Category Archives: El Salvador

Charlie Haden, Pepe Guerra, El Salvador, and My Mistake

A musician in Berlin, Nicholas Bussman, is collecting revolutionary songs from throughout history, and asked if I would help him out by pointing him to songs from the Central American revolutions of the 1980s.

I had not thought much about those songs since those days of revolution, which were long before YouTube and Google. In Nicaragua, where the revolutionary movement had triumphed, the singers and songwriters of the left could release records. But in El Salvador in the 1980s, the movement was underground and the repression against it horrendous. Songs were shared by unmarked cassettes or simply by singing and playing them.

So it was interesting to revisit all of that in the age of the internet.

El Salvador is not known for its music. Its indigenous culture was destroyed in the massacre that followed an uprising in 1932, and the landowners who ruled the country thereafter did their best to ensure that the only thing that replaced it was hard labor. So El Salvador’s contributions to the revolutionary songbook are modest. But this is the age of google, and even the modest songs of the poor people’s movement of El Salvador are readily available.  Here is one of the best, by Yolocamba Ita.

But as I googled around, I was perplexed by the absence of information concerning The Ballad of the Fallen. This was a beautiful, beautiful song from the Salvadoran civil war. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of it even now.

To understand my feelings about this song, check out the funeral scene at the end of  the early-1980s documentary El Salvador: Revolution or Death (beginning at about 41:00). That scene was repeated again and again, hundreds and thousands of times, all over El Salvador during war. It was enough to make a young man like myself abandon a career in music to support the poor of El Salvador.

That film is a story in itself. It was made by a Dutch film crew. The Salvadoran army did not like it at all. A few years later, when I was working in El Salvador, the film makers returned to El Salvador to make another movie and were machine-gunned to death by soldiers on a city street in the capitol in full daylight.

The early 1980s were not only before YouTube, but before affordable and portable video tape. My first job working with the Salvadoran movement was to raise the money to make a 16mm copy of that film, and my next job was to take my copy around and show it to church groups and schools  until the copy fell to pieces and I raised the money for another copy. I showed that film so many times that even today, more than 30 years later, I can recite most of the narration verbatim. The film always ended with that haunting song.

In 1981 Charlie Haden came by the NYC offices of the Salvadoran revolutionary movement, where I was working at the time. Haden was a major figure in jazz, a virtuoso bass player who had been part of the fabled Ornette Coleman Quartet. He had made a record in 1969 with Carla Bley called The Liberation Music Orchestra and featured songs of the Spanish civil war. Haden wanted to make a follow-up album, featuring songs of contemporary liberation movements.

I gave him a collection of revolutionary songs from Central America. This was before CDs and personal computers. I made him a cassette of songs that I dubbed from other cassettes. That was how revolutionary songs were circulated in those days: by hand-dubbed unmarked cassettes.

I urged him to take special notice of The Ballad of the Fallen, which was so beautiful and so particular to that moment, when thousands of Salvadorans were being murdered by death squads, and the revolutionary movement, which until then was largely a civilian movement of unions and campesino co-ops backed by small guerrilla units, had no choice but to flee the cities for the mountains and completely militarize. I loved that song so much, I had asked a Salvadoran friend who occasionally sang at political events to record a cassette version in my apartment. All I knew about the song was that the Salvadoran compañeros sang it at funerals, and they called it The Ballad of the Fallen (El Corrido de los Caídos), and no one knew who wrote it.

Haden made the song into the title track of his album, The Ballad of the Fallen. The album was voted Jazz Album of the Year in Down Beat magazine’s 1984 critic’s poll. Haden and Bley placed first in that poll’s Acoustic Bass and Composer categories, respectively.

Haden was kind enough to thank me in the liner notes, which I appreciated. I had left music to help out however I could in the effort to overthrow the Salvadoran dictatorship, and the credit made me feel like I still had some sort of connection to the music world, however tiny or remote.

