Perhaps you haven’t heard the music of Chilean band Inti-Illimani. Chances are you’re in the minority. Since the 1973 coup in Chile, which prevented the band from returning home, the group has been on a continuous world tour that seems more similar to the itinerary of a contestant on ‘The Amazing Race’ than one you’d expect of an aging Chilean folk group. So it’s no wonder they’ve gained an incredible international following while inspiring other international groups such as Turkey’s Yeni Türkü along the way.
I recently had the wonderful chance to catch up with the current band’s oldest member – the last of the original founders. As I spent the afternoon sipping tea on the Bosphorus with the infectiously-spirited Jorge Coulon, it became clear that the pure love of people and community was the fuel that propelled this man and his fellow musicians to churn out an evolving repertoire of over 400 songs while continuing to globetrot with the enthusiasm of a 22-year-old backpacker. I was lucky to catch Coulon after the band’s fifth visit to Turkey and chat about Inti-Illimani’s music and future.
So just how did Inti-Illimani begin over 45 years ago?
We were born in my garage, looking to create new music, but with our original Latin American sound. Trying to combine them in a new way to ‘give a future to our past’, like the French say.
Since then, how has the music changed?
In the university, we began playing songs with maybe three chords! And over time we became artists. Now the technical level is incredible. The mastery of our instruments has changed, but the music still remains near to the life of the people, the rhythm of the seasons. It’s music in connection with community. But the rhythm of life is now crazier, so the music became crazy, too.
What is the process of song writing like for your group?
The arrangements are easy to collaborate. But the best ideas come from one mind, somebody with a name and nickname.
In contrast to the 40 records you’ve put out over the decades, what was unique about your latest album, ‘Meridiano’?
Our last work was special because we collaborated with Francesca Gagnon, the singer of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Alegria’, and mixed music from her shows and our own music to create ‘Meridiano’. Now we’re preparing to begin a new record. The problem is we have put out so many records and to justify a new one is always difficult.
What brought you back to Turkey?
We were invited to do a couple of concerts here. We played here in Istanbul and in Ankara, where we were invited by the municipality. This is our fifth time in Turkey. In the past, we’ve played in Bursa, Izmir, Batman and Mardin. But the audience in Istanbul is different from Ankara or Izmir. People are more expressive here; I love this difference. We create different programmes by thinking in this way.
The Turkish band Yeni Türkü is famously influenced by Inti-Illimani. Have you had the chance to meet or perform with them?
Yes, we played together some years ago in Taksim. We like the idea that people are not doing music just for themselves but for everyone, to share with others. I think everywhere you find wonderful groups in this way.
So, as a group, did you have to make the decision to sacrifice some specificity in order to create more universal music?
Yes, yes. This was a problem we dealt with, because the trend is to identify the leader, the soloist, in the band, and our origin is not that. It is a collective music about community.
Can we hope for many more years of Inti-Illimani?
My wish is yes. The younger members who play now are great musicians. They have everything they need to continue, but you never know; we have never planned anything. Life happened!
Your group has been involved in politics in Chile and your music isn’t afraid to convey a point of view. Is there an overall message at the core of Inti-Illimani?
Maybe this idea: everywhere people are discussing the future, maybe not just in our music. There is a little part of the answer – that there is the possibility to be you but at the same time be a part of the community. When you collaborate, life is easier; sometimes it’s actually more exciting. Madeline Wolfson. Portraits by Patricia Willocq.