By Diana Clark
My passion to write about Latin American protest music started innocently enough. A long and deep interest in Hispano-American history and culture led to an interest in using fiction to write about the interesting events and characters I’d studied for years.
To make the process of writing a novel more authentic and enjoyable, I purchased a CD I found in a second-hand Flagstaff, Arizona, bookstore. I selected it because the back cover informed me it had been recorded in Chile’s National Stadium, a place featured prominently in my manuscript. The military used it as a concentration camp for political prisoners in the early days and weeks of the coup.
The musician on the CD, a singer and guitarist named Silvio Rodriguez, was a well-known Cuban, who’d been banned by General Augusto Pinochet. He returned to Chile in 1990 to celebrate the country’s re-embracing of democracy. I discovered his music in 2011. During my research for the novel, I discovered the important role Chilean protest music played in the years before it was banned by the junta—its musicians exiled, jailed, or killed.
I knew all about protest music, or so I thought. I’d grown up in the prime years of American folk rock. Joan Baez, however, was as far south as my knowledge went. I’d never heard of Nueva Cancion, or Nueva Trova, or Nuevo Canto. Have you?
I think I must have played that CD a thousand times. Then, using Pandora, I begin to explore other Cuban artists like Pablo Milanes, Noel Nicola, and Carlos Puebla before moving on to singer/songwriters in Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and beyond. By the time I’d finished the novel, I wanted to know more about these musicians and their lives. One contact I made in my faulty Spanish led to an interview in Cuba and introductions to other artists all over the Latin world.
One of countries I visited was Spain. I was there to do follow-up on the natural and cultural UNESCO sites I wrote about in another novel. While, I was there, I wanted to interview Spanish singer/songwriters I’d researched and listened to. One interview in Madrid led to another, longer one in Mexico City with the same artist and the beginning of a friendship I treasure.
Over the next three years, I met and interviewed over a dozen men (oddly, they were all men) in nearly as many countries. All of them were in the waning years of their careers. Some no longer performed—but the stories! Some were tragic—describing years of exile and fear, friends lost or jailed, voices silenced. Others were heartwarming, even funny.
The journey from researching to beginning to write went slowly. There were so many possibilities. My first task was to decide what tied so many different sounds, instruments, and rhythms together. It took me a while to realize it was the words, not the music, that defined Latin American protest music.
Playing with Fire would be a collaboration, I decided with a little help from my Spanish friend. It would be an introduction to the movement in words with music provided by a YouTube website we’d create. It would focus on the most important artists and on the impact this New Song had in the larger world.
I stopped working on the book when my friend became ill, seeing the halt as temporary. Then, he died, and I needed time to grieve and reflect. The material was all there—the research notes, the interviews, the emails back and forth discussing different approaches. I just couldn’t get myself to write the book without my friend’s input.
Instead, I wrote several novels about this world, this moment in time. One focused on Cuba, another, Argentina. I did my best to capture the angst and determination of some of the most exceptional humans I’ve encountered.
The project sits there, haunting me—the box containing all those files. It is waiting, none to patiently, for me to bring it to life. In the meantime, we’ve lost several more of these wonderful and talented men. I listen to their music, watch pieces of their concerts on YouTube, and promise my friends I will begin soon.
Sometimes, research doesn’t take you where you think you’re headed or where you want to go. Whether I write this particular piece of work or not, I’m certain that my time and that of the musicians I interviewed wasn’t wasted. I’ve learned about music’s extraordinary power to unite and persuade and the kinds of challenges artists of all kinds face when governments seek to control even the thoughts of their victims. What I’ve learned and experienced now influences what I write. In time, I will tell these men’s stories. I can only hope I tell them properly.
What unexpected and extraordinary places has your research taken you?
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A late bloomer as a fiction writer, Diana Clark is a much-published former editor and historian who lives and works in Mazatlán, Mexico. It was her love of history, specifically Latin American history, that led to her Points South series, which examines the turbulent 1970s and 1980s in Chile, Argentina, and Central America through novels. Some titles include Stolen, Tapestries, Song of Despair, and, most recently, The Long Game.
She admits to another longtime love, Latin American and Spanish protest music of the 60s and 70s. This interest has taken her to Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Cuba, and Mexico, where she’s interviewed cantautores (singers/songwriters), whose songs are still performed today.
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