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Los Bunkers and the Chilean new song 2.0
by David Cox

Among the most important progenitors of what is today known as “world music or “world roots” were the Chilean exile bands who travelled Europe and elsewhere in the 1970s, among them Inti Illimani and Quilapayún, exiled after the coup against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in 1973. Other bands of note included Congreso and Los Jaivas, building on the solid folk foundation created by Violeta Parra in the 60s and Victor Jara. At the same time, in Cuba, Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes, Noel Nicola, Vicente Feliú and others carved out a niche in international Spanish-language folk music due to their unique blend of music and politics in the “nueva trova” movement.

Here's how one contemporary rock band brought so much of this music back to popularity in the new millennium.

With the demise of the dictatorships of the Southern Cone, and the protest music they generated, the projection of Latin American folk music gave way to other world musics. Fast forward from the 70s to the late 90s and the emergence of a number of young rock bands in Concepcion, Chile. First, Los Tres and then Los Santos Dumont, among many others, made the scene in Chile’s second metropolis one of the most fertile in all of Latin America, Chile’s version of Manchester.

Influenced by the New Song as well as the 1960s “British invasion” which they were exposed to growing up, and by Los Tres, Los Bunkers learned their musical chops as a Beatles cover band in the Biobio region, hence their original moniker Los “Biotles.” With the return of democracy and a limited but vibrant music industry they moved to Santiago. It seemed that this young Chilean band incarnated not just the psychedelia of the British invasion, but also the emancipatory power of Chilean folksong.

Los Bunkers consisted of two sets of brothers; Mauricio and Francisco Duran (vocals, keyboards, guitars, and the major songwriters), Alvaro (lead vocalist) and Gonzalo Lopez (bass), as well as drummer Mauricio Basualto. Their first album (Los Bunkers, 2000 -- re-released in fall 2020) was originally recorded in a studio with a leaky roof; remixed this year it sheds light on the era an the band’s original blend of Brit psychedelia and Chilean nueva cancion.

With one Victor Jara cover “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” they set a marker as band well aware of Chile’s musical past. In a similar vein their original number, “El Detenido” attracted attention as a new addition to this canon. (The re-released song can be viewed in an unique rotoscopy video.)

The original single “Entre Mis Brazos” with its intricate guitar intro was released with a video that made direct reference to Quilapayun, and their signature Andean cloaks. The language and visuals used plays explicit homage to Patricio Manns, Inti Illimani and others, but the Beatlesque guitars and harmonies are evident also

On “Papa no Llores Mas”(Father don’t cry any More) there is an explicit reference to soldiers, probably those of the dictataorship. The “cancion social” in the Los Bunkers’ universe, seemed to create an interplay between the explicit and the hidden, according to one critic. Felipe Retamal wrote that Los Bunkers respected the codes of the transition (to democracy) transmitting a message that is clear, but well founded in its own musical context.   The harmonicas on “Fantasias Animadas de Ayer y Hoy” and “No Se” are also reminiscent of “Love me Do” or early Dylan, while the vocal harmonies also recall an earlier day. All in all, Los Bunkers announced the band as a new, unique voice, one that had learned its chops covering the classics of both the national and international traditions.

On subsequent recordings (there were seven original albums released between 1998 and 2014) they again explored the territory of national music –a Los Jaivas cover and a recording of “Gracias à la Vida” (Violeta Parra) solidify the credentials.

At the same time, Los Bunkers’ own lyrics while not outwardly political left lots of room for interpretation or simple enjoyment. It has been written that like many artists in Chile’s post dictatorship period, they knew the limits of what was permitted. The second album, “Cancion de Lejos” chronicles their move from Concepcion to Santiago, but also evokes the idea of exile: “the shadows are falling, on a waking Concepcion, don’t hope that those memories will make me come back one more time.”

Los Bunkers’ third disc, La Culpa,” in 2003 marked the 30th anniversary of the Chilean coup, a more mature group made a strong statement. They began “Culpable” (Guilty) with “hoping you will stop weren’t the best thing that could happen to me, lots of loose ends I couldn’t tie” The song nicely blends rock with Andean folk-rock as Carlos Cabezas of Los Jaivas contributes on quenas (Andean flute).

"Cancion para Mañana” was perhaps their finest song writing, was their own attempt to weave a “new song” legacy with some veiled references to what had recently occurred in the country, with its poignant lyrics and a jab at the older generations who “never made a bit of sense”, it is a true song of hope,(one whichwas covered most recently by Pedro Aznar and Manuel Garcia). To see what tomorrow may bring, the singer needs “a pair of glasses,” perhaps the famous pair belonging to President Allende.

