And Now, Something Classic: Inti-Illimani Histórico

When Inti-Illimani Histórico took the stage on April 30th at Santiago’s Teatro Oriente, their mellow opening song was a sharp contrast to opener Banda Conmoción’s raucous antics—think folk melodies and pan pipes evoking Andean peaks followed by a 25-member latin big band, masked dancers and gun-shot confetti—but it took precisely one song to remind the packed house why they had come together in the first place: to hear a lifetime of Chilean folklorico by the guys who put it on the world map.

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The widespread popularity of Inti-Illimani was evident from the diverse crowd spanning all ages and backgrounds. University-aged hipsters lined the back walls, older couples sat entranced up front and two young, ecstatic girls in row five played air guitar along with every song.

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Histórico, whose draw lies more in the music than the spectacle, was well suited to the seated Teatro Oriente. Still, as the performance began, fans vacated bad seats and filled aisles where they sat rapt on the confetti-covered floor listening to music spanning over four decades of the band’s illustrious history.

Inti-Illimani was formed in 1967 by a group of politically-minded university students who quickly rose to national fame when their song “Venceremos” (“We Shall Win”) was chosen by Salvador Allende for his campaign anthem in 1970. Then just as quickly, Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende’s government in 1973 and promptly outlawed the music, leading to a 15-year political exile for the band. Since then, twenty years have passed, the band has long since returned to Chile and after an ideological dispute, band director Horacio Salinas and charangist Horacio Durán have both split from the group. There are now two distinct Inti-Illimani groups: los Nuevos (the “new” Inti) and los Históricos (the “historical” Inti), the latter of which performed on this night.

Mid-way through the performance and after the band had played a number of newer songs, floutest Jorge Ball put down his purple-and-gold flute, stepped to the mic and asked the room, “And now, something classic?” The uproarious audience hardly had time to scream, “¡Sí!” before a laughing Salinas nodded and the band launched into the song “Alturas.” Later, Ball laid down his flute again and picked up a cheese grater that he played in percussive rhythm with Salinas’ vocals on the song “Arroz con Cocolón.”

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Then, singer-songwriter Denisse Malebrán joined the band onstage to lend her vocals to two boleros by Violeta Parra. Malebrán’s youthful looks belied her soulful, honey-smooth voice and she poured bittersweet melodies from what is obviously a very deep well of talent. This concert marked the first live performance by Malebrán and Histórico together, but not the last. She will be joining them again for their May 22 performance at the Teatro Municipal in Valparaíso.

As their name implies, Histórico is serious about staying true to the original spirit of Inti-Illimani, but that doesn’t mean they shy away from trying out new directions like the ongoing collaboration with Malebrán. “We feel a deep integrity in respect to origins,” Horacio Durán said after the show. “The important thing is that the spirit, the soul [of the music] is exactly the same as when we began. It’s that which gives us force of life today, independent of the fact that it takes different forms.”

And the music is taking new forms all the time. Histórico teamed up earlier this year with popular Chilean bands Los Tres, Sinergia, Chico Trujillo and others to release a tribute album, a la salud de la Música Chilena. The album benefits the Instituto del Cancer and is a superb collection of covers by some of the top Chilean bands around today.

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In addition, the band is working on a collection that will include songs that appeal to children, such as “Canto Para Matar Una Culebra,” which was written by Horacio Salinas in 1978 for his then-ten-year-old son, Camilo Salinas, who is now pianist for the group. Histórico is also lending songs to a politically minded theatrical work by Oscar Castro called Villa Grimaldi Social Club. With so many projects underway, it is surprising that the band had the energy or the desire to put on such an all-inclusive show, but the audience that Friday night was certainly glad they did.

As the night wound to a close, the band finished their first encore with “Medianoche,” the roomful of jubilant fans singing along. When the band made its second exit of the night and a standing ovation failed to bring them back, the crowd erupted with shouts of “¡No nos vamos ni cagando! (We’re not leaving, not even to s**t!)” until the band took the stage once again and played out the last few minutes of the night with perhaps the most famous Inti-Illimani song, “El Mercado de Testaccio,” cementing a moment in time for a thousand rapturous, swaying fans.

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