Interview: Pascuala Ilabaca – ‘If They Call Us Doves, How Can They Not See Our Wings?’ (September 2022)

Pascuala Ilabaca wants us to take heed, as she responds to traditional Andean folks songs with a fierce feminist voice. Now she tells us, it is the time to respond to an old rhetoric. Misogyny has no place in the future of her Chilean culture.

Her new production Por Qué Se Fue la Paloma is being released against the backdrop of a changing political landscape in her home country. A drastic and important time politically. So she mixes familiar folkloric Andean rhythms, Indian raga influences and her own unique contemporary style to convey a message of belonging. She sends words of reassurance that we are all anchored to the earth. She knows that women should have the freedom to find their own journey and yet the right to still return home. 

Pascuala took the time to tell us at Rhythm Passport about how she feels she has grown as an artist since she last spoke to us. She speaks of where her creative influence has seeded most recently, and what surprised her in gaining the biggest reaction from her audiences. 

Hello again! We last had the pleasure of talking to you in 2014, what have you been doing since then? Do you feel a lot has changed?

Yes indeed I have been growing. It has been a very important time.  Also I think the change from your 20s to 30s as a woman is an important part of your life. And looking back with perspective I can see something important from when I went to the UK that time, I was very worried about who we were. Because with all these stereotypes about being Latin American, you believe you have to prove something about being Latin American. I come from Chile, it is different from Latin America. No-one knows much about this culture and they may have expectations of me of being like a Brazilian, Colombian or Mexican woman. And it’s a different culture.

So I had a lot of expectations when I came over for the Jazz Festival. We felt the pressure to fall into this world-music pocket. 

So on that tour I was thinking a lot about what we can show that is really different from Mexico, Brazil and Colombia. But then when I reached London I saw the diversity, but in a different way. I love London because people go to do their own business and their own art and studies. They are approaching what they want to be. They are leaving something to be there. 

When I did this show I was so happy and so empowered about being me so I felt very free. It was a magical moment for me. I quit worrying about what I was supposed to be. This is the main thing I can see in my growing up, to worry less about what other people think about my work. 

So that must really free you up to talk about what’s important to you culturally, letting go of the worry of how to represent yourselves. So what would you say to any readers about Chilean music now? How would you describe the country and the creative influence it’s had on you?

Chile is in a very important moment due to the revolution we had in 2019. We are having hope for change again. We voted for a new constitution from a white page. I can feel that this is more of a country where I would like to live. This is about the future, this is not about the present. The present is going to be very hard to build this new system. Because there is a lot of collaboration and representation from the people, the villages, the towns. Taking out the power from Santiago and spreading it across the whole country. Gender equality is the first constitution that is going to be written. 

All the musicians we were out playing together in the park, sharing with the people. This has been a very good boost of energy for Chilean music. And a lot of symbolism has begun in the music. We have started a National Meeting for Women in Music in Chile. And that is very important, we are a lot of women. We have done a lot of things since the revolution for equality and we feel very active. 

But there has also been a lot of violence. We never expected to have that much. I lived in the moment of the revolution. A lot of people were killed, a lot of people lost their eyes. You know. It was something we never expected it to be. It was something very, very strong that we are leading. 

In the history of Chile there have been a lot of dictatorships and three presidents have been killed because they want to change the country but the military and the rich people don’t allow that change. It’s a complicated history, but also an inspiring story for the world because we have the first socialist democratic president. 

The role of music has always been to tell the history in the people’s voice. The official history we learn in the schools is very repressive. We learn who the military are. When you are a teenager and you start to learn the real history of the country it is because you start to listen to songwriters or bands.

Wow, that’s very powerful. Talking of the role of music to the younger generation, what were the songwriters that you listened to growing up that had the biggest influence on you?

Violeta Parra and Victor Jara, they are the most important songwriters! And also Los Prisoneros, a rock band, they tell the history of the 80s in Chile.

All the musicians now are living in the present, we know we learnt our history in the music and so we need to tell our stories of what is happening in this moment.

What do you think songwriters such as Violeta Parra would be thinking now if they could see what was happening?

Things haven’t changed that much yet. We have had the same constitution since 1973. So with the same laws it is hard to have a real democracy. The things they were saying in their music is the same as now, that we live in colonialism. All the rich people take all the rich resources for themselves. 

It is the same thing that happened in Africa, the same thing that I am talking about in my last song, that we are going to stay in colonialism if this goes on and on. If you listen to these old songs they are talking about these exact things. 

I imagine it can take generations to change societies, and people like you telling your stories are critical, to be real and honest. How do you go about your songwriting process? And why do you talk about the dove leaving?

In the pandemic and after the revolution I was thinking a lot about love. And also I can feel after this feminist revolution wave, Chile is very strong at the moment. Sometimes we are talking against this romantic love. For people that are afraid of changes believe we are against love, but that is definitely confusion. So I was trying to talk about love a lot in this period. 

As a researcher of traditional music, I was feeling that there was a lot of music that talks about that type of violent love, repressive love. So it is giving a beautiful rhythm and heritage to a message that is very heavy and it is not the message we want to give to the teenagers to learn how to love, or for ourselves. 

I was listening to the traditional rhythms and choosing which were the most heavy, like bolero. They call it the music you go to in order to cut the veins. So if I want to cut my veins, I want to listen to Bolero. It’s cultural, they say it without thinking about what they are saying. 

