Rafael Manriquez
Rafael Manriquez: The first festival celebrating his music takes place Saturday May 9  in Berkeley
Rafael Manriquez: The first festival celebrating his music takes place Saturday May 9  in Berkeley

Rafael Manriquez is no longer here to sing his own songs, but the Chilean-born troubadour’s friends, family and colleagues are making sure that his poetic calls for justice continue to reverberate.

Born in Chile and based in the Berkeley area from 1977 until his death in June 2013, the composer, vocalist and master of various string instruments wrote songs that have been performed and recorded across the Americas. On Saturday La Peña presents the First Annual Rafael Manriquez Festival, an event featuring a talent-laden cast including Jackeline Rago, Avotcja, Fernando Torres, Ricardo Valdivieso, Esteban Bello, Axel Herrera, Hugo Wainzinger, and Lichi Fuentes (Manriquez’s former musical partner in the beloved and widely traveled Grupo Raíz).

The ambitious undertaking marks the release of a lost Manriquez album from the 1980s, El Pajaro Vuela (The Bird Flies), featuring Bay Area Latin jazz stars John Santos and Rebeca Mauleón. Some of the funds raised during the concert will go towards the production of a new Rafael Manriquez CD with 14 unpublished songs discovered as unfinished recordings in his archives. While many of Saturday’s performers have several of his songs in their repertoire, the festival is designed to introduce less familiar or unheard Manriquez tunes.

“All of these musicians have made a tremendous effort to incorporate a song of Rafa’s that they didn’t know,” said Marci Manriquez, who along with her brother Manuel Manriquez will also perform a song of her father’s on Saturday.

“I put out a play list on SoundCloud and asked who wants to play what? When they had to get charts and figure out chords. Everybody has played the game I requested, and it was a lot to ask. This festival is really a gathering of love, done with a tremendous amount of generosity. I’m very grateful.”

When Manriquez arrived in Berkeley in 1977 the scars from the overthrow of Chile’s leftist president Salvador Allende hadn’t started to heal. A couple years earlier a group of Chilean exiles who had fled persecution, torture and possible death from Pinochet’s military government came together in Berkeley with American supporters to found La Peña (the cultural center kicks off its 40th birthday celebrations next month). Manriquez immediately found a home there.

In Chile had worked a journalist, interviewing leading figures in the folk and Nueva canción movement like Víctor Jara, and the bands Inti-Illimani and Quilapayún. He was also a skilled musician himself who recorded with

Ñancahuazú, a trio that celebrated Chile’s folk culture while touring the country’s southern hinterlands. In Berkeley, he joined up with Quique Cruz and Hector Salgado in Grupo Raíz, bringing Chilean Nueva canción to the West Coast (Lichi Fuentes joined several years later). Active from 1977 to 1985 (with occasional reunions after that), the group recorded three albums, two of which are now on Smithsonian Folkways.

In many ways El Pajaro Vuela was Manriquez’s first attempt to establish a musical identity under his own name. Featuring dozens of musicians playing his elaborate arrangements, Manriquez’s ill-fated project was intended for Redwood Records, but the label went broke and he ended up with the masters and a huge bill from the studio, Bay Records.

“At that time artists were doing self release,” Marci Manriquez says. “The album was a huge investment in time, money and love. He even had a string quartet on one session. It was meant to be his solo debut as an artist. The songs were very influenced by the times, touching on the struggles of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile, with rhythms from all over. But he didn’t find anyone to take over the production.”

Years later, he thought he’d found a label in Chile, but the owner’s untimely death put an end to that possibility.  When the family started going through his archives they found the original mix on a CD, and decided that it was time for the music to be heard.

“He played some of these songs, and I recall some of the recording sessions,” Marci says. “I was lucky enough to find the liner notes, and the lyrics and translations too, so there was a whole package he had ready to go.”

Before his death, Manriquez hoped to launch a festival that would bring together songwriters from across Latin America. Like the album, it’s an ambition that his family is determined to move forwards, with the help of his many friends and musical partners. “We hope this is the first of many,” Marci says. “Next year we want to have it closer to his birthday, and if we can work it out we’ll do it in April.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....