Googling “The Ballad of the Fallen” today, I found many links to Charlie Haden, “The Ballad of the Fallen” record, and videos of The Liberation Music Orchestra’s live performances of the song.  There were even  various other groups doing covers of Haden and Bley’s version of “The Ballad of the Fallen.” Here and here, for example. Haden’s album and the song still resonate today, as reflected in this 2017 blog post.

But I was perplexed that in all my googling, the only links to “The Ballad of the Fallen” were Charlie Haden’s music and the covers. What happened to the Salvadorans and the original? I tried using various Spanish translations of the title: “Corrido a los Caidos;” “Canción para los Caidos;” and so on. All the searches yielded nothing.

Even after all these years, I remembered the lyrics, so I tried googling those.  I found a Facebook group called “Vientos del Pueblo” who posted the lyrics to the entire song, which they listed as “Milonga del Fusilado” /Autor Anónimo (The Song of the Executed / Author Anonymous).

So I googled “Milonga del Fusilado.” Bingo. The song I had known for years as an anonymous Salvadoran folk song titled “The Ballad of the Fallen,” and recorded by Charlie Haden as such, is actually titled “Milonga del Fusilado,” and was co-written by the celebrated Uruguyan journalist Carlos Maria Gutierrez and Uruguayan musician José Luis Guerra,  known popularly as Pepe Guerra. Guerra’s group, Los Olimareños, recorded the song in 1972. A milonga is song form from Argentina and Uruguay. Fusilado could be loosely translated as “fallen,” though it literally means executed.

At this time when “fake news” and malicious disinformation spread via the internet have cast such a dark cloud over culture and politics, it is nice to discover that, at least sometimes, one can use the internet to finally sort out confusions and falsehoods which date from a pre-internet era of unmarked cassettes and clandestine movements.

Carlos Maria Gutierrez died in 1997, Charlie Haden in 2014. Carla Bley and José Luis Guerra are still very much with us and playing music. I will now set about contacting Pepe Guerra, to let him know of a record, and a large group of fans, that I suspect he does not know he has.

Milonga del Fusilado by Carlos Maria Gutierrez  and José Luis Guerra

No me pregunten quién soy
ni si me habían conocido
los sueños que había querido
crecerán aunque no estoy.

Ya no vivo pero voy
en lo que andaba soñando
y otros que siguen peleando
harán nacer otras rosas
en el nombre de esas cosas
todos me estarán nombrando.

No me recuerden la cara
que fue mi cara de guerra
mientras hubiera en mi tierra
necesidad de que odiara.

En el cielo que ya aclara
sabrán cómo era mi frente
me escucho reír poca gente
pero mi risa ignorada
la hallarán en la alborada
del día que se presiente.

No me recuerden mi edad
tengo los años de todos
elegí entre muchos modos
ser más viejo que mi edad.

Y mis años de verdad
son los tiros que he tirado
nazco en cada fusilado
y aunque el cuerpo se muera
tendré la edad verdadera
del niño que he liberado.

Mi tumba no andan buscando
porque no la encontrara
mis manos son los que van
en otros manos peleando.

Mi voz, la que está gritando
mi sueño, el que sigue entero
y sepan que sólo muero
si ustedes van aflojando
porque el que murió peleando
vive en cada compañero

English translation by Bob Ostertag

Don’t ask who I am
Or if you knew me
The dreams I held dear
Continue without me.

My life is finished but I carry on
in those who still dream
and  struggle.
They will grow new flowers 
And in the name of those
I too will be named.

Don’t remember my face 
That was my war face
While in my land
We could only show faces of hate.

In heaven where all becomes clear
You will know my true face.
Few people heard me laugh
But you will hear my unused laughter
In the dawn
Of the new day.

Don’t remember my age
I was as old as all of you
In so many ways, I chose
To be older than my years.

My real age can be counted   
Is the number of shots I fired
I am born anew in each new volley

And though my body died
My true age will be the age
   
of the child I liberate.

Don’t go looking for my grave 
You won’t find it
You will find my hands
in the hands of those continuing the struggle. 

My voice is the voice that is shouting
My dream continues 
And know that I only die 
When you give up
For those that die fighting 
Live on in each comrade.

 

 

 

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