An Intimate Look at Inti-illimani

By Audrey Coleman

inti-illimaniMy heart was in Humahuaca, a village in northwestern Argentina, where, last January, I had encountered a musician/folklorist steeped in Andean traditions. I was all set to write about Fortunato, when I learned that the Chilean ensemble Inti-Illimani was going to be performing at Caltech on Saturday, April 21 at 8pm. Too tantalizing! If you haven't attended a concert or heard a recording by this groundbreaking, legendary group, let me fill you in.

These eight men, who will be playing on more than 30 wind, string, and percussion instruments at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, take their inspiration from the intoxicating rhythms and bittersweet melodies of the indigenous peoples of Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. Their performances feature traditional South American instruments such as the siku (panpipes) and tiple (usually 12-stringed instrument of the guitar family) and melodies that originated in pueblos of centuries past. But while delving into this musical heritage, the musicians have composed music of stunning beauty. In the group's 45 year history, they have  created over 400 such compositions.

Forty-five years? Yes, members have left and been replaced, but not as often as one would think. The single founding member currently with the group is Jorge Coulon, who came together with some fellow engineering students in Santiago during the sixties to play the music of ancient cultures. The name they chose for their group referenced a mountain called Illimani, located in La Paz, Bolivia and took the word inti from the indigenous Aymara dialect that means "sun of." Their creative voice dove-tailed with the roots-based yet innovative inclinations of musicians such as Athualpaca Yupanqui, Mercedes Sosa, and Violeta Para. As its unique sound coalesced, Inti-Illimani developed a following and within a few years their rich musical interpretations had captivated audiences throughout South America.. In the next decade, when success took Inti to Europe, history stepped in to chart an unexpected course.

1973. While the ensemble is touring in Europe, news comes that Chilean president Salvador Allende has been assassinated in a coup d'état. General Augusto Pinochet begins a reign of terror where freedom of speech -- and song -- have no place. Inti-Illimani members are suddenly political exiles, separated from family and friends. Now dissident musicians both in South America and abroad who had identified with cultural traditions of the dispossessed are intensifying their message with lyrics of political protest and social action, a musical movement known as Nueva Cancion. Italy becomes Inti-Illimani’s home base for the next 15 years.

In 1988, the military government unexpectedly allowed the group to return to Chile. Six thousand fans greeted the eight musicians at the airport; 130,000 attended their homecoming concert soon after. Inti-Illimani had become a symbol of the struggle of the dispossessed. In the years that followed, Inti appeared in Amnesty International Concerts with such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Youssou N’Dour, Mercedes Sosa, and Wynton Marsalis.

The April 21 program will draw songs from various eras in the history of Inti-Illimani. Veteran member Jorge Coulon shared via e-mail (translation): “These stages have to do with the life experiences, including musical ones, with the childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and maturity of the group. (They have to do with) living in Chile (initially), experiencing a long exile, and then returning to Chile in very different circumstances. There is our lasting love of Andean music and encounters with musicians from different parts of the world.”

Escncial (2006) by Inti-Illimani

As dozens of recordings and international tours continue to expand their popularity, the musicians have found opportunities to expand their creative horizons. For example, Inti-Illimani's music was used in the award-winning 2004 documentary about Bolivian silver miners, Devil's Miner. Always exploring new musical textures, the ensemble has performed with symphony orchestras. A collaboration with French Canadian singer Francesca Gagnon, the "Voice of Alegria" in Cirque du Soleil spinned  magical music tapestries captured in the 2010 recording Meridiano (Warner Latin).

Musical fusion ventures always raise questions for me. I asked Jorge Coulon, (again via e-mail) if concerns about maintaining the integrity of the group’s musical identity emerged when it considered collaborating with musicians representing different musical genres. Is there a line that Inti-Illimani will not cross – in order to remain Inti-Illimani?

He responded: “Identity is dynamic and enriches itself and eventually can change in relation to life experiences...What is important is to be careful and to try to maintain the coherence, elegance, and harmony of our movements even when we break with a certain way of creating or understanding our music. We cannot determine a priori if we will or will not cross lines... What we can be sure about is that the only reasons for us to even think about performing or making music or any collaborations is our liking and taste for music, aesthetic and ethical reasons. The boundaries are set by these parameters.”

After 45 years, Inti-Illimani remains a dynamic force in folkloric and world music. If you have a chance to attend the performance in Pasadena this Saturday at 8:00 p.m., take it!

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of folkloric and world music.