When Research Notes are Found on a Guitar

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Jul. 31, 2013

When Research Notes are Found on a Guitar

Sociologist David Spener, studying social justice movements and music in Chile, is invited to give a concert at the former home of Nobel poet Pablo Neruda

 By Russell Guerrero '83

Sociology professor David Spener plays guitar at a party following a concert he gave in Chile. SAN ANTONIO - One of the great joys of conducting academic research is not knowing exactly where it may lead. In the case of David Spener, professor and chair of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, researching the relationship between social justice movements and music in Chile two years ago led to an invitation to give a concert at the former home of poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda this past June.

For Spener, the intersection of conducting sociological research and performing involve two different avenues of his life.

In the 1980s, before attending graduate school, Spener lived in Washington, D.C. where he held several jobs, including social work and teaching English as a second language.  He also pursued another career at the same time - playing guitar and singing, mainly in Spanish, with a Latin American folk band and as part of a duo with a female singer exiled from Chile.

It was during his time playing music around the nation's capital that Spener became very familiar with the music of Victor Jara, a theatre director, musician, and songwriter whose stature in Chile could be compared to that of Bob Dylan in the United States. Jara was arrested and killed soon after the coup d'etat that toppled the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973 and replaced it with the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

It wasn't the first time Spener had heard of Jara.  "I saw Pete Seeger at the Mississippi River Festival (held in Illinois) in 1975 or '76 and I remember him reading the last poem Victor Jara wrote before he was killed," recalled Spener.

Fast-forward to 2011. Spener was in Chile conducting research when he went into a bar and saw Chilean singer/songwriter Jorge Venegas performing a song about American folksinger Woody Guthrie in Spanish.  On Venegas' guitar, in Spanish, was the phrase "this machine kills fascists," which is what Guthrie used to have written on his guitar.

"I walked into the right place," said Spener. 

The sociologist and the singer met and a friendship was born. Venegas, who had played in underground concerts for political activists during the Pinochet regime, learned that Spener was also a musician. He invited Spener to perform with him.

"I thought he just meant getting together and playing at his home," said Spener.  "But Venegas lives close to the home of Pablo Neruda on the ocean and he is friends with the woman who is director of cultural activities at the house. They do concerts and poetry recitals there and that's what he meant."

Spener was shocked when he received the invitation to perform at Neruda's home, which has become both a museum and cultural center.  He hadn't given a performance  in 20 years. Still, he accepted the invitation and returned to Chile in June. 

"It was great. They rolled out the red carpet and I was given the VIP treatment," said Spener, who received a private tour of the Neruda home.

In Concert

Billed as an homage to Victor Jara (about whom Spener just published a book in Spanish), the concert took place on a Saturday night with both Spener and Venegas taking turns performing.  Spener played guitar and sang songs in both Spanish and English, including songs by Guthrie and American folksinger Phil Ochs that Spener had  translated into Spanish.  About 50 people attended the concert including a nephew of Jara. 

"It was a great experience and was very moving to be in this space. It was a real privilege to be there," said Spener.

Later he was a guest of honor at a party given following the concert.  Many of the people who attended the festive event had, years earlier, risked their lives by organizing underground coffee houses to play protest music and by working for human rights organizations.  

Chile Sings to the World

Next spring, the Trinity community will learn more about the relationship between music and Chile before and after the overthrow of the Allende government.  In a pairing of the Álvarez Seminar and the Lennox Seminar and Lecture Series, the University will host a semester-long series of events titled "Social Justice, Human Rights, and Song on the World Historical Stage: Chile Canta al Mundo  (Chile Sings to the World)."

The interdisciplinary event highlights the importance of a musical genre known as la nueva cancion  (the new song), which provided a soundtrack for Chile beginning with the country's experiment with socialism in the late 1960s through the brutal years of the dictatorship in the 70s and 80s.

Along with special lectures and recitals, the combined Lennox and Álvarez seminars will feature an exhibit of Neruda's poetry with illustrations by the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros.

Additional information on the semester long events will be released later during the academic year.

The Lennox Seminar and Lecture Series is made possible by the Martha, David, and Bagby Lennox Foundation.  The Álvarez Seminar is made possible with the support of the Carlos and Malú Álvarez Fund for Trinity's MAS (Mexico, the Americas, and Spain) program.

You can see excerpts from the concert in a video courtesy of the Pablo Neruda Foundation.

-Russell Guerrero '83 is the public information officer at Trinity. He can be reached at rguerrer@trinity.edu.