A music group may have been active for more than three decades, but that doesn't mean a sense of what it has accomplished will automatically be conveyed to the newest member of the audience coming in for that first sip. Inti-Illimani, a Chilean folk group, provides a handy example of a scenario quite common in life's introductions to art. In 2004, some 37 years after the first version of this group came together in Santiago while still students, certain old-timers still make use of antiquated communication systems such as the ground mail. One afternoon a fairly chubby carton of recordings arrives from a correspondent in Chile.
One item in this action package is a Fonomusic reissue of two Inti-Illimani albums on a single compact disc. It will soon become understood that these productions would be contenders in any attempt to pick the most brilliant recordings in this group's career, but the initial reaction is to simply squint at the song title credits, the only information accompanying this CD whatsoever, and wonder if a new set of bifocal lenses has already gotten scratched up. Viva Chile! was originally released in 1973 when the group's sound was really coming together, a monster that walks proudly, one giant leg in the folk traditions and the other gently stepping into the progressive lane. Resistencia came out four years later, an incredibly meticulous and ambitious work. So that's two powerful moments in Chilean cultural history, which the song "La Segunda Indepencia" suggests is the history of all everyone. Naturally the reissue deserves nothing less than a printing job that looks like the menu in a cheap lunch dive.
"Oh, Inti-Illimani," one of the rabble that crowds around the opening of any carton such as this comments. "I read an article on them in the New Republic."
This comment is set aside like a clue, an indicator that ignorance of Inti-Illimani might simply represent ignorance on the part of the listener if this is truly a world music group that, like the Chieftains, has become elevated to the status of international touring artists and is being written up in classy magazines. Yet even more telling is the reaction from the hip-hop college lass, someone who is also likely to be hovering around whenever a carton of goodies is opened.
Her reaction is two-fold, representing both intense interest and disgust. All of this happens in the course of the first song, "La Fiesta de San Benito." Since the CD programming simply consists of the albums in their original form, one right after the other, this track retains its status as the all-important beginning of Viva Chile!, as well as now becoming the gateway into the entire reissue. The percussion bit that sets up the track is brilliant, one of several moments that are amazing not only for the playing but for the way the instruments are mixed. If it was possible to somehow duplicate and distribute the manner in which her eyes lit up at the sound of this, that process would instantly replace the need for writing rave reviews.
Likewise, the way her lip curled up when the pan pipes called "zampona" came in would make an effective universal replacement for the outbursts of negative energy called "pans." This reaction, however, is an unfortunate outcome of a type of cultural assassination that has occurred, for once not involving a CIA-trained hit squad. An allergic reaction to zampona that is sometimes referred to as "El Condor Pass-Out" can be blamed on Paul Simon -- though if this was a CIA debacle that was being investigated, a few of the random fingers would point back at Inti-Illimani. After all, it was bandmembers such as Horacio Durán and Jose Seves who decided to work with a style of traditional Chilean music that in 1967 was actually kind of rare.
Without the groundbreaking of Inti-Illimani, it can be speculated that Paul Simon might not have ever heard the call of the pan pipes and subsequently dug their grave. Without "El Condor Pasa" as an international hit, there might be no demand for armies of Chilean musicians and other people pretending to be Chilean musicians to wander through the world playing cheesy zampona music in front of train stations. There would also surely be no bastard offspring of these zampona groups, the lone pan pipe player, sometimes just a pan pipe lip-syncer, who performs for donations with a pre-recorded backing track, a pickpocket accomplice helping to top up the take.
This is admittedly a digression, but honestly has to be mentioned as an aspect of these recordings. If there had been no zampona, the listener who had liked the percussion so much, fluent in Spanish and thus uniquely able to fully experience the messages in these songs, might not have left the room before the flow of music established its unique stylistic development. A '70s movement known as nueva cancion, or "new song," was really just that. The songs no longer smack of only one genre, meaning there are no longer any bad Simon & Garfunkel vibes. The forms of the songs themselves are challenging and complex, by the 1977 album sourcing from master composers and lyricists such as Victor Jara and Pablo Neruda.
The cheerful zampona is one of the four main aspects of this group in terms of overall sound, at least during the '70s. The other factors are the vocalizing, the percussion, and the sound of string instruments, which include several small axes such as the tiple and charango. These are aspects that are utilized with absolute dramatic control throughout both albums. Rather than there ever being any sense of loose, spontaneous activity such as a guy deciding to suddenly just come in with a riff on tiple, these recordings use every instrumental event, even the slightest adjustment in sound, as a development of major importance.
Perhaps this is necessary when the vocal arrangements become as complex as the track entitled "Naciste De Los Lenadores." Despite the solidly South American flavor, this singing might remind some listeners of the intricate, intelligent pop music of the '60s and '70s, particularly skilled vocal groups such as the Association and the 5th Dimension. A probing, demanding edge had certainly become an international musical movement in the era when these albums were originally released, even among groups that would later be relegated to Las Vegas lounges. Not that such a thing could ever happen to the glowing Inti-Illimani -- the name of which, from the Andes Aymaran Indian language, means Sun God.