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Graduate Student Notes from the Field: Christina Azahar on Understanding Feminist Music and Organizing in Santiago, Chile

Since January 2018, I have been in Santiago, Chile on a Fulbright US Student Fellowship conducting ethnographic research for my dissertation, titled “Noisy Women, Imagined Spaces: Mobility and the Emplacement of Feminist Politics in música popular chilena.”

Christina Azahar

A bit about this title. What first interested me in studying feminist activism in Chilean popular music wasn’t just the ways women were “making noise” and speaking out more boldly about gender and sexual violence. I was also curious about the ways they were creating their own spaces to combat these issues. That’s why in my fieldwork, I’ve been asking how Chilean women artists are creating and intervening in spaces like music festivals and schools, political demonstrations, cities, and natural landscapes to re-sound and re-imagine colonial and patriarchal systems of power.  

As a feminist ethnomusicologist and US American academic, one of the most formative challenges of fieldwork has been learning to negotiate my own identity and politics in relation to the multiple spaces and artists I’ve been working with. During my first several months here, I found myself asking on a daily basis, “How can I keep from projecting North American and European ideologies onto Chilean feminist practices? How do I navigate participant observation and interviews with artists and organizations that have diverging or even contradictory feminist discourses?”  

Pascuala Ilabaca, one of my initial contacts and artist collaborators, is a singer-songwriter who blends Chilean folk traditions with Hindustani music, jazz, rock, and other Latin American genres. In our interviews, she has expressed that her sonic travels are meant to vindicate women’s role in traditional musics around the world, and that in her touring she uses her music to express feminine identities in their diversity and fluidity. For her, bringing women and women’s music more centrally into public spaces is a key aspect of her feminist practice

Ilabaca’s feminism, however, is very different from that of Coordinadora Femfest, a queer anti-capitalist feminist music collective with whom I’ve been collaborating regularly since my first weeks of research. Formed 14 years ago, the collective holds annual festivals, concerts, and workshops to build safe spaces for women in underground rock scenes, and to promote sexual dissidence through counter-cultural expression. Less concerned with intervening directly in public spaces, Coordinadora Femfest develops a feminist musical practice from “under” – outside mainstream institutions and in solidarity with marginalized communities.

By contrast, for Ruidosa Fest and La Matria Fest, two new feminist music festivals led respectively by star alternative music singers Francisca Valenzuela and Mariel Mariel, mass communication about gender disparities and sexual harassment within pop music and cultural industries is the ultimate goal.

Finally, in my women’s cueca classes, I’ve experienced firsthand how women are re-appropriating the traditionally male-dominated national folk music and dance, and using it to help women through the process of “sacando la voz,” which means to raise, lift, or find one’s voice, in a musical or political sense.

Initially, I was so focused on understanding and fitting in with each of these artists and organizations, that I often discussed very little about the full scope of my work when I was with one group or another. For instance, why would I share with my punk rock musician friends and collaborators that I’m learning to sing folk music, or interviewing artists in mainstream festivals? I was so preoccupied with not losing people’s trust that failed to recognize the uniquely multi-faceted perspectives I was developing.

It wasn’t until August, when I was invited to teach an M.A. class on Music, Gender, and Sexuality at Universidad Alberto Hurtado, that I began to step back and appreciate the potential I had for fostering meaningful dialogue across each field site. Though I understood this intellectually, writing a syllabus grounded in intersectional and decolonial feminisms and music throughout the Américas helped me remember in practice that feminist art and politics are built through coalition, not homogeneity. As a feminist researcher, I must not only recognize my role, but actively take responsibility for shaping the feminist musical coalitions in which I’ve been involved throughout this year.

As I come towards the end of my time in Chile, I can only hope that by continuing to learn from each space, share questions, and offer reflections, I can more fully support the loving labor and art being created by so many women I have come to know, respect, and admire.

Christina Azahar is Ph.D. Candidate, Ethnomusicology studying on a Fulbright Fellowship in Chile. Her research intersects music, gender, and culture in Chilean music.