and fluctuating between heart-felt drumming and gentle poetry accompanied by panpipes.
Apart from songs from “Hijos del Tierra” (“Sons of the Earth”), their latest album, the band must also have been blasting out a few old favorites, judging by the reaction from the mainly Chilean audience. Surrounded by people shouting along to the words, we felt like an impostor amongst true Jaiva groupies. Kindly, the groupies informed me that, as I wasn’t Chilean, I couldn’t be expected to know the lyrics.
The room full of obsessive fans was not an anomaly; Los Jaivas are such an institution in this country, that, we thought, it would be strange to be Chilean and not to have picked up the words to their more well-known songs at some point.
Their success may be due to the years when they improvised constantly in an effort “to let our subconscious open up, and to find something that was ours, something personal,” says Claudio Parra, one of the band’s two keyboard players. “This process led to the creation of our style, which is indigenous and Chilean, a result of the music we always listened to.”
The misnomer of “rock band” which many have tagged on Los Jaivas arises from their formation in the ’70s, Parra says. “It’s a generation thing” that has left its mark on their style, he says, but the group are far from rockers.
Originally from Vina del Mar, they started out playing at local parties and progressed gradually to international fame. Now based in France, they still come back to Chile regularly, and last weekend played to a full house at La Fabrica in Bellavista in a scene which could have been straight out of MTV. Machinery statues, metal doors and high ceilings reminiscent of the club’s origins as a factory give the place an industrial ambiance. On the night we visited, there was a suitably cool-looking audience, as well, who, chilling at spread-out tables, resembled the likes of Jameroquai fans with floppy hats and over-sized trainers. It was only the older generation section of the audience who gave the game away that we weren’t gathered there to see Jameroquai, but rather Los Jaivas.
The young, lycra-clad drummer, Juanita, wearing a spangly star on her forehead, makes for a bizarre contrast with the other four members of the band, who look like gray-haired friendly uncles. Which is exactly what the two keyboard players, Eduardo and Claudio Parra, are to Juanita, who replaced her father, their brother, Gabriel, as the group’s drummer after he tragically died in a car crash in Peru in 1982.
Together with Gato Alquinta and Fernando Flores, the three brothers originally started out in 1963 under the name of High Bass, mixing together cumbias, sambas, bossa nova and the twist, along with other rhythms. They first struggled for a few years, sometimes needing a cash advance just to make end meets. In 1969, when they decided to concentrate on improvising, they changed their name to Los Jaivas, and although over time they returned to composition, they still retain the freedom to improvise in solo parts.
From the original, mainly electrical instruments they used in the ’60s, they now tease out rhythms on drums, acoustic guitars, rain sticks, bells, tambourines and a trutruca, a long pipe that makes a fulsome, resounding harmonious bellow which would be much more at home in the mountains than Bellavista, but sounds beautiful all the same. The Sampona panpipes, another traditional Andean instrument, are used liberally and bring a vibrant sadness to the music which is complimented by the urgency of the drumming. There is obviously great communication between the group, which Claudio Parra attributes to them living all together with their families in one huge house, first in Argentina when they left Chile in 1973, and then for the following 10 years in France.
It is the experience of being based abroad that allows the group to be objective about Chile and to keep developing musically. Being away from home has also put their music onto an international footing in terms of audience and lyrics. “Hijos de Tierra,” the title song of their 1995 album, observes, “We are children of the earth, and its word is our history.”
But even having lived aboard for so many years, toured around the world and made a lot of money there still remains a quintessential Chilean element to their poetry. Part of this is how they express the paradoxical soothing effect of Chile’s turbulent geography; it carries on doing its own thing, erupting when it wants, regardless of what the human race is up to: “Volcano, in my beating heart your insolent lava heals my wounds.”
A regional but also universal environmental anger surges in “Bosques Virginales” (“Virgin Forests”), directed at the wanton misuse of Latin America’s natural resources and questioning the madness and barbarity threatening native woods. The song challenges modern utilitarian economics, insisting that the woods are where “everything is you (the forest), without more reason for being than the illusion of eternity.”
Like these native trees, Los Jaivas too are rooted in Chilean culture. Claudio Parra believes that the future of that culture depends on the creation of a Ministry of Culture, so that “the control is taken out of private hands, and can be given back to the people, a move which requires action from the government.”
La Fabrica at Ascencion 426 is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., with either live music or a disco, there is also a restaurant that most people can afford as the average price per person is $10.