July-August 2007


By Audrey Colemaninti-illimani

On the evening of July 13, the sweet melancholic yet life-affirming sounds of Andean panpipes and bamboo flutes will soar high above the Hollywood hills. Within two hours, these hallmarks of Latin American indigenous music will blend with over 20 other wind, string, and percussion instruments drawn from European, Native American, African, and Mestizo cultures. The occasion: the 40th anniversary concert of Inti-Illimani. The Ford Amphitheatre, an open-air, 1245-seat venue -- intimate compared to the neighboring Hollywood Bowl --  seems ideally suited to showcase the music of the acclaimed eight-member Chilean ensemble.

Inti-Illimani has existed since 1968, when a group of engineering students at the Technical University in Santiago began exploring indigenous music together. Soon after, they deprived the world of several engineers and gave it what would become the pre-eminent ensemble interpreting of Latin American traditional folk music.

Over 20 years ago Inti-Illimani's 1984 album Imagination introduced me not only to the group but to indigenous South American music from which it has taken inspiration. The album transported me to another musical dimension where high-pitched flutes and pipes harmonized in thirds to rhythms of strange complexity and the string section included the four-stringed cuatro and the charango with its five pairs of strings strung over the carapace of an armadillo. I had lucked out in my choice of album, which the group called in its liner notes "a summary of our instrumental work. Included here are arrangements of Andean folkloric melodies, songs by other composers, and themes by Horacio Salinas, the group's director."

What I did not notice immediately as I read the album cover was that the record had been recorded in Rome. The group members were political refugees from the Pinochet regime, which had toppled the government of Salvador Allende in a bloody coup while the ensemble was touring abroad. Learning of the disappearances and executions of political dissidents, they remained abroad, making Italy home base until they were invited back to Chile in 1988 and permanently relocated there in 1990. Their years of exile made Inti-Illimani a symbol of political engagement even though the group did not actively promote any specific political agenda. Jorge Coulon, the one remaining founding member, explains, "We have never been so political that it was propaganda...We have a concept of society and about the relationships between human beings, and try to translate our ideas into our sound, not to be part of one political party or another but in the sense to bring about a better world."

Throughout the years, Inti-Illimani has retained its founding vision of interpreting folk music of indigenous cultures of the Andes, of Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina. It should be noted that they later incorporated Italian flavors, influenced by their years immersed in that culture. However, in 2001 a schism occurred when three key members left the group to start their own group of the same name. Since 2005 there have been two groups-the "new" Inti-Illimani and "historical" Inti-Illimani, each including a former founding member. (Los Angeles will be hearing the "new" Inti.)

This year for the first time, Inti-Illimani (new) is expanding its musical vision to embrace jazz influences. The ensemble's latest CD, Pequeno Mundo, includes this initial foray into jazz. The album title actually references the animated film for which Inti provided the soundtrack. Not having heard it yet, I must reserve judgment about the success or even the wisdom of this departure from the original vision.

How will the audience at the Ford Amphitheatre react to the jazz-influenced pieces as opposed to the timeless folkloric repertoire Inti fans have come to expect? Regardless of objections from purists, Inti-Illimani is likely to remain a strong musical force in the world. The ensemble has survived political exile as well as internal dissension. Its name and dual identity will retain a place in the sun and listeners around the world will continue to associate Inti-Illimani with peak standards of musical creativity and performance. How apt that in the Amazonian Ayamara dialect, the word inti means sun and Illimani refers to a mountain located in the Bolivian Andes.

Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and passionate explorer of world music and culture.

Research for the above article came from classes she took in UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology, from forays into The Rough Guide to World Music, Volume 2 (Rough Guides Limited, London, Penguin Books, 2000), and  from obsessive listening and web-surfing on the subject.