The year was 1967. The Box Tops, The Doors, and The Turtles were lighting up the Billboard Top 10. Meanwhile, social protest and revolutionary movements were springing up all over Latin America, and as history professor Eric Zolov explains, “rock was regarded by many on the left as the direct manifestation of an imperialist strategy to depoliticize youth while fortifying transnational capitalist interests.” And in Havana, Cuba, a conference on folk and protest music called the “Encuentro de la canción protesta” declared the preferability of the nueva canción (“new music”) style, in direct opposition to rock-and-roll. This was the birth of folk music and rock-and-roll’s imposed enmity in Latin America.
The University of California Press published a fascinating book by Zolov, Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture, that explains in great detail how this antagonism deepened in the years following:
This “countersong,” as one author dubbed it, variously used or combined traditional music repertoires from Latin America to back lyrics that explored political, philosophical, and sentimental themes. It was an eclectic genre of music whose songs “questioned North American imperialism, economic exploitation, social inequality, and cultural alienation, along with themes that proclaimed a free and just future.” Pan-American solidarity—not with, but against the United States—was implied, if not overtly stated, in many of these songs.
As nueva canción gained ascendency, commercialized popular music, especially rock, was increasingly slandered for its associations with imperialism. This was ironic, because rock (especially The Beatles) had influenced some new song musicians, such as Silvio Rodríguez. Nonetheless, in the context of the politically charged early 1970s, when various regimes throughout Latin America were openly hostile toward the United States and faced attacks from right- and left-wing elements, mass culture was readily conflated with imperialist designs and influence. The critique of rock in part focused on the links between electronic music and economic and technological dependencies, ideas expressed, for example, in a roundtable discussion of music, nationalism and imperialism organized in Cuba in early 1973. As one participant commented, “I’m not against electronic music, but one has to be conscious of the technological element that creates dependency. . . . In this sense, one has to stimulate a genuinely Latin American culture with the elements at our disposal. It’s necessary to be conscious that a culture weak in its creation, imprecise in terms of its authenticity, is always an easy prisoner for whatever type of imperialist penetration.” The various manifestations of “imperialist penetration” were suggested by an earlier conference also held in Cuba. In the “Final Declaration of the Meeting of Latin American Music,” musical traditions were likened to raw materials that must be protected from relationships of dependency with the metropolises: “As with other deeply rooted popular and nationalist expressions, but with particular emphasis on music for its importance as a link between us, the colonialist cultural penetration seeks to achieve not only the destruction of our own values and the imposition of those from without but also the extraction and distortion of the former in order to return them, [now] reprocessed and value-added, for the service of this penetration.”
But efforts to compartmentalize music for political purposes were not as simple or straightforward as the leftist regimes of the time might have liked. Some reprocessed “imperialist” tunes remained quite popular in Latin America, even among believers in the utility of nueva canción as a cultural tool:
A clear example of this “value-added” marketing, which at the same time pointed to the complicated processes of transnationalism, was the impact of Simon and Garfunkel’s song “El Condor Pasa.” The song, credited as an “arrangement of [an] 18th c. Peruvian folk melody” was popularized by the folk-rock duo through their highly successful album Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970). (Re)exported to Latin America at the start of the revival in folk-protest music, Simon and Garfunkel were, ironically, responsible at one level for the commercial success of Mexico’s own resurgence in folk music. As Luz Lozano reflected, “I’ve thought for a long time, ‘How did that folkloric thing get started?’ And I would say that it was with that song [‘El Condor Pasa’]. Or at least, it contributed a lot. It was the image that we had of [Simon and Garfunkel]. It was more than just them, like a triangulation: them, the Andes, and here, us. . . . I didn’t know the song before [they recorded it]. I think that after that, the [movement] started to emerge here.
Even Los Folkloristas, a popular Mexican group formed in 1966 whose stated mission is “to spread folkloric music and all the new forms of Latin American song, in their most genuine representations, exempt from all concession to the dominant commercialism . . . [and] to oppose the mounting imperialist cultural penetration with the voice of our peoples as a necessity for identity and affirmation,” and who have declared themselves to be in opposition to “the colonizing assault and alienation of Rock and commercial music,” confess a soft spot for Simon and Garfunkel:
‘Say what you will, but these guys [Simon and Garfunkel] have made South American music a thousand times more popular than Los Folkloristas ever could. So what’s wrong with that? It’s a wonderful version.’ And so on and so forth. And I kind of agreed with it, to a certain degree. I still like the Simon and Garfunkel version of ‘El Condor Pasa’ very much.
It may seem strange to us Americans to think of the unassuming and left-leaning Simon and Garfunkel being at the nexus of an explosive controversy over commercialism and imperialism, but there you have it!
