It’s a kind of paradox that the history of Inti-Illimani started underground, in a room mostly in darkness and silence. It’s hard to think it would start in a place like this: the underground canteen at the Arts and Trades School (Escuela de Artes y Oficios) of the Technical University of State (Universidad Técnica del Estado (UTE)). The first steps of what would become one of the most important music bands in history happened here, a place completely opposite to the sound and innovation that Inti-Illimani represents.
It was 1966 when the first folk club (“peña folklórica“) for the student of the Universidad Técnica del Estado took place in the underground canteen called “La China“. Every Saturday, the young people from the UTE used to meet in order to attend renditions performed by the universitary music groups. Horacio Durán, who was studing Chemical engineering at that time, was in charge of running the folk club, selling empanadas (a typical Chilean pasty) and pouring wine.
In May, 1967, and in the middle of that atmosphere, a group of collage mates got together to create a band with no name based on the duet formed by Jorge Coulon, an Electrical engineering student, and Max Berrú, a Mechanical engineering student from Ecuador. The duet become a band when Horacio Durán and Pedro Yáñez joined it.
By that time, “There already was a Latin American and instrumental tendency on Inti-Illimani‘s precedent“. About the first days of the group, Jorge Coulon remembers that “We easily became part of the Nueva Canción Chilena” (New Chilean Song) movement.”
That same year, in August 6, Eulogio Dávalos, a concert guitarist and son of Bolivian parents, invited them to perform at the celebration of the Independence Day of Bolivia with the Bolivian community living in Chile at the time. Since the band didn’t have a name, Dávalos himself proposed the name Inti-Illimani that is Aymara for Sun of the Illimani. This is a reference to a mountain in the Bolivian Andes, a name that “… we liked and adopted for good, despite the fact some people were critical about it“, says Horacio Durán.
In October, 1967, Horacio Salinas, a school boy who had dedicated his time to his studies at the Conservatoire and his work with the folk ballet Pucará, became part of Inti-Illimani too. El Loro (The Parrot) inmediately joined some very important preparations that were made by Inti-Illimani: the first international tour..
The first international tour: Argentina
1968started with Inti-Illimani’s journey to Argentina; a tour, according to Jorge Coulon, that “…had nothing to do with our geographical-musical interests, as we didn’t go to Salta and Jujuy and we just ended up in places where we had friends: Mendoza, Buenos Aires and San Martín de Los Andes.”
In the trans-Andean country, they performed and played on streets and restaurants, and at the La Tranquera folk club, a place where they worked in exchange for a portion of food and a chance at the local television: “… a very Hollywood-like show around a really big swimming pool where we took the opportunity to eat like we were nuts.”
Upon the return and when they were crossing the South of Chile, Pedro Yáñez decided to leave the band, and said goodbye in Concepción. Ernesto Pérez de Arce, a musician with jazz formation who played clarinet and reed flute (quena), took the place of Yáñez. Ernesto added his tendency for interpretative freedom to the band. During the same period of time, Max Berrú took some months off the group and was replaced by Homero Altamirano, who was a part of Inti-Illimani for two years.
Around the middle of 1968, Inti contributed to the compilation “Una voz para el camino” (A voice for the road), a record produced by Iván Faba where Inti-Illimani played two songs: Juanito Laguna remonta un barrilete, a song they found on a Mercedes Soza’s record during their trip to Argentina, and Huajra, an instrumental song by Atahualpa Yupanqui with original arrangements by Horacio Salinas.
Inti-Illimani becomes professional
In the summer of 1969, Inti-Illimani left for Bolivia for a two-week tour. People in the neighboring country were deeply astonished by this Chilean group with an Aymara name which also had a music repertoire full of music from the Altiplano. In La Paz, Inti recorded the first record, “Si somos americanos“and after it, they launched half a LP called “Canciones de la Revolución Mexicana“.
In August, 1969, they launched in Chile their second LP called “Inti-Illimani“, a record containing classic Inti’s songs like Simón Bolívar, El canelazo and La fiesta de San Benito.
