Robert McFall in Valparaiso

Robert is taking a sabbatical and spending 6 months in Valpraiso, Chile. Here's the first of his installments on life in the southern hemisphere:

I'm only going to write about musical matters in this blog – so I'll leave aside the tear gas, the earthquake, the colourful corrugated iron architecture and the stray dogs.

I arrived here still singing Borodin to myself from the SCO fireworks concert – but we've quickly become immersed in various new musical experiences. We saw the new film about Violeta Parra – a figure familiar to me through Valentina's interest in Nueva Cancion. Here people are somewhat rediscovering her – younger people haven't heard of her much – it's as if Americans were being introduced to Pete Seeger for the first time and made aware of his cultural and political importance in their country. We've also been going to Cueca classes – the national folk dance in which partners wheel around each other waving handkerchiefs. The music is all in 6/8 with a very strong impulse (in the bass line and/or percussion) on beats 2 and 3 and 5 and 6. The dancers start by clapping up beats and down beats to establish the bar. I've heard so much music in 6/8 in the last week! Very little in 4/4.

We also went to a concert in support of the student demonstrations (and occupations, hunger strikes etc.) by Inti–Illimani at the municipal theatre. This is one of two rival line-ups which more or less trade under the same name (the one we saw is officially called “Inti-Illimani historico”). The other Valparaiso-based line-up is playing tonight at another venue. We'll get to meet the leader of this line-up, Jorge Coulon, tonight. We've kindly been put in touch with a number of Chilean musicians by Jan Fairley. Inti-Illimani, who are pretty well-known in Europe too, are part of a left-wing folk tradition, which has references to Mapuche influences and which goes back to the 60's and connects with other such musicians as Victor Jara and the afore-mentioned Violeta Parra.

Just to show how contemporary music – everywhere – is no longer circumscribed by place, our landlady's son, Dexter, is a passionate practitioner of celtic music. He has a set of Highland pipes and plays whistles and flutes. He is extraordinarily good. He has just come back from Amsterdam, where he was staying with his father and playing in Irish pubs. He came into possession of his pipes in the following way: a family of Scottish descent (there are many) had had them in the family for several generations. The young member of the family who had inherited them knew that he didn't want to play them, but wanted to find an appropriate home for them. Dexter encountered him at a car boot sale (or equivalent) and expressed an interest. The owner asked him to play and then insisted on giving them to him. “Why are you interested in playing celtic music?” he asked; “I just have a feeling for it in my soul” Dexter answered (or some such – sounds a bit corny in English). He has asked me to play with him and has given me three Irish reels to learn – along with a CD to imitate. I know just how hard I find it to memorise these tunes – and to play them in any way stylistically. I've spent time on it this morning and have partially learned just one of the reels – very partially.

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