The connection with Chilean roots music is made most explicit on "La Exiliada del Sur," a song which intricately ties together the story of Chilean folk music from the 60s onward, a poem by Violeta Parra which takes the listener on a strange journey through various sites such as Los Lagos and Temuco. More explicitly, visions of the military dictatorship are invoked in “No me Hables de Sufrir”, where the singer complains about a woman with ‘zero compassion” who: “ took my life, forced me into hiding, took my breath, and didn’t even say ‘sorry’”

On their fourth album Vida de Perros – the group’s first US release – some weariness is already evident “I lead a dog’s life…because that’s the most lifelike” but also the rock gem, "Ahora que No Estas," a staple of later performances. On "Barrio Estacion," a nod to their Concepcion roots, a move to Mexico moved the band into different musical territory.   “Capablanca” is a bit of a surprise, a musical homage to Burt Bacharach. and to a long-passed Cuban chess master, as well as a Chilean group of the same name.

After recording five albums of original material, for their sixth in 2011 they decided on an album of cover versions of the great Cuban folksinger Silvio Rodriguez, and with Rodriguez’ blessing recorded a dozen of the Cuban’s songs with the help of Mexican producer Emmanuel del Real (Meme), the member of Café Tacvba.

Putting Rodriguez’ classics into a rock format was fraught with perils (just as when Dylan himself plugged in he received blowback) however Musica Libre stands as a landmark, being the best selling physical album in Chile in the millennium, as well charting in Mexico.

Meme did a nice job, on classics such as “Sueño con Serpientes” (done in the style of “Tomorrow Never Knows”); the Rodriguez originally this appeared on Dias y Flores, but it was popularlized on the anthology Canciones Urgentes selected by David Byrne.

On the stunning “La Era esta Pariendo un Corazon,”  an ode to Che Guevara, Manuel Garcia opens hauntingly on lead vocals, staking his claim to be the “Silvio” of the next generation.
Mi sombra dice que reírse es ver los llantos como mi llanto
y me he callado, desesperado, 
y escucho entonces:  la tierra llora. 

“Santiago de Chile,” written in response to the military coup of 1973, is given a rock treatment, appropriate to its subject matter.  A robust version of   “El Necio” – a song which appears to contain a direct reference to Victor Jara’s assassination by the military, became a staple of the group’s later performances also. Songs like “Leyenda” for instance, are given a sound more in keeping with the acoustic original.

Musica Libre is a joy from beginning to end. Each of the twelve songs has presence, attitude and originality. Rodriguez is a giant, the songs are tried and true, but if there was any possibility such a legend might be forgotten by the younger generations, Los Bunkers on Musica Libre made sure it definitely would not happen. It is worthwhile listening to this treatment of the great Cuban trovador’s songs which will never go out of date

Los Bunkers concluded the first stage of their career with La Velocidad de la Luz (The Speed of Light) as their final studio album, a well crafted change of direction which owed more to the sounds of the 80s and 90s. By now it is 2013 and they are in Mexico, “La Maldicion de Mi Pais” makes their political stance a bit more explicit. Crowning this phase was the release of SCL a CD-DVD concert film by Pascal Krumm, of excellent quality,a good summation of their career and, in fact, was shown in cinemas across Chile. Symbolizing this period, the band used hydro towers as a symbol, perhaps of public power.

At this moment of peak popularity, the group took an indefinite pause, which was in effect for much of the latter half of the past decade. Like the band they originally patterned themselves after, the pressure for Los Bunkers to reunite is strong, and so far the band has resisted such calls other than one occasion.

Most recently Los Bunkers performed a half-hour set in 2019  at the Chilean estallido social, the protest movement that dominated the country in the final months of 2019, and released a video of their song “Mino,” a classic part of their repertoire they wrote about the self-immolation of an injured Chilean worker.

In this beautifully created video the scenes of the band’s stage vehile in the midst of what looks like millions of people, violent police action and resistance, the crowd taking the lead and singing these poignant lyrics, is a demonstration of unimaginable courage and musical sang-froid. It is worth remembering that 35 protestors were killed in the course of this action, yet few outside the country took any notice. This concert – which was technically illegal – cemented the association of groups such as Los Bunkers with the movements for social and political change in Latin America, a movement that continues through the passing of the torch to new generations, and has generated more than its share of musical moments.

Los Bunkers aren’t the only contemporary Chilean artist to look back at the past for inspiration. Gepe recently recorded an album of Margot Loyola songs (Folclor Imaginario) while such artists as Nano Stern and Manuel Garcia continue the singer songwriter tradition. As well, Macha y el Bloque Depresivo’s debut release conains covers of Silvio Rodriguez and Los Jaivas, among others, and the inimitable Mon Laferte might be considered in this conversation as well.  

While little was heard in North America about the Chilean estallido social of 2019, and little is known of Los Bunkers, I suspect that there is more history to be written.

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