Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Magnificant Woman - Joan Jara

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September. September 11th 40 years ago, the cataclysm of the Nixon/Kissinger/Pinochet coup that destroyed the elected government of Salvador Allende, leading to his death and the torture and murder of thousands. Included in their tragic number the great singer/songwriter, Victor Jara. His songs are loved and sung the world over for their unique combination of fierce passion for justice, humour, and often wonderful beauty. But without his wife, Joan Turner Jara, much of Victor's legacy would have been lost. Here then is a long overdue tribute to Joan, with much love.

A MAGNIFICENT WOMAN ϟ by Paul Baker Hernández

Chile’s great - greatly-loved – singer, Victor Jara, is legendary. His music, with its wonderful melding of fierce passion and great beauty, is unparalleled. 40 years after his appalling martyrdom, his songs continue to be seminal for committed musicians the world over, from Billy Bragg to Silvio Rodriguez, from concert halls to downhome neighborhood bars. Their exquisitely-crafted demands for justice make them irresistible, eternal, echoing out the very soul of humanity in its longing march to freedom.

However, the widespread recognition of songs such as ‘Te Recuerdo, Amanda’ and ‘Ni Chicha ni Limona’’ is also due to the courage and decades-long dedication of one remarkable woman. In late 1973, Joan Jara and her two small daughters were airlifted to safety from the catastrophic tragedy that Chile had abruptly become, leaving Victor dead. Without her British passport, she, Manuela and Amanda would almost certainly have been disappeared as well, to be thrown onto the growing heaps of disfigured dead or sold as ‘adopted’ daughters to friends of the military.  And, with them, much of Victor’s music would also have perished; for the precious luggage they clutched so close was heavy with the original masters of his songs. 

Born in London, Joan grew to become a fine dancer; to marry Patricio Bunster, an exotic fellow-member of the Ballet Joos; to return with him to his native Chile. There, she taught dance at the national university; there, Manuela was conceived; there, Patricio abandoned her to court a contestant for Miss Chile. And there, one of her most gifted students, a certain Victor Jara, with his wonderful smile, gently came to her, helping her survive her depression and lifting her out of her loneliness.   Although he was several years her junior, they lived together happily until his death, with Manuela as much Victor’s daughter as their own physical child, Amanda. And after a while, they even collaborated creatively with Patricio - in Joan’s words, ‘largely thanks to Victor’s extraordinary bridge-building skills’.  
    Indomitable at 85, even after decades of fruitless searching for justice both for Víctor and so many more victims of the Kissinger/Pinochet horror, Joan launched the ‘Justicia Para Victor/Justice for Víctor’ campaign to mark 2013, the 40th anniversary year of their murder.   After Víctor was recognized and set aside for ‘special interrogation’ during the coup that destroyed Dr. Salvador Allende’s elected government and shredded the West’s pretensions to democracy forever, he disappeared. Eventually, Hector, a young student pressed into service in the Santiago morgue, risked his own life to bring Joan and her family the terrible news – that his body had been found stacked among dozens of others, waiting to be flung into a common grave.
   “I’ll never forget it,” Joan told me once. “It didn’t look like Víctor at first, he was so pale and thin, as though they had sucked all the life out of him before killing him. And his hands and wrists were all wrong. They’d been smashed with rifle butts. But I knew it was Víctor, my husband, my lover, my only love.”
   It was only when Víctor’s remains were exhumed in 2010 that she also learned he had been killed by a single shot to the head. Apparently some officers decided to take revenge on him for his songs championing those impoverished by the unjust system they supported, so, having smashed his hands and demanded that he still sing, they played Russian Roulette with him for God knows how long before they felled him with that one fatal bullet; then machine-gunned him where he lay. “Víctor is one of the well-known victims,” Joan says. “If we can get justice for him our hope is it will open the floodgates for all those others destroyed and disappeared in that terrible time, those whose names are known only to their loved ones.”  
    Eight men were involved, most of whom are today awaiting trial in Chile. However, one of the ring-leaders, Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, now a US citizen, has lived in Florida for decades. So far, so surprisingly(!), the US government has refused to comply with international law requesting his extradition to Chile. Thus the primary focus of the Justice for Víctor campaign is that the chains of military impunity be broken, that Pedro Barrientos be returned to Chile to face trial, and that true justice be done for all the victims and their families.

    Despite the campaign being taken up with eagerness, Joan is not sanguine of its outcome, she knows it’s still an uphill fight. For if the judges dare to set justice truly free, not only will the lowly Barrientos and his friends have to face judgment but so too will the lordly Kissinger and his accomplices in the US government.  So she, together with all the families of Chile’s unsung victims, is appealing to us for help. They stress that, in the spirit of Victor’s own lapidary phrase, we’re workers, not ‘Stars’, our solidarity should be something creative wherever possible. So, how about a wee gathering September 11th to remember all the victims of that terrible date, North American and Chilean? It could be filled with music and dance, children’s games and Chilean wine. Here in Nicaragua we’re organizing a great festival, entitled, Víctor Jara Sings Forever. On the smaller personal scale, if I can scrounge up the airfare, I’ll be going to Chile to take Víctor’s songs back home, so honoring the Chilean exiles who brought them to us in Scotland in the first place; to thank Joan in person for the wonderful gift she has guarded so faithfully and shared so humbly for so unutterably long; and to offer in exchange my own composition, I Thought I Heard Sweet Víctor, Singing in the Night, conceived in the very garden of the house she shared with Víctor in Santiago. Then, let’s talk to news media about the anniversary, ask them to play a song or two, or to read from Joan’s own book, Victor – An Unfinished Song. How about a special ceremony in your community of faith, or a special motion in your trade union? … the possibilities are as unlimited as love itself.

    In this rare video clip, from a television interview given just months before his death, Víctor himself talks about the importance of love in music and the struggle for justice, singing of course, but also emphasizing the vital role of other magnificent women: his mother, market worker by day, folksinger by night, and the tragic Violeta Parra, who, although she killed herself shortly after writing her beloved Gracias a la Vida, Thanks to Life, played a vital role in the development of his own music.

    Again, in love, please send a message of loving support to Joan, her family and the Fundación Víctor Jara through their webpage:, thanking them all for all their tireless work, and, through them, reaching out to all the doubly-tragic ones searching for their loved ones even still. 
    I caught a clip of Joan speaking at the opening of the Justice for Victor campaign the other day. My memory of what she said is, “Deja la Vida Volar (Let Life Fly) is my favorite song today. We are determined to find justice for Victor and for all those who died or were disappeared in those terrible times. But, above all - after forty long, long, years - it’s time to celebrate the beauty of the legacy Victor left us.”
    In Joan’s honor then, and that of all the magnificent women to whom humanity owes so much, let courage, justice and beauty have the last word.


Singer, songwriter and organizer, Paul Baker tries to follow Victor’s dictum: ‘We artists are workers, not stars’. Passionate lover of snow, solitude and silence, the songs somehow brought him to searing, chaotic, clamorous Managua, Nicaragua. ‘And I love it!’, he says. ‘Talk about the power of music!’  In Nicaragua, Paul works in music/ecological projects, with the ‘Víctor Jara Sings Forever’ movement, writes singing English versions of his best-loved songs, and has just completed ‘Pensé oír al dulce Víctor, en la noche cantar’ (I Thought I Heard Sweet Víctor, Singing .. ), an original song begun in the Jara’s Santiago home while working with them reclaim the stadia where Víctor and so many others suffered and died. He tours USA/UK yearly with house/stadium concerts, workshops, lectures, sermons, festivals, picket lines – bookings: 

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