Chile Rising, Rafael Sotomayor

This month, Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines released a special on Chile’s student protests that rocked the country for much of the past year and continues into 2012. With a largely privatized education system described as “capitalism’s ideal laboratory,” the cost of education is high and the state of public schools and universities in Chile are dismal. The faces of the students filmed were so bright, beautiful and young. They were demanding free, quality education to the rhythms of Chilean singer Anita Tijoux’s Shock, the song-turned-anthem of the movement, whose chorus went,

La hora sonó, la hora sonó
No permitiremos más, más
tu doctrina del Shock1

Rafael Sotomayor plays Hang, Römerberg, Frankfurt am Main, drawing by Annie Nguyen-Bárány

Rafael Sotomayor, a young Chilean man, had moved to Frankfurt am Main some years ago. We had met him as a street musician on the Römerberg, the central square in Frankfurt when the apples were ripe on trees and the sun still reflected upon the city’s skyscrapers.

It is common in Europe’s metropolises to walk past accordionists who churn out La Vie en rose, whether you are in Paris, Munich or Istanbul, or violinists who will interpret The Godfather on a tram in Warsaw or the underground in London. And it is the same in Frankfurt, the banking capital of the continent.

But Rafael Sotomayor was neither playing a famous melody nor any common instrument with his slender figures. In fact, we had not even spotted him by the fountain of Justice when the strange and rich undulating timbre halted my nightwatcher in his tracks. It seemed to warp time and space around us, drawing us into manifold resonances, successions of low rapid notes that caressed the ear, now as a soft reed brush, now as the tap of a fingertip. The air was already cooling, but a little party gravitated rapt around the seated young man tapping and waving his hands over what looked like upturned metal woks or alien saucers. A Japanese businessman, a couple from South America, a group of Indian tourists, we all stood still before the spectacle. The weekend bustle of the crowded square seemed to fade as the young man wrought his melodies.

The audience clapped heartily at the end of the performance, and the South American couple came eagerly to him, interrogating him about his strange UFOs, fingering his CDs. They were happy to speak a common tongue and listened intently as he explained how the instruments were a 21st century invention by two Swiss makers. They were called “hang,” from the Bernese word for hand, which was the only medium used to coax sound from the instruments— all handmade to this day by the same two individuals, whose artisanal production was dwarfed by growing demand. I can only liken the sound to the Indonesian gamelan, since the ensemble is composed of percussions, but it is a pale comparison.

Purses and wallets opened and CDs changed hands as Rafael Sotomayor bowed graciously and packed his instruments. The sun had set and the wind was rising.

The affable young musician told the crowd he would be playing in the city’s Königshalle (Emperor’s Hall) where kings and emperors used to be crowned, as well as at theatre and concert venues in and around the country. He also played in a band, The Art of Fusion, composed of musicians from Poland, Bolivia, Jamaica, Spain, India, as well other intermittent artists of diverse origins.

The crowd dispersed eventually, some still under the music’s spell.

It is time we should look him up again. “Chile Rising.” It seems to describe Rafael Sotomayor.

1 The bell has tolled, the bell has tolled
We won’t allow it any more
Your doctrine of Shock

The song makes a direct reference to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, the name she gives to the free market economic policies of the “Chicago Boys” who had influenced Chile’s development under the dictatorship of Pinochet.


Shock, Anita Tijoux
Skies over Germany solo piece, Rafael Sotomayor
Inner Voice, The Art of Fusion-Rafael Sotomayor

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