Profile of Atahualpa Yupanqui – pioneer of South American indigenous music

By - 16 August, 2010

Hector Roberto Chavero Aramburo was born in Pergamino, a province around 200 kilometres away from Buenos Aires, on January 31st 1908. By the 1960’s he was considered one of the most important Argentinian, and Latin American, folk musicians of all time.

Choosing not to showcase his family name on stage, instead, Hector decided to adopt the alias of Atahualpa Yupanqui. A pseudonym combining the names of two legendary Incan kings. With a father hailing from Argentina and a mother descending from the Basque country, Yupanqui was blessed with a healthy cultural mix, which undoubtedly went some way towards fuelling his desire for travel.

His first musical experience was of playing the violin, but he would soon switch to guitar, and became something of a troubadour, singing folk songs as he travelled around Argentina. This was made possible by his early jobs of delivering telegrams and of working as a muleteer, which is to deliver goods by mule. Gradually the travelling would become more than just a job. He spent a lot of time in the northwest of Argentina and the Altiplano studying the Amerindian indigenous culture. Of particular note, in 1934 he took part in an ethnological study of the Amaichas Indians with Alfred Métraux. It was during these travels that he would learn rhythms such as the zamba, vidala and chacarera, that he would later popularise in his songs.

During this time, the young Yupanqui grappled with political ideologies and decided to join the Communist Party of Argentina. In 1931 the Argentine took part in the attempted, and ultimately unsuccessful, uprising of the Kennedy brothers, which resulted in the musician being forced to seek refuge in Uruguay. Yupanqui would not return to his native land until 1934.

Yupanqui first visited Buenos Aires in 1935, when he was invited to perform on one of the local radio stations at the time and it was shortly after this event that the Argentine met his long-time, collaborative, musical partner and future wife; pianist Antonieta Paula Pepin Fitzpatrick (nicknamed “Nenette”). “Nenette” accompanied Yupanqui for many years under the pseudonym of Pablo Del Cerro, creating vibrant and entertaining compositions. It was also around this time that he became a published writer, with Cerro Bajo hitting Argentine bookshelves in 1941.

Performing “Duerme Negrito” (with nice spoken-word intro, in Spanish)

Yupanqui’s work suffered as a result of his allegiance to the Communist Party, especially during Juan Peron’s presidency. The musician’s work was largely censored and Yupanqui was even detained and incarcerated on many occasions during this period. Feeling dejected, the Argentine fled to Europe in 1949 and by July 1950, Yupanqui was invited to perform in Paris by Edith Piaf. Here in France he gained much notoriety; he would regularly open for Piaf, but additionally, became friends with artists such as Aragon, Eluard and Picasso, all of whom appreciated his poetry and its nature of dealing with poverty and oppression. He signed a contract with the recording company Le Chant Du Monde, which published his first LP in Europe, entitled “Miner I am”. This LP went on to win the Charles Cros Academy’s prize for best foreign disc and subsequently enabled Yupanqui to tour extensively around Europe with his music.

Yupanqui returned to Buenos Aires in 1952. By this time the musician had broken off all ties with the Argentinian Communist Party, which made it much simpler for him to book radio performances and musical events. During this time Yupanqui’s music flourished and he achieved a fair degree of success.

By the 1960’s Yupanqui’s work was widely recognised, especially by nueva cancion artists such as Mercedes Sosa (who would in 1977 record her Mercedes Sosa interpreta a Atahualpa Yupanqui album, devoted solely to his songs) and Jorge Cafrune who began recording his compositions. This made the Argentine very popular among the younger musicians who affectionately began referring to him as ‘Don Ata’.

During 1963 and 1964 Atahualpa toured around Colombia, Japan, Morocco, Egypt, Israel and even Italy. By 1967 he had also toured Spain and decided to settle in Paris. From his new base he would regularly return to Argentina and he would appear in Argentinisima and Argentinisima II, two Argentine musical documentaries films released in 1972 and 1973 respectively. These visits became more sparse, however, when the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla took over the country in 1976.

Atahualpa performing “Tierra Querida” in Argentissima:

In 1989 the University of Nanterre, a prestigious and highly regarded institution, asked Yupanqui to write the lyrics of a Cantata to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Yupanqui graciously accepted the offer and produced a composition entitled, “The Sacred Word”. This piece was released before the French authorities and it was thought to be a tribute to all the oppressed towns that freed themselves during the great struggle.

To the grief of many, Yupanqui died in Nimes, France in 1992, aged 84. To this very day, though, his music continues to touch the hearts and lives of many citizens, not just in South America, but all over the entire planet.

Atahualpa Yupanqui recorded over 12,000 songs, many of which are on labels that no longer exist, and are therefore out-of-print. This makes it very difficult to begin making any recommendations, however, the good news is that I’ve never heard a bad record by him. Mis 30 Mejores Canciones and Solo Lo Mejor de are both recommended as strong collections of his songs. Piedra Y Camino: 1936/1947 on Discmedi records, focuses on his early days, and while it may not get great marks for its fidelity, is definitely worth investigating. Buenas Noches, Compatriotas… is a live recording, made in Mar del Plata in 1983, and despite quite annoying crowd noise is a good document of the man in his later life. Additionally, any of his recordings for Le Chant du Monde in the middle of his career are worth keeping an eye out for. Basta Ya! and Soy Libre are two such examples.

“La Pura Verdad” – the last recording of Atahualpa. His voice is not as strong as before, and the video is very strange with him sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of a field, but I feel it paints an interesting portrait of this infinitely interesting artist:

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