The Music of Los Prisioneros Endures During Chile’s Current Protest Movement

Oct 25, 2019
12:13 PM

Last Friday, Chileans took to the streets. A rise in public transportation fares felt like the final straw after years of neoliberal policies that affected the working class, and people of all ages were ready to raise their voice.

There was civil disobedience in the form of fare evasion, the usual cacerolazos (loud banging of pots and pans), instances of looting, police violence, and the guanaco, a water-blasting police tank used to break protests in Chile. A state of emergency was declared by right-wing president Sebastián Piñera. As of now, there have been at least 18 deaths. In the midst of this tragedy and chaos, something stands out. It is the song the protestors are chanting:

Some even improvised a cumbia version.

The song is “El baile de los que sobran” (“The dance of those leftover”) by legendary Chilean band Los Prisioneros, one of the pillars of Rock en español that had their heyday in the 1980s, making waves not only in Chile but in most of Latin America.

In a time when Pinochet was in power and censorship was still around, Los Prisioneros stood out for their lyrics, which were harshly critical of the Chilean realities of the time, combined with a brazen, sometimes highly ironic attitude, strongly influenced in their beginnings by punk rock and two-tone ska. A recent feature about the band by Latino USA (part of Futuro Media, which also produces Latino Rebels) explored the band’s history and legacy.

Chile’s Protest Songs

Chile has a history of songs with a call to action. Since the days of the Nueva Canción in the 1960s, with artists like Violeta Parra transforming traditional sounds into powerful statements, and even a martyr like Víctor Jara, who was tortured and murdered by Pinochet’s regime for writing songs deemed subversive. Chileans, for the most part, have always had a soundtrack to the historical moment they live in. Songs that articulate their challenges, frustrations, and feelings as symptoms of the social and political status quo.

The power of music to mobilize people is undeniable, and for that reason, dictators and authoritarians have often tried to control it and even make it work in their best interest (check out Trujillo’s merengue in the Dominican Republic or Fujimori’s tecnocumbia in Perú). But there is a difference between propaganda music made at the request of a caudillo and music that comes directly from the people and for the people. The latter sticks. It lives on in the hearts of those who were represented by it when it was written, even many decades later.

“El baile de los que sobran” was released 33 years ago, but somehow it did not feel outdated this week when it was sung out loud by protestors. The original version of the song was released as the first single of Los Prisioneros’ 1986 sophomore record, Pateando Piedras. It describes a loss of innocence for young Chileans of the 1980s, basically saying that after completing all 12 years of public school, kids would find out that none of the promises made to those who would put the work in were true, because the opportunities were reserved for the privileged few.

The symptoms of inequality in Chile in particular (and Latin America in general), which Los Prisioneros described so well back in the 80s, are still around. Today’s working class youngsters can very much feel that they are los que sobran, when unemployment is on the rise and the monthly public transportation expense makes up 20% of the legal minimum wage. For this reason, “El baile de los que sobran” sounds as relevant today as it did when it was first released. Ironically, the production style, heavy with analog synthesizers, drum machines, and sound effects, is (arguably) also back. But it should not be a surprise, because both music and politics move in cycles, and in some cases, those cycles seem to last forever. This is why, as another Chilean mentioned earlier, Víctor Jara, wrote: “Canto que ha sido valiente / siempre será canción nueva” (A song that has been brave / Will always be a new song.)

El baile de los que sobran
The dance of those leftover
(Jorge González)

Es otra noche más
It is another night
De caminar
Of walking
Es otro fin de mes
It is another end of the month
Sin novedad
With no news
Mis amigos se quedaron, igual que tú
My friends stayed behind, same as you
Este año se les acabaron los juegos, los doce juegos
This year the games ended, the twelve games
Únanse al baile de los que sobran
Join the dance of those leftover

Nadie nos va a echar de más
Nobody is gonna miss us
Nadie nos quiso ayudar de verdad
Nobody really wanted to help us
Nos dijeron cuando chicos
They told us when we were little
Jueguen a estudiar
Play the study game
Los hombres son hermanos y juntos deben trabajar
Men are brothers and they must work together
Oías los consejos
You heard all the advice
Los ojos en el profesor
Your eyes were on the teacher
Había tanto sol
There was so much sunlight

Sobre las cabezas
Over those heads
Y no fue tan verdad, porque esos juegos al final
And it was not really true, because those games, finally
Terminaron para otros con laureles y futuro
Ended up being for others, with honors and a future
Y dejaron a mis amigos pateando piedras
And left my friends behind, kicking stones

Hey, conozco unos cuentos
Hey, I know some stories
Sobre el futuro
About the future
Hey, el tiempo en que los aprendí
Hey, the time I learned them
Fue más seguro
Was safer
Bajo los zapatos
Underneath the shoes
Barro más cemento
Mud plus cement
El futuro no es ninguno
The future is none

De los prometidos en los doce juegos
Of those promised in the twelve games
A otros les enseñaron
Some were taught
Secretos que a ti no
Secrets you were not
A otros les dieron de verdad esa cosa llamada educación
Some were really given that thing called education
Ellos pedían esfuerzo, ellos pedían dedicación
They demanded effort, they demanded dedication
¿Y para qué?
And for what?
Para terminar bailando y pateando piedras
To end up dancing and kicking stones

UDPATE, October 26: Guess what protesters were singing during Friday’s massive demonstration in Santiago?


Ernesto Lúcar is a NYC-based writer and musician from Lima, Perú. Find him on Twitter: @ernestolucar.