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It is against this musical and political backdrop that left-wing Peruvian dictator Juan Velasco Alvarado came to power in a 1968 coup. His regime and its supporters were firmly in the anti-American/anti-rock camp, the most visible proof of which was the arson-fueled cancelation of a Carlos Santana benefit series following the country’s 1970 earthquake. The 7.9 quake and subsequent landslides left an estimated 65,000 to 70,000 dead. Now, you might think that a successful Chicano musician offering Latino solidarity along with cash for disaster victims would be welcomed with open arms by all and sundry. But such was not the case, as you will see Eric Zolov describe below:
A confrontation in Peru in late 1971 neatly illustrates this process of rock’s politicization. . . . At the time, Peru was in the grips of a nationalist, military-led government that had come to power in a coup in 1968 aimed at preempting guerrilla victory by implementing a radical, leftist policy agenda. Carlos Santana was scheduled to perform eight benefit concerts in Lima for victims of a 1970 earthquake. The rock group was met by 3,000 fans and an official greeting by the mayor of Lima, who “gave [the band] a scroll welcoming them to the city.” However, the powerful student union at San Marcos University, where the concerts were to take place in an 80,000-seat soccer stadium, protested that the scheduled event was “an imperialist invasion.” Two days before the opening performance, the stadium stage mysteriously burned to the ground. With that warning, the Ministry of the Interior canceled the tour altogether. The band had their luggage and instruments confiscated, and they were promptly ejected from the country, accused of “acting contrary to good taste and the moralizing objectives of the revolutionary government.”
Music deemed useful to the regime’s revolutionary goals received quite a different treatment:
By comparison, the folk-protest song movement was openly backed by the Peruvian military regime, which actively sponsored performances and media diffusion for national and foreign artists through its National Institute of Culture.
So while individual music lovers may have had their doubts and mixed feelings and split allegiances (in the words of Iván Zatz-Díaz, a Mexican student at the time, “Was John Lennon a revolutionary force, or an imperialist force?”), as far as the Peruvian government and other Latin American governments were concerned, se acabó. Rock was over.
What was the upshot of all this government-led musical picking and choosing? Did rock-and-roll really disappear? Of course not. Read on, remembering that Eric Zolov’s description of Mexico fits in with the situation in Latin America at large:
The ramifications of the surge in folk-protest song and the Mexican regime’s support for this movement were not the total elimination of rock but rather the further class and cultural bifurcation of rock’s reproduction and reception. Native rock . . . survived by going underground. As Simon Frith might claim, it returned to its working-class roots, where it was sustained into the 1980s. Foreign rock, on the other hand, though dashed by the impact of disco, was reinscribed as vanguard culture among the middle and upper classes.
So much for the 1970s.
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So what’s a music lover to do when their government has been cracking down for years on foreign artists and now that they’re starting to ease off, there’s a predictable dearth of available titles and travel outside the country is all but impossible save for a lucky (usually well-off) few? Why, start an underground pirating network, of course!
Thus dawned the 1980s, as described by Fabiola Bazo in the online Peruvian magazine Subte Rock (whose name translates as “underground rock”):
At the beginning of the 80s, Lima wasn’t part of the globalized world we know today. There was no internet, no blogs, no email. Regular mail was slow, expensive, and unreliable, and air travel to foreign countries was a privilege. Only a small minority were able to get ahold of imported LPs or cassettes other than those on America’s Billboard lists. . . .
The young people who made up the Lima Underground Movement were looking for different, alternative musical sounds that reflected their moods and feelings of exclusion and alienation. They didn’t identify with the Billboard stuff or with the Peruvian rock groups putting out English-language songs and covers. People who had access to imported records set up a music exchange network in the late 1970s.
How did this underground music network work? If a willing collaborator was traveling outside the country, usually to the United States, the word would be put out discreetly, and anyone wishing to acquire a bootleg would procure and pass along a blank cassette tape, with the name of the artist and album they wanted. While abroad, the international traveler-cum-music mule would then copy everyone’s selections onto this collection of blank cassettes, and then smuggle them back into the country.
These precious recordings were few, and treated with reverence and respect, with listening sessions held to share the music among likeminded fans. Here’s one memory of the time, captured in an anonymous interview and shared by Fabiola Bazo:
We all met sharing and exchanging music back in ‘78, ‘79 . . . and then at some point in the early 80s I realized that a lot of these people passing around albums were also musicians. This one friend of mine who had a band, Anarquía, he had a lot of albums, he traveled to the United States every year, and every year he brought back 365 albums . . . a new album for every day of the year . . . his house was a like a club, and I met a lot of people there . . . —JH
Great care was often taken to decorate the cassettes’ paper sleeves. Observe these, taken from a collection recently on display at MALI, the Museo de Arte de Lima:
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All this censorial hubbub over music might seem quite far removed to most Americans, a curious thing of the past. But the politicization of culture as a means of societal control is not so foreign as we might assume. Think of Pussy Riot being jailed, and hip hop concerts being shut down and attendees arrested in Russia. Think of Iran banning western music on state outlets and their Ministry of Culture having to approve all music released or circulated in the country. Think of K-Pop being banned not only in North Korea, but in several free countries, to this day. Think of the racist overtones surrounding the creation of parental advisory stickers. Think of American country music and its largely self-imposed gag order on matters of gun violence. We may be far still from confiscating the belongings of state-identified “undesirable” musicians and shipping them forcibly out of the country, but we should remember to guard against attitudes and actions that might lead us down that path.
But just in case we do find ourselves living in a dictatorial dystopia any time soon, it never hurts to be prepared! So in that spirit: which albums would you be willing to break the law to get ahold of? Share your hypothetically clandestine favorites in the comments!
(P.S. There are several important facets to this topic that I did not include in this diary. There is for instance a significant class component to musical tastes and access within the contexts I explored that I didn’t even begin to cover. In Peru specifically, the connection, real or perceived, between terrorist organizations and certain genres of music is a meaningful area of analysis I chose, for reasons of length and simplicity, to omit. A discussion of if and when censorship is ever legitimate was likewise skipped. However, given time constraints and a hurt hand, I did the best I could and I hope you find what I did discuss interesting.)