Back in Chile, Inti-Illimani joined the campaign that would eventually take Salvador Allende to the head of the government. After the victory of the Unidad Popular, the band was assigned to the mission of putting music to the government manifesto, a work resulting in “Canto al programa“, a record with lyrics by Julio Rojas and music by Sergio Ortega and Luis Advis. A current member of the current formation of Inti-Illimani, Marcelo Coulon, participated in this work, replacing his brother Jorge temporarily.
In 1971, Inti-Illimani launched “Autores chilenos“, with the participation of José Seves, who joined them some months before during a successful tour to Ecuador. In that record, José’s interpretation for La exiliada del sur stood out, and that song along with other ones marked the incorporation of new sounds to the group repertoire which, by that time, had only included folklore from Andean people and the interior of Argentina, putting national music aside.
Some outstanding things about “Autores chilenos” are Jorge Coulon’s arrangement for Run-Run se fue pa’l norte, Sergio Ortega’s Ya parte el galgo terrible, the first radio hit for the group, Lo que más quiero and the arrangements made by Patricio Manns and Luis Advis for the above mentioned Exiliada del sur. The launching of this record coincided with the moment when members of the group decided to devote themselves to music as a career. Resulting from the democratization produced by the reform, la Izquierda (the left wing) assumed the leadership of the UTE, and the University proposed the musicians to become part of its staff of artists, getting paid a base salary in exchange for a number of performances per year. That was the moment of decision, since it required them devote themselves exclusively to music. Except for Ernesto Pérez de Arce, who decided to continue his career as an engineer, the band didn’t hesitate and we took the offering.
By that time, Luis Advis composed Canto para una semilla for them, a work based on the décimas by Violeta Parra, with Carmen Bunster reading the words and Isabel Parra at the Antonio Varas Theater in Santiago during December of 1972, when José Miguel Camus was already in the group.
The coup d’état
In 1973, Inti-Illimani, by that time made up of Max Berrú, Jorge Coulon, Horacio Durán, Horacio Salinas, José Seves and José Miguel Camus, had already a list of records and shows abroad that deeply involved them in the musical environment in Chile.
The Unidad Popular‘s government had brought into Chile a manifesto representing the interests of the working class, filling the dreams of a social group with expectations and hopes, giving them for the first time the illusion of being building their own future. In such circumstances, in July of that same year, Inti-Illimani went to Europe to be a part of the International Youth Festival in Berlin, a show that became a precedent for a tour to the USSR, Northern Vietnam and many European countries. It was that very trip abroad that completely and unexpectedly changed the future of the band.
On September 11th, 1973, a coup d’état in Chile put a tragic end to democracy. Salvador Allende, Chile’s President, died inside the Government’s House. People around the whole world were shocked. Inti-Illimani was in Italy in the middle of its promotional tour. That Tuesday, the band was visiting the Vatican, and the sad message by some Italian musicians made them look to their motherland.
Since that very day, and during every single one of their performances, Inti-Illimani received the deepest solidarity in support of the Chilean cause from the Italian people and subsequently from the rest of Europe, along with a deep interest in listening the sounds and music from the Latin American continent.
The very first hit that Inti had in the Old World was Alturas, the same instrumental song created by Horacio Salinas years before (1970), while he was traveling by bus to his house. He remembers: “I went la-la-laing it the entire trip not to forget it.” Later, a second hit was El pueblo unido jamás será vencido, a song composed by Sergio Ortega in May and played by Inti-Illimani in November, 1973, during a show in Florence for the first time. That song became an ode for the Italian people, arousing so much passion that Inti could never stop playing it until now.
In March, 1974, Inti-Illimani recorded “La Nueva Canción Chilena” in Milan, a work that quickly became a success, getting a platinum record for its sales. It also became Inti’s letter of introduction in a year ending with 159 shows in 19 countries. After that would come works like “Canto de pueblos andinos“, “Hacia la libertad” y “Chile resistencia“, with songs like Luchín by Víctor Jara and América novia mía by Patricio Manns, along with several works by Sergio Ortega.
1977 would finish with 108 shows in 11 countries, concerts that were crowned in 1978 with the re-issue of “Canto para una semilla“. By the end of that year, Inti’s foundations were about to shatter for the first time since their arrival to Italy. In September of 1977, José Miguel Camus announced his resignation and Marcelo Coulon replaced him, becoming a permanent member of the band.