Music and Dictatorship: The Cultural Legacy of ‘El Proceso’
In 1966, whilst condemning the use of violence in response to a racist United States, Martin Luther King Jr famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard”. If rioting is the language of the unheard, then music is what gives this language life. Beyond the ubiquitous western obsession with Dylan, Joplin, the Beatles, or Patti Smith, equally impressive is the role Argentine rock- rock nacional- punk and heavy metal played in countering the country’s repressive political dynamics.
Whilst these genres spawned a number of artists that would influence the national music scene to this day, we focus in the contributions of three seminal artists whose responses to the 1970s and ’80s dictatorship contributed to a profound shift in Argentina’s popular culture landscape. Charly Garcia, Los Violadores, and V8 each represent the most complete examples of how rock, punk, and heavy metal respectively interacted with the mainstream culture of the time.
In March 1976, the Argentine military seized power and began a dictatorship that would mire the country’s democratic and cultural expression for the next seven years. Referred to by the military junta as ‘the process of national re-organisation’, or ‘el proceso’, this was justified by the government as a necessary response to left-wing ‘subversives’ who were allegedly undermining Argentina’s political and economic stability.
The dictatorship crushed political expression and social outreach. Beyond the military’s political opponents, the hunt for so-called ‘subversives’ also forced journalists, students, social workers, and religious charities into submission. According to the report handed down by the National Commission on the Disappeared in 1984 –Nunca Más– at least 8,960 people were ‘disappeared’ or killed by state hands during the dictatorship and a further 1,300 were detained (human rights groups estimate the true figures at around 30,000). Unofficial estimates put the total at 30,000.
Aside from its impact on broader civil society, the dictatorship also stifled the Argentine arts scene by mandating a puritanical and state-controlled Christian morality and limiting independent cultural expression through censorship and restrictions on public gatherings. Nonetheless, music’s ‘harmful’ influence still infiltrated Argentina’s youth during this time.
In an interview with the Argentina Independent, historian and journalist Sergio Pujol stated that throughout this period the folklore subgenre known as ‘Nueva Canción‘ (New Song) was implicitly associated with the guerillas and left-wing politics, and imbued with notions of protest, testimony, and complaint. Further, the rock nacionalcritique “was aimed at the bourgeois way of life from a hippie consciousness and a countercultural style: closer to [Herbert] Marcuse than Che [Guevara].”
For this reason, junta member Emilio Massera paralleled rock with Marxism and other ‘plagues’ of modernity in a famous speech at the University of El Salvador in 1977. At the same time, other means of dissent such as journalism foundered. Pujol notes that even Rodolfo Walsh’s famous ‘Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta’ was restricted in its social reception, leaving “little more than rock in those years.”
At the start of the dictatorship, rock nacional occupied a fraught political space. Leftist Argentines favoured the politically explicit nature of folk, with figures such as assassinated Chilean musician Victor Jara dominating the popular imagination of what the political struggle should entail —collectivism, greater economic equality, and liberation from foreign imperialism.
Rock, on the other hand, equaled hedonism.
In ‘Rock and Dictatorship’, an exploration of the historical evolution and role of rock nacional during this period, Pujol summarises general leftist sentiments: “The music of the people was not —could not be— progressive music. Exceptions excluded, rock musicians were seen as harmless addicts, people a little naïve who perhaps could not understand the nature of imperialism and preferred to lose themselves in the illusions of music in place of the struggle for a better world.”
At the same time, rock national was far removed from the austere cultural dynamics prescribed by the military in its search for “positive and essential” national values. Hence, it received little traction from either side of the trenches.
Charly García was one of the central figures of rock nacional during the 1970s and ’80s, whose current cultural reach remains strong. García was instrumental in the bands Sui Generis, La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros, and Serú Girán and subsequently forged a successful solo career. His music was not directly rooted in the notion of political struggle but was often largely allegorical and provided an important means through which Argentines could identify with life under an unnamed repressor.
For example, his 1982 solo album ‘Yendo de la Cama al Living’ (‘Going from the Bed to the Living Room’) expressed the feelings of surveillance which many had encountered in the previous decade and which caused many rock nacional artists —including Javier Martinez from Manal, Billy Bond, and Leon Gieco— to leave Argentina to guarantee their personal safety. Acting as a counterpoint to songs about the social uncertainty caused by the Falklands/Malvinas War and the dictatorship, in ‘Collective Unconscious’ García assured the public that despite the social ‘transformer’ the dictatorship represented, the pulse of the country would emerge vibrant following these events: “Nurse your freedom, you will always carry her/Inside your heart/They can corrupt you, you can forget her/But she is always there.”
The following year, García would remember those who had fallen in the dictatorship and envision a return to democracy in his song ‘The Dinosaurs’. “The friends from the neighborhood may disappear/ The singers on the radio may disappear/ The ones who are in the newspapers may disappear/ The person who you love may disappear…/But the dinosaurs are going to disappear.”
Experts like Pujol and Dario Marchini both challenge the tendency to characterise rock nacional musicians as highly politicised due to the abstract nature of their lyrics and their distance from political dissidence. But for Pujol, as rock nacional became more popular throughout the 1970s and ’80s it also took on a political role in the way it sustained the public sphere.
In an interview with Buenos Aires daily Página 12, Pujol recognised the capacity of rock to cradle solidarity by bringing people together at concerts. “There, rock literally was physically at the forefront, with its public knowing that after jumping up and down at a full Luna Park [Buenos Aires venue], the police would be outside bringing their paddy wagons to get everyone in jail.”
