Music and the Sandinista Revolution

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Written by musician and composer Ben Lunn, friend of ATC and participant in the 2020 Ben Linder Solidarity School

Thanks to activists within Friends of ATC I was fortunate enough to have conversations with three musicians from Nicaragua – Juan, Isaura, and Marvin. They were able to introduce me to the musical landscape of the Central American nation, as well as discuss how it has been influenced by the political circumstances surrounding it.

To understand the developments, one must observe political developments within the small nation and how at every turn, music and musicians have been there to help. Under the Somoza dictatorship, neo-liberalism and Americanisation was commonplace. This saw vast swathes of the Nicaraguan population suffering and struggling to get basic necessities. Within music, two trends were viewable – ‘high art’ like classical music was only appreciated by foreigners and the wealthy, the other was music  not supported by any state support, meaning only the wealthy were in a position to learn, and even then, a ‘career’ was nigh on impossible.

With the Sandinista Revolution music took an important supportive role. Just as Hanns Eisler said music does not win the revolutions, it is however still of vital importance. Groups like Pancasan or Los de Palacagüina became a strong voice of vocal support for the revolution, but also much like Eisler’s worker’s songs, became vital tools of political education. La Misa Campesina is arguably one of the most vital examples of this.

I believe in you, comrade,

Christ human, Christ worker,

victor over death.

With your great sacrifice

you made new people

for liberation.

You are risen

in every arm outstretched

to defend the people

against the exploiters;

you are alive and present in the hut,

in the factory, in the school.

I believe in your ceaseless struggle,

I believe in your resurrection

– Excerpt of La Misa Campesina, Carlos Mejia Godoy

Musically, it is a wonderful marriage of multiple vital ideological and musical influences. Like for many Sandinistas, Marxism is a vital influence. On top of this liberation theology[1] plays a major role. Liberation theology gained a large force of support in Central and South America starting in 1968, due to the economic pressures from imperialism combined with internal political violence, which meant many had to find a way to consolidate their religious beliefs with their political struggle. La Misa Campesina, being a mass for the peasants, also resorted to drawing upon native folk music alongside pop music styles. Due to the political nature of the work, it was quickly squashed by the Somoza dictatorship, and banned by the Archbishop of Managua. However, due to the music’s ability to connect to the population of Nicaragua, and offer a radical voice of hope, it quickly gained popularity despite the repressions. Following the victory of the Sandinistas the mass gained a legendary position within the populace, and is often performed across Nicaragua; however, it has not yet gained official support from the Church.

The Sandinista victory brought a wave of progressive developments, which made impressive improvements for the people of Nicaragua. Groups like Grupo Libertad and Grupo Son del Pueblo gained popularity, and their music reflected the radicalism of the region. However, with the neo-liberal takeover in the 90s, a wave of regression followed. Music suffered on various fronts. Due to the privatisations a ‘career’ in music was once again impossible, as was an education in music – unless you had the money to do so. This in turn meant fighting for popular support for music was increasingly difficult – how does one encourage people to pick up a guitar if they are struggling every day for food? However, this does not mean there was no fight in the population. The public universities UNAN Managua, UNA, and UNI became breeding ground for radicalism as students used music as a method to fight.

Since the return of the Sandinistas in 2007, music has once again become of vital importance. After the various successes including the developments of people’s rights and developments of internal infrastructure, music has not only garnered some progressive support, but has also continued to be developed in all spheres. In my discussion with Juan, Isaura, and Marvin the common issue raised was the lack of teachers and instruments. They pointed to the vast investment and the eagerness for children to have access to music and cultural education. There is still an issue to make sure there are the teachers in place to deliver it. However, it is plain to see the hunger is there to improve this and it is only a matter of time until this has both the people power and support in place.

Another interesting development was the relationship to forms of music. Obviously, music with a historic connection to the Sandinista revolution has a lot of popularity, however thanks to developments like Fundacion INCANTO classical music and opera is becoming completely accessible to the vast population of Nicaragua. What this means, as Nicaragua continues to develop, we will see musical voices come out of the Central American nation, that not only had the capability to pursue any music they desired, but also accompanied with the class consciousness which means the potential for truly life-affirming and truly unique music is inevitable.

As long as Nicaragua continues on the route it has, and continues to make friends across the world, the musical future of Nicaragua is incredibly bright.

[1] Liberation Theology is a philosophy which marries theology with political struggle. Historically the Church, due to its role within social hierarchy and economic power, has often been a regressive element in society, despite preaching love and kindness. It was born when the Church stopped giving mass in Latin, and young priests could explain Christ’s teachings in people’s native language. Famous examples in El Salvador, Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua.

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