Osvaldo Torres Celebrates La Peña

June 2010 marked the 35th anniversary of La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA. The year-long celebration included high visibility programming highlighting our legacy of cultural activism and social justice through the arts. One of the most comprehensive residencies that La Peña cultivated during this landmark year was with renowned Chilean folklorist, painter, poet and musician Osvaldo Torres. As part of a National Performance Network Community Fund, Osvaldo was able to work with local storytellers, musicians, and visual artists to lead workshops, exhibit his visual art, and perform in three evening-length productions at the Center during the month of June.

The primary activity during Osvaldo’s residency was a guest performance in La Peña’s multi-disciplinary suite about La Peña and the history of many of the various social and cultural movements the Center engaged with over the past 35 years. The piece titled “Ayer, Hoy, y Pa’lante” had an original music score, a spoken word libretto, a DJ, and archival visual materials.

In 2006, composer Wayne Wallace approached the Center about creating a new work that would capture La Peña’s History.  Meanwhile, La Peña’s governing body had begun exploring the importance of an oral history project. Discussions between staff, board members, oral history committee members, and lead artists generated the idea of a multi-year project that would culminate in a 90-minute suite in 2010.  Three central themes emerged:  I. Another World is Possible:  human rights, solidarity, cultural understanding.   II. People Displaced and In Diaspora.   III. La Peña as Community: community empowerment, celebration of life through arts, strength in diversity.   Within these themes specific events in La Peña’s history as well as specific attributes of significant cultural and social movements were illustrated through music, spoken word, and a multi-media narrative. The premiere was performed on in June 12th and 13th at La Peña, and a short video was created documenting the process. Osvaldo performed traditional Aymara music and added to the piece’s historical and political resonance.

It is difficult to understand the subtle power of Osvaldo Torres’ music and artwork without grasping the weight of the Apagon Cultural (Cultural Blackout) in Chile that lasted several years after the 1973 military coup. Agusto Pinochet’s military regime viewed all artistic expression with suspicion and tried to squelch the popular Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement that had been led by Victor Jara in the 1960’s. Poets, musicians, painters, writers, actors, dancers, and filmmakers alike were subject to blanket artistic censorship and ran the risk of political persecution at the hands of this brutal dictatorship. Some risked and lost their lives. To avoid government censors, New Song musicians during this period relied on allegory, metaphor, double meanings, and sarcasm to communicate their social message.

Osvaldo found himself in the middle of this movement in Chile during the 1970s, and was pivotal in supporting the solidarity movement between La Peña Cultural Center and the Cultural Resistance Movement in Chile during that era. Osvaldo’s residency at La Peña was a homecoming of sorts, tying together the social and political history of exile and art in the context of La Peña’s history over the past three and a half decades.

On June 5th, Osvaldo made a command performance at our Anniversary Block Party attended by over 500 people. The street was full of families, vendors and friends of La Peña. Osvaldo joined a host of other local performers that make up La Peña’s of rich history.  In that presentation Osvaldo introduced two versions of the instrument he designed and named Ajayu (Aymara for spirit), a string instrument that mixes the sounds of the Bolivian charango, the Colombian tiple, and the Spanish guitar, made by young Chilean luthier Eduardo Cornejo. Osvaldo’s latest CD Ajayu, includes music written for the instrument.

The following evening, La Peña collaborated with local gallery Pueblo Nuevo to host “Catastro de Colores y Esperanzas / Registry of Colors & Hope” an art exhibit of a collection of Osvaldo’s paintings and drawings that chronicle his own poetry and knowledge of Aymara traditions. The media, local musicians, family members, La Peña community members and our friends at Pueblo Nuevo Gallery attended the opening. The following link is an interview conducted that night by local radio station KPFA for their weekly show “La Raza Chronicles.” http://larazachronicles.blogspot.com/2010/06/cronicas-de-la-raza-08-june-2010-kpfa.html

Osvaldo’s gentle and soft-spoken manner was juxtaposed to the brilliant imagery and captivating songs that he performed at the exhibit opening. He captured the imagination of the crowd that filled the gallery.

On June 7th, Osvaldo was part of an intergenerational exchange between the groups Rebel Diaz (a hip hop collective from the Bronx, NY) and Grupo Raiz (a traditional Chilean folkloric Nueva Canción ensemble formed by Chileans out of La Peña Cultural Center in 1979). The exchange was part and parcel of our larger vision to bridge traditional folkloric practices with contemporary music in the diaspora. The two brothers from Rebel Diaz, Gonzalo and Rodrigo, are sons of a Chilean exile who shared a prison cell in Chile during the Pinochet Regime with one of the La Peña staff members. The evening was full of musical exchange in which Grupo Raiz shared some of their traditional songs, and. Rebel Diaz beat boxed and rhymed over the melodies created by Grupo’s traditional instruments.

On June 10th, Osvaldo conducted a workshop with Stagebridge, the nation’s oldest senior theatre company. He shared traditions and methods of the indigenous storytelling from the Aymara people of northern Chile. The following is an excerpt from a letter written to La Peña by Stagebridge’s Executive Director, Stuart Kandell, PhD:

“Osvaldo Torres filled our halls with his wonderful music, stories and a lively discussion.  The audience was taken by his skill, passion and knowledge of storytelling and the oral tradition.  We spent the first half an hour hearing about his fascinating adventures on how he got into storytelling and why it is so important in his culture and ours.  A great discussion ensued about the parallel paths of the oral tradition and storytelling and the differences of the role of elders in American and Chilean cultures…The discussion, music and stories imparted to us by this master were a rare treat and greatly appreciated by an enthusiastic Stagebridge audience.  Thank you for providing this great opportunity to our company and our seniors.”

Osvalso’s residency culminated with a solo concert, on June 19th, at La Peña featuring his own original songs. The show incorporated story telling, visual art, and poetry. Osvaldo sang songs in Spanish, French and Aymara. His mother, newly relocated to Berkeley via Santiago, Chile, sat proudly watching from the front row. Osvaldo invited local Chilean musicians to join him on several of his songs, thus maintaining and strengthening the depth of the connection beyond borders.

Osvaldo’s residency reflects the profound ties that connect La Peña to community, social justice and the arts. His presence is a living reminder of the importance of our Center’s history and our desire to connect with and encourage the next generation of cultural activists. La Peña is deeply grateful for the National Performance Network’s Community Fund that allowed us to deepen our relationship with several of our community artists and celebrate our anniversary with someone who was instrumental in forming our consciousness around the arts and social action.

The Community Fund is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), the MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

October 2010

Past Issues