With public gatherings restricted during this time, both touring and choreography became highly politicised acts in themselves. Additionally, with rock nacional not necessarily being embraced as politically explicit music during this period, its capacity to criticise the weakness and complicity of Argentine social institutions and customs with the human rights abuses of this time was, and remains, strong. In Pujol’s opinion, “the most interesting thing Argentine rock had to say, and especially García, was not so much a critique of authoritarianism of the military as the genuflection of Argentine society. Before, during, and after the dictatorship.”
In the late 1970s, punk was a scarcely recognised genre in Latin America. Beyond the reaches of Argentina, Los Saicos had emerged in Peru during the mid-1960s as possible pioneers of the genre worldwide, around a decade before punk arrived in Britain. In Argentina, Los Voladores (The Flying Ones) formed at the end of the 1970s, in 1981 changing their name to Los Violadores (The Violators).
The documentary ‘Ellos Son Los Violadores‘ (‘They are the Violators’) directed by Juan Riggarozi, explores both the band’s etymology and political impact. In a period where the creation of a distinctly ‘Argentine’ identity was mandated by the dictatorship, members of the band cite foreign artists as inspirational.
The band’s founder and guitarist, Pedro Braun, travelled to London in 1977 and says his artistic trajectory was shaped by its punk scene, whereas singer Pil Trafa visited the United States in 1978. Their first ever concert was in the affluent Belgrano area of Buenos Aires in 1978, and the following year the working class Pil Trafa wrote the defiant song ‘Represión’ —which the band started playing in 1981, when Pil Trafa joined the group— clearly delivering on Pedro Braun’s desire “to cause a shock among society and the people.”
In ‘Represión’ the band juxtaposed scenes of repression in all facets of daily life with the broken promise of economic growth and national progress under the dictatorship: “Repression behind your house/ Repression in the kiosk at the corner/ Repression in the bakery/ Repression 24 hours a day/ Long weeks sacrificed/Tough work, very little pay/ Unemployed people, it doesn’t matter/ where is, beasts, the equality we desire?”
In this way, Los Violadores were distinct from the rock nacional artists in the manner in which they drew the social battle lines and aimed to challenge what they perceived as the complicity of civil society with the dictatorship. The band’s manifesto of defiance was christened with the song “Uno, dos, ultraviolento’” formally released in 1985. This song references Anthony Burgess’ classic novella on free will ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and satirized conservative Argentine society, “The bad guys in leather/ We want to have fun/ With my Drugs/ Off to the attack we go.
Nonetheless they were not widely patronised by leftist activists, with Pedro Braun stating that “it was like we were historical aliens. The way we stayed together: it was us against the world.”
In this period, the band also collaborated with German punk band Die Toten Hosen to help them tour Buenos Aires in 1980. The German band had contemporaneously released a single entitled ‘Hier Kommt Alex’ (‘Here Comes Alex’) also referencing ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and, like Los Violadores, maintained a strong anti-fascist stance throughout their musical careers.
Resistance to the dictatorship through music was also present in the heavy metal scene.
V8, one of the most important heavy metal bands in Argentine history, emerged at the end of this period. Given the military government’s highly Christian sensitivity and the ‘hippie’ dimension of Latin folk music, the visceral and confronting nature of V8’s lyrics and performance style were designed to shock civil society.
They dressed solely in black when performing and refused to participate in a concert put on by the military government supporting Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas War. And in a time when repression was the norm, heavy metal fans found the concerts of bands such as V8 or Riff to be release they needed. This often ended in violence.
In the documentary ‘Heavy Metal’, directed by Juan Astrain, vocalist Alberto Zamarbide stated that their music “was a shout of resistance, very particular in the ‘80s —like punk, like heavy metal… the enemy was the military government.”
“V8 was a catalyst for everything that was being brewing within the youth,” adds former drummer Gustavo Rowek. “It focused all the hate towards the hippies, as a generation that had absolutely failed with their ideas.”
Nowhere was their dissent more apparent than in the particularly explicit song ‘Destruction’: “I no longer believe in anything/ I no longer believe in you/ I do not believe in anyone/ because no one believes in me/ …but luckily I can see/ What the decision/ The final judgment/ Will be the solution, destruction.”
This rebellious atttitude was not without consequences, either for the musicians or the fans. “Walking around the street, wearing black clothes and long hair, we would end up inside [in prison], it was always the same. I was completely used to it. Sometimes I talk to younger kids and they don’t know the inside of a prison. We knew all the police stations in the City and the Greater Buenos Aires,” laughs Rowek.
As in the case of Los Violadores and Charly García with punk and rock nacional respectively, V8 inspired a new wave of Argentine heavy metal bands from the mid to late 1980s, both increasingly professional and prolific.
Argentina, Politics, and Music Today
Whilst many of its aspects have since been forgotten or cast aside, one of dictatorship’s strongest (albeit unwilling) legacies isthe music produced during that period.
Whereas prior to 1976 rock nacional was a formative genre often heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon rock, blues, jazz, and folk, today it is a source of national pride. Similarly, military attempts at censorship merely led to the emergence of punk and heavy metal in Argentina as popular sources of cultural expression during and after the dictatorship.
Today in Buenos Aires, a visit to a punk venue such as Salón Puerreydon will soon reveal Los Violadores or even V8 as old favourites. On the city’s airwaves, not a day passes by without the broadcast of Charly García and his contemporaries.
Garcia’s fabled and troublesome dinosaurs, meanwhile, faded to black long ago.
Cameron McPhedran has traveled extensively through the Americas and lived in Buenos Aires and Berkeley. He is currently studying a Masters of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of New South Wales, and had worked as a reviewer and editor for History in the Making.
This post originally appeared on the Argentina Independent, and we thank them for allowing us to republish it here.