- Interview by
- Nicolas Allen
This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the tragic end of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. A time for remembrance, it is also an opportunity to explore lesser-known episodes from Chile’s thousand-day experiment in social democratic governance.
One of those episodes, now coming to light, concerns Allende’s efforts to nationalize Chile’s culture industry and create an innovative, democratic mass consumer society. For example, several important studies have recovered the history of Editora Nacional Quimantú. Nationalized by the Popular Unity government, this state-owned publishing house aimed to produce inexpensive editions of great global literature and intellectual works, with the ultimate goal of integrating them into the wider cultural heritage of the working class.
One of the Popular Unity government’s more ambitious projects centered on the nationalization of RCA, the American electronic consumer goods giant. By buying out a controlling share in the company’s stock, Allende believed the company — renamed Industry de Radio y Televisión (IRT) — could manufacture “socialist radios and TVs.” Drawing on the benefits of modern technology, it was believed that these modern consumer technologies — similar to the famous Cybersyn project — could help integrate society into a holistic national project, different from the bourgeois individualism of consumer capitalism.
By far the least studied aspect of the IRT was the state-run record label of the same name. Inherited from the records division of RCA-Victor Chilean, the IRT studios produced and distributed some of the period’s most vibrant and politically engaged music. And yet, for too long, there has been virtually no historical research into the Popular Unity’s efforts to bring music new and old to the masses.
Designer and artist Pablo Castro Zamorano has set out to change that with the website “El Disco es Cultura.” The online radio is currently live, playing the entire discography of IRT nonstop for listeners to enjoy. There’s only one catch: the artistic project comes to an end on September 11, the day of the coup.
Nicolas Allen of Jacobin spoke to Castro Zamorano to get a sense of what inspired him to build the website and to understand why it’s important to not just see and read but also hear the history of the Popular Unity government.
Click here to listen to “El Disco es Cultura.”
El Disco Es Cultura
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
As a designer, I have always tried to think of my profession in relation to politics and social protest. Since this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the military coup, I felt it was necessary to do something especially impactful, and I realized that I could make use of this very close, almost genetic connection I have with the IRT, which was the record label that was nationalized by the Popular Unity government.
My father worked at the label, so he provided me with information and is helping me to piece together the history. However, this fifty-year commemorative project, known as El Disco Es Cultura, is really centered on the music that was published by the IRT, rather than the history behind the label.
My father was head of promotion at the label, and he was able to put me in touch with people who helped me to complete the full IRT catalog, and with those records — some rare, others relatively accessible — I created the online radio, which broadcasts the full discography.
If someone went to the website, what could they expect to hear?
Again, it has the format of an online radio. So, you hit play and start listening to the music that was released by the IRT between 1971 and 1973. There are roughly twenty-two hours of uninterrupted music there to listen to. It’s meant to have the format of an actual radio from that era — as if you were listening to the radio during the Popular Unity years.
I think a present-day listener will be surprised to hear the sounds of that era. So often, our access to the past enters through the eyes, and we assume that photos are the best documentation of what was happening. This project is really about showing what that time in Chile sounded like.
For example, you can hear Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende being interviewed together by a Chilean journalist, sharing different ideas about the revolution. Even if the words from that interview are widely available, their voices and the sound around them are remarkable. It sounds like the interview was recorded in a large courtyard or a big park because you can hear birds singing and children playing in the background. It has a remarkable Edenic quality to it.
What about the IRT slogan that you’ve adopted for the site, “El disco es cultura?” What was the significance of saying “records are culture?”
That phrase was printed on all the records in Chile at that time, generally on the back cover. The idea is pretty transparent: the actual physical record is not just a disposable consumer object for dancing or listening to; it’s also an important cultural artifact. That idea was very present during the IRT. But it wasn’t exclusive to the IRT either. I have seen that same phrase printed on Mexican, Peruvian, and Argentinean records from the 1970s. It seems to have been a global sentiment.
A glance at the catalog shows that the label was recording some of the biggest names in Latin American rock, like Los Jaivas. Was there a unifying aesthetic vision?
That’s actually a very interesting topic. One of the most striking details about the IRT was that it was so stylistically broad, especially if you compare it with the Chilean Communist Party–associated DICAP label, which mainly produced protest music.
