A Soundtrack In Times of Revolution

During the last week of October, Los Prisioneros’ “El baile de los que sobran” (1986) was the most played Chilean record and the fourth most viral on Spotify as a result of the social outbreak stirred up in Chile. However, why exactly did this song released 33 years ago reach this popularity once again among the Chilean population? It’s that question we would like to devote this article to. Nonetheless, it’s important to explain some of the context first of all to make the reader better understand the difficult situation that the country had to go through and is still going through.

It all began in Santiago with a coordinated massive evasion of hundreds of secondary school students in response to the raise of the subway ticket price (announced by the government on October 6) which went from costing 800 Chilean pesos to 830 (around 1 dollar). During the later days, the protests gained major social reach and the number of the evaders that confronted Carabineros de Chile (national militarized police force) increased.

It wasn’t until October 18 when the president Sebastián Piñera, after a considerable amount of stations in the city suffered damages and in view of the growing number of disturbances in the streets and inside the subway facilities, announced the state of emergency, authorizing the Chilean Army to impose order in the provinces of Santiago and Chacabuco, alongside the communes of Puente Alto and San Bernardo. The next day, on October 19, a curfew was declared initially in Santiago, but afterwards in other five regions in the country.

These factors were the catalysts of a series of pacific and crowded demonstrations around the country where, under the motto #ChileDespertó (Chile has woken up), the Chileans showed their discontent not only against the raise of the subway fare, a fact that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, but against the huge inequality (Chile is the 13th most unequal country of Latin-America according to the Gini index, and the 2nd most unequal among the members of the OECD), the low wages (half of the workers in Chile lives with less than 400.000 pesos per month, around 500 dollars; and half of the pensioners receive less than 175.000, approximately 230 dollars), the debt (household debt can reach the 30%), or the high cost of the public transport (the poorest families can spend the 30% of their incomes in only transport while the richest ones can spend just the 2%). We can provide way more data on the matter but it is clear that the economic miracle of Chile was just a mirage despite being the country with the best economic results in the Latin-American region during the latest years.

The demanding of Piñera’s resignation was another claim to take into account because of the bad management of the conflict and the brutal repression conducted by the security forces: at least 230 individuals lost their eyes during the protests as a consequence of the shots fired by the police and, according to human rights organizations, there were several cases of torture, rape and sexual abuse against protesters, and even death.

It was in this context of demanding and repression where a soundtrack in times of revolution and social cohesion began to take shape; in this way, the number of protesting music recordings about the situation increased exponentially since the 18/10, and some classical local songs became recurrent after several years because of the content of their lyrics and their respective significance: for example, the track “El derecho de vivir en paz” (1971) by Víctor Jara, a protest song against the intervention of the US in Vietnam, released 48 years ago and considered one of the most popular and historical records in Chile, was the most viralized on Spotify during the week of Monday 28 of October. Nevertheless, in this case we are going to talk about the band Los Prisioneros and their most iconic piece, “El baile de los que sobran”.

Los Prisioneros is a Chilean pop-rock band composed by Jorge González (bass, lead vocals), Claudio Nerea (drums, backing vocals), and Miguel Tapia (guitar, backing vocals). A referent during the 1980s for their music but especially for the criticism in their lyrics about the political and economic situation in the country during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, it is considered one of the most influential bands of all time not only in Chile, but in all Latin-America in spite of their short musical career (1983-1992).

The reach of their songs, the indelible character of their harangue and the catchy simplicity of their melodies turned Los Prisioneros into a group with unique traits in Chilean rock history. Never before had a local group combined so effectively the codes of British pop and rock with a such a powerful and urgent political message and from a nonpartisan perspective, which is an even more surprising success considering the trio flourished amidst a military dictatorship, a time in which the diffusion of music for the youth was repressed by systematic censorship and countless difficulties. 

National Library of Chile

With four albums in their background, the band released some remarkable titles like “Muevan las industrias” (1986), “Por qué no se van” (1986), “Tren al sur” (1990) or “Estrechez de Corazon” (1990). Nonetheless, “El baile de los que sobran”, which was played frequently during the protests, is considered the most important one.

The track, that is included in their second studio album “Pateando Piedras” (1986), touches the topic of social inequality and it is itself a critique to the education system. What is more, it’s a representation of those young Chilean students from the lowest social strata of the society that, once graduated from their schools, could see that their labour opportunities or the chance to study in a University were seriously hindered, whilst the richest ones were those who had a promising future. 

As the years went by, the song became a timeless anthem for its powerful message and for addressing a topic that unfortunately seems to be eternal in the society we are living in. Also, it was one of the most emblematic musical pieces during the march of October 25 known as “La marcha más grande de Chile” (The largest demonstration in Chile) that brought together nothing less than 1.2 million of citizens (the most massive demonstration since the return of the democracy in 1990) at Plaza Baquedano, unofficially renamed by protesters as Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Square) for the events happened. According to the composer of the song, Jorge González, about its intonation during the protest: “It was very nice, but it’s sad that this song is still being sung. This song was created under the same conditions it was sung in the past: while being repressed by the curfews and gunshots”.

“El baile de los que sobran” was also intoned in November during the nationwide strike in Colombia, which mainly happened because of the highly-criticized management of the country from Ivan Duque’s government, the claim for a free and quality education, the killing of indigenous people and social leaders, and the support for the accomplishment of the Colombian peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Are these events the dawn of a better society? We hope so. Something is clear though: culture and education are the basis for that. Meanwhile, and fortunately, we’ll always have music to fight for what we believe in.