• Danny Wiser

CHILE: Me Saco El Sombrero - Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna

Updated: Nov 1

Feminist pop that pays tribute to some of Chile's greatest figures, Ilabaca's work is thoughtful as well as entertaining

In Europe there exists a perception that it is this continent that has produced the best masters of the written word. Russia, France, Spain, Ireland and England all have worthy claims to have produced some of the world’s greatest ever literature and poetry. That said, wearing these Eurocentric goggles can lead some to, in blind arrogance, dismiss the great wordsmiths outside of the continent. In the context of Latin America, though names like Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Colombia and Argentine legend Jorge Luis Borges may first come to mind when thinking of Latin penmen, one cannot look past the wealth of literary talent that comes from Chile. Known affectionately as “pais de los poetas” or the “country of poets”, the county has gained this undisputed reputation with good cause. Names that jump to mind from Isabel Allende to Pablo Neruda are aplenty, yet despite this it is mostly thanks to Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna’s fifth album that I really understood the magic touch that Chileans have with language.

“One other thing I love about Ilabaca is that even though she clearly likes honouring her musical heritage she is not afraid to take influence from elsewhere in the world, most notably South Asia.”

The album musically is impressive, mostly down to Ilabaca’s voice which we will get onto. However, I feel it is important to give context to the album. As a proud Chilean, Ilabaca decided to honour four legends that the country had produced Victor Jara, Gabriela Mistral, Violeta Parra, and Alvaro Peña-Rojas by reinterpreting their poems, writings and songs and putting her own unique jazzy spin on it. This is not an exercise in self-indulgence but rather showcasing the legends that influenced her and many other Chileans creative output and political outlook on the world. As a Spanish speaker who has been recommended a fair load of Spanish-language albums to review, never have I felt such an impulse to immerse myself in lyrical analysis as I have with this album. I have spent hours throughout the week interpreting and guessing the double meanings behind some of the marvellously expressive language on display on this album.

Lyrically, the song that intrigued me most was En Tierras Blancas de Sed, a Gabriela Mistral poem made all the more wonderful with a member of Ilabaca’s band Fauna’s marvellous saxophone playing. The lyrics could mean so many different things, each with its own powerful message. Whether it is simply a wistful ode to a land once filled with nature, a metaphor about a love that has come and passed, or perhaps an observation about colonisers inability to nurture the land like the indigenous folk, they all move me. What is fantastic about this album is that the powerful lyrics are sung with the fervour and justice they deserve. For example, Ilabaca’s a capella vocals on the opening line of that track “Hincho mi corazón pa que entre, como cascada ardiente el universo” (“I burst my heart so that it enters the universe like a burning waterfall”) pierces through me in a way that I imagine the Nobel Prize winner Mistral would have intended.

What’s more, in a nation that still struggles with machismo, Ilabaca’s decision to honour the work of Mistral as well as the “Godmother” of the musical protest movement Nueva Canción, Parra, serves as a real feminist statement. There is almost an inherent implication that if it wasn’t for the brave women who came before her, she could not get on a stage and sing with the might and power that she does. In fact Ilabaca turns Parra’s protest folk song Me gustan los estudiantes into almost a hard rock track on Los Estudiantes that includes a brilliant spoken word piece. This reverence and respect to her forbearers came not only in the form of the lyrical choices, but also in the indigenous sounds used at times. Though Ilabaca is synonymous with her accordion, the album most notably features a fusion between cumbia and Andean rhythms on her reinterpretation of another Mistral poem Canción Quechua.

That said, this album honours two key male figures, including legend Victor Jara. It felt like a special touch just for me that my favourite Jara song El Arado was the one chosen for cover. Though I prefer his version of this tune, I would say that the best song on the album is Ilabaca’s cover of La Luna Siempre Es Tan Linda she makes it more enjoyable and somehow more heart-warming. Throughout the album Ilabaca shows off her voice to be similar to that of Colombian cumbia legend Totó la Momposina. This comparison is perhaps most apt on El Látigo de la Indiferencia where even though the song is mostly stripped back to just her voice and the piano it conveys the range of emotion that even a full orchestra might struggle to. One other thing I love about Ilabaca is that even though she clearly likes honouring her musical heritage she is not afraid to take influence from elsewhere in the world, most notably South Asia. With ties to this part of the world thanks in part to time spent in India at the invitation of former President Michelle Bachelet as well as her key role alongside Jaime Frez in Samadi, it is no wonder why her accordion skills in tracks like El Maíz and En los Jardines Humanos make it sound more like a raga. The album is close to perfect and serves to shine a light on legends of the past whilst at the same time Ilabaca and her band Fauna shine through just as brightly.