The IRT published música tropical, children’s music, cumbia, and more — there is even an album of experimental computer music. The IRT catalog was extremely diverse, and you can hear that on the online radio: you’ll hear a political speech, then cumbia, then psychedelic rock or funk, and even more experimental electronic music. All that music thrived at the IRT under the Popular Unity government. Julio Numhauser, a famous musician associated with the groups Quilapayún and Amerindios, was the artistic director behind that musical vision.
Culture for the People
What about the political vision at IRT? Was there a general sense of the public importance of preserving Chile’s musical heritage, or perhaps expanding on that heritage through the exploration of new artistic forms?
Under the Popular Unity government, several key companies were nationalized for the benefit of the people. And many of those, like the famous Quimantú publishing house, were cultural in nature. The idea there was that books would no longer be an object of elite consumption. The same was the case with the IRT: records could be enjoyed in working-class homes without the connotation of being music connoisseurs or wealthy collectors.
Before that, most records were imported, and the price tag of most records put them out of the reach of popular consumers. The idea was to create a national record industry for domestic consumption. National record production was also vital to the Popular Unity project of nationalizing radio stations, which had been previously dominated by English-language music.
Has your father shared any stories with you about the process of nationalizing RCA-Victor?
My father was actually working at RCA when the company was nationalized. He just continued working there. He actually tried to tender his resignation, but they wouldn’t accept it and instead said: “You have to continue working here and help us to launch IRT.”
It’s clear that there was a very direct relationship at IRT between the musicians, the sound engineers, and my dad, who was head of promotion. When Los Jaivas came back from exile, my dad was invited to their first concert, because he was a person who had formed an integral part of that community.
In that sense, the IRT was typical of the projects formed by the Popular Unity government, where there was a more horizontal relationship within a company or enterprise. As head of promotion, my father’s job was to go out and sit in a club waiting for hours for the DJ to play Los Jaivas “Todos Juntos.” With its long drum intro and unusual instrumentation, it became an unlikely hit, in part due to his work with IRT.
Was your father political before the experience?
He was never a member of any party. But he always had a strong sense of social justice and class interests. Although he was never exiled, he lost his job at IRT immediately after September 11, as did everyone else involved with the project. There were all kinds of recording projects underway that suddenly came to a halt. Supposedly, Víctor Jara was working on a new album for IRT, which was never recorded.
I had a relatively sheltered childhood and had no idea that I lived in a country under a dictatorship until I was a teenager and started public education. All that time, the IRT discography remained hidden in our house, and it was almost taboo to talk about it because it obviously referred to a very dark period of history.
Little by little I started to get interested in those discs — both the music and the cover art. I was always attracted to the graphics of the IRT label, which used colors from Chile, but they were always slightly off-red and off-blue, a kind of pink with a light blue. I was very struck by the fact that Chile had a record industry and was publishing these discs, which I had assumed came from the United States or Europe.
Ending at Ten to Noon, September 11
Weren’t a lot of the IRT masters seized and destroyed during the first days of the Pinochet dictatorship?
That part of the history requires more research, because, yes, presumedly the masters were destroyed. However, there are stories told by, for example, Eduardo Gatti, of the folk-rock band Los Blops, in which many of the masters were allegedly pulled out of a garbage can. It’s my understanding that recordings of Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro’s speeches were destroyed, along with those of the Uruguayan guerrilla group Los Tupamaros.
And why did you decide that the site has to be shut down on September 11?
For me, it’s a form of conceptual closure. The online radio is an artistic project, not an actual radio intended to last in time. But the fact that it is a radio being shut down is conceptually important. On September 11, radio antennas were bombed throughout Santiago in order to cut communication about what was happening. It is also very significant for me that the radio signal was cut off ten minutes before noon.
Is there any disc in particular that represents the history of the IRT?
There is a very particular story that has to do with the first record published by IRT, marking the first year of Salvador Allende’s government. They commissioned my father to do the cover artwork and asked him to create something that would represent the first year of government.
My father went through press archives and combined photographs that represented the social revolution in Chile: a photo of the mining industry to represent the nationalization of copper; a photo of the Chilean countryside to represent agrarian reform; a photo of the Chilean public state bank; and a photo of some textile workers showing government support for national industry. In the middle, there was a picture of a little one-year-old boy with a bottle of milk, representing a policy implemented by the Popular Unity government to guarantee proper infant nutrition. My father couldn’t find a press clipping for that, so he just took a photo of me as a one-year-old.