The Many Faces of La Patogallina

The independent theatre circuit in Santiago has thrived in recent years thanks to a combination of public interest and support, the high-quality output of numerous theatre companies, and a community-spirited mentality which provides affordable ticket pricing and regular free events. This has created a widely accessible year-round cultural buzz which contributes to Santiago’s rising international status while offering the city’s residents excellent opportunities to indulge in the music, arts and theatre scene.

 Extranjero - El Ulitmo Hain: photo courtesy of La Patogallina
Extranjero - El Ulitmo Hain: photo courtesy of La Patogallina

One of the best-known alternative theatre companies in Chile is La Patogallina, whose style is influenced by street theatre and circus, and whose plays focus on themes related to the traditional and historical currents of Chile and Latin America. By merging these stories with dance and musical genres such as rock, punk and jazz, La Patogallina has developed a distinctive visual and audio style that transplants these narratives onto a modern stage and at times verges on the surreal. It is part of a wider movement that has seen recent generations embrace Latin American identity through the continent’s cultural roots.

“I started playing music in ‘88 with some friends from my barrio”, says Martin Erazo, artistic director and founding member of La Patogallina. “We were gigging in the street and at some events and we began doing bits of theatre. Then in ’96 a group of us started La Patogallina as a music and street theatre project. Our first play was called ‘A Sangre e Pato’. In 1999 we did ‘El Husar de La Muerte’, always involving live music in the shows”.

‘A Sangre e Pato’, taken from a Chilean expression meaning to do things without precaution, was a small play with the cast assuming both acting and musical roles. It was a success and was staged in Argentina, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Since those early days, La Patogallina has grown into a highly renowned theatrical entity whose subsequent works have been very well-received.

 Poster of 'Extranjero': image courtesy of La Patogallina
Poster of 'Extranjero': image courtesy of La Patogallina

These include: ‘El Husar de La Muerte’ (The Hussar of Death), which recounts the daring feats of the Chilean hero of independence, Manuel Rodríguez: ‘1907 - El Año de La Flor Negra’ (1907 - The Year of The Black Flower), a narration of the events of that year when thousands of nitrate miners went on strike in the north of Chile over the dire working conditions, and which culminated in the massacre of Santa Maria de Iquique: and ‘Los Caminos de Don Florido’ (The Journeys of Professor Florido), the search for a lost explorer, whose students embark on a quest that takes them through pre-conquest cultures and landscapes.

The most recent Patogallina play is ‘Extranjero: El Ultimo Hain’, which enjoyed a successful run at the Matucana 100 arts centre. It is the story of the shipping of a young member of southern Chile’s indigenous Selk’nam to be exhibited in French ‘human zoos’ during the 19th century. The play is a vivid, at times cartoonish, feast of colorful set pieces, grotesque characters and lurid music, yet beneath the surface lies a poignant story of prejudice and isolation.

Music is an integral and vital component of La Patogallina and the company is also home to two bands with a strong theatrical element to their sound and image. La Patogallina Saunmachin (the Chilen-ised take on ‘Sound Machine’) is at heart a punk-rock band yet numerous extravagant flourishes and cross-genre grooves give the group an original and fresh scope. This fusing of styles makes La Patogallina Saunmachin an intriguing act in both sound and concept.

 La Patogallina Saunmachin: photo courtesy of La Patogallina
La Patogallina Saunmachin: photo courtesy of La Patogallina

The other musical offshoot is the party outfit La Cumbia de Patricio Cobarde, which plots a course through the raucous tones of contemporary Chilean cumbia, with live shows a swirling cauldron of dancing and festivity. A firm crowd favourite is the band’s version of the evil empire music from Star Wars that derails the dark side vibe and reworks it into a Latin fiesta jam.

Erazo’s key role in the company is underlined by his presence as lead vocalist in both bands. “In 2000 we were playing a mix of rock and Latin rhythms like cumbia” he explains, “but then we decided to change things and focus more on the rock (in Saunmachin). But we wanted as well to do Latin music so we formed another band, and that was Patricio Cobarde”. The two bands are different in style yet share a philosophy that sees them trade rock and cumbia influences and blend in other genres such as ska.

Saunmachin have played outside of Chile, in South America and Europe, but best of all, says Martin, was India. “Going there had this tremendous mystique, totally different to here”, he fondly recollects. “We played on New Year’s Eve in this small town in Kerala, and it was one of the most incredible concerts. People were climbing all over the stage, running and jumping about, throwing flowers at us. They’d never heard the kind of music that we play so they went pretty wild”.

 Martin Erazo: photo by Marianne Fuentealba
Martin Erazo: photo by Marianne Fuentealba

The inspiration behind the names La Patogallina and Patricio Cobarde comes from the same source, and carry the same significance. “The truth is that Patogallina means Patricio Cobarde”, elaborates Martin (Pato is diminutive of Patricio, while gallina is Spanish for chicken and cobarde means coward). “It’s a dig at Patricio Aylwin, our ex-president. It’s basically about him avoiding confrontation with right-wing opponents, and people were making fun of him calling him Pato Gallina, or Patricio the coward”.

With new plays and albums in the pipeline, the company’s future is bright, as a growing thirst for independent art-forms that reflect Chilean and Latin American roots sees audiences increasing while new and original ideas are constantly developed throughout the arts scene. By looking into the historical depths of custom and tradition, and merging this with an innovative and contemporary outlook, La Patogallina has firmly established itself as one of the country’s leading alternative cultural beacons.

Works of La Patogallina:

El Husar de La Muerte (2000)
Karrocerias (2002)
1907 El Año de La Flor Negra (2004)
Frikchou (2008)
Los Caminos de Don Floridor (2008)
Extranjero: El Ultimo Hain (2011)

Discography of La Patogallina Saunmachin:

Perdónalos porque no saben lo que hacen (2002)
Ojos de tolueno (2006)
Chile! (2010)

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