The Chilean guitarrón : the social, political and gendered life of a folk instrument



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This dissertation explores the social life of the Chilean guitarrón: how a folk instrument embodies cultural meaning, becoming a site for the articulation of identities in tension. Since its “rediscovery” as a living rural tradition in 1950s Pirque, the guitarrón has drifted in and out of popular consciousness, impelled by the shifts in Chile’s social climate to travel between the countryside, the urban stage, the university classroom and the church. Despite increased media presence and a dramatic rise in interest, the guitarrón remains poised on the edges of the national imaginary; it is not a central element of the “folklore” canon taught in schools, nor is it a household name. In this study, I argue that the guitarrón’s relative national obscurity has allowed it less sociopolitical definition than other Chilean folk instruments: a symbolic ambiguity that has invited a convergence of contrasting ideological currents in the cultural spaces it occupies today. As each step into public arenas brings the guitarrón closer to a sanctioned spot in Chile’s folk iconography, the debates over origin and identity become more important to the individuals and institutions that are a part of the instrument’s revival. Is it a sacred instrument, a regional tradition, or a political tool? With whom does greatest cultural authority rest: rural “cultores” [cultivators/folklore bearers], investigators, urban revivalists, or the new generation of players? As these questions are raised, it becomes clear that the guitarrón is a symbolic territory where religious, academic, political and local entities compete to stake their musical and discursive claims. This study will examine these contrasting facets of the guitarrón’s meanings in the lives contemporary musicians.