So I was choosing the rhythms, and writing songs about a different sense of love, about how we really want to be loved or how we want to love someone. How can we be less possessive? So let’s talk about that in the traditional rhythms. The beat for ‘Por qué se fue la Paloma’ is one very traditional rhythm from the Andes. It is very beautiful but there are thousands of  love songs and they talk about a woman who leaves the house and she is very bad because the men have given her a house and food and water. And she didn’t care. And they call the women a dove. They say, ‘why did you leave, dove? I gave you everything and you left. If you leave then don’t come back.’ There is a lot of misogyny in that message. And it’s not related to reality because when I think of an Andes woman, I think of a strong woman who is nurturing children and growing vegetables in the driest desert in the world. 

In all the songs it is ‘why did you leave me dove, why are you so bad’. So I asked myself, ‘why did the dove leave? If you call me a dove, how can you not see my wings?’ That’s the theme. Also the song is saying, ‘ok I am leaving because I have wings. But if I’m coming back I am still from here. I am not a stranger. This is my place. Even if I come from heaven, even then I have a place.’ If you decide to be different or you decide to fly in a metaphorical way, you don’t lose your roots. No-one can tell you you are less connected to a culture or a family. 

This song is very powerful and now on this tour I noticed that a lot of the audience are migrants, because there are a lot of Latin American immigrants in Germany, Canada and America. So they feel so touched by this song. It is very representative of the fight that they have fought.  So even though this song is new, everyone knows it and everyone is really singing loudly along.

You have really tapped into the heart of a community, how does that make you feel? 

Really happy. The song is not sad. If I come back I am not a foreign girl. It was like the most happy and powerful moment in the 28 gigs of my tour. 

How do you feel on stage when you see the audience react in that way?

I feel both elated and surprised because usually all the old songs are the ones that the people sing. All the people that leave their original place for work or for a better life, they are kind of like a dove. They were suffering the same thing we are talking about in the song.

I read that you’ve spent some time in India, and you studied out there? How has that changed how you approach composition?

When I was a kid I lived in India because my parents are both artists and they decided to go to India for research. So I lived in India when I was 10 and 11 years old. I have been looking at my old notebooks and drawings. And it’s crazy to realise that children see reality in their drawings. 

A relationship with animals is something I didn’t have in Chile. In India animals live like humans, in the city together, and as a child it is important to see that there is a different way of relating between people and animals.

And also for example, the relationships between men and women. When I visited the castles where they tell you some history, there was often one man who married hundreds of women. And I have a drawing of one very giant bed, with a man in the middle, and I have drawn the hundred women but I have drawn the women with a hundred different faces. Differing expressions. One is crying, one is very happy. I was analysing what must I have been thinking about as a child. It awakens things. 

When I came back to Chile, since that time, I always knew there was a different place in the world where people live differently. Because always in school they teach you that you have to live a certain way. You have to go to university and you can’t write songs that are more than four minutes long. All those society rules. I was always conscious that things can be a different way. I saw in India that one song can last for one hour and there are millions of people that are able to listen to that. It is possible. It gave me a lot of strength to do things in a different way. And to show diversity is so important. That is the thing I am doing every day, that’s what excites me. 

I don’t like monoculture for vegetables but I also don’t like it for culture. We cannot listen to the same music or on social media see the same message. It is important to have biodiversity. We learn in school that biodiversity is fundamental for life, but we also need to learn it better as humans. So that’s the thing that excites me to create, and that comes from my travels in India. Diversity makes society really rich.

Then I studied singing there in Varanasi. That was wonderful because although I studied composition in Chile, I had never studied vocal techniques, so I studied that in India. So that definitely changed my way of understanding sound. So it’s a very different understanding of sound in the Bach theory than in the wave vision that they have in Indian music. I’m always trying to learn how to compose in the Raga structure to give a diversity in a structural way of presenting the song. 

Art doesn’t need to be dialectic. It is a message that doesn’t need to be proven, it is a message that doesn’t need to win anything. It can be written in a different type of logic. I am very interested in that, music can be expressed in a different kind of logic. As a musician I don’t need to speak like a political journalist to speak about politics. I am an artist and can use my own ways.

Sounds like an amazing journey you’ve been on, and recently I know you’ve moved to a new label, Warner. How have you found switching between different types of labels?

It is nice in this moment for me because in the pandemic, and all my life I have been travelling a lot. Before I was an independent artist, and then I was meeting a lot of people doing festivals, socialising, meeting producers, and so I would find my creative network by myself.

But then in the pandemic I was in my home in Chile, very South and very alone. And the independent label that was supporting me at that time quit. So I felt this is the moment for change. So we went with my manager to Warner and they agreed to work with us. And I am really happy. Also now is a very good moment because I have grown up doing things by myself. I understand how the industry works and I am part of this network of women in music. I understand more about the politics of arts in Chile. 

What an exciting time for you, and you are just coming to the end of your big tour? One last question, what are you planning to do next? What can we look forward to?

I am releasing a lot of music. My main message is to keep in contact with my music. We just released my EP Lucero, which is the first star in the morning. It is also the planet Venus. In the morning when it is dark, it shows that you always have a light that can keep you standing up. Everyone has to find this light. It is a representation of the moment we are living in, as a person, as a society, as a planet.

We don’t know what is going on with the future. So we need to keep this light on. It can be via arts, or love. Everyone has to find their own answer. So this album is talking about different things that keep me standing up. So I invite people to listen to this album.

And in November I am going to release another EP. It is more classic rock: band, piano, guitar, bass, drums, with very strong speaking about relationships and friendship. So I invite you to listen to the music and watch the videos.


- Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna's new EP Lucero was released in mid-July by Warner Chile. 

You can listen to it and buy your copy HERE -