In many countries, musicians were Latin America's leading social critics and political activists of the late 20th century. Not anymore.
SANTIAGO — "Drums banging, guitars tuned and skeptical voices singing of politics ..." These were the words that entered my head when I first heard the Chilean band Los Prisioneros on an old tape player coming from our neighbor's house. Listening to the song "We are Sudamerican Rockers" would become like a daily ritual that ushered me into the 1980s world of social consciousness.
It would not be difficult to relate the history of Latin America through the creative process of its musical artists. They could take us through the region's transformative stages merely with national anthems that sing of the harsh histories behind the independence of nations, or the battle hymns that recall deplorable, fratricidal wars.
Latin America has been repeatedly convulsed, but in recent years less for war than for social and economic hardships. The region's historical inequalities led a whole generation of musicians to take up the guitar as a weapon, and confront injustices with lyrics. Violeta Parra and Victor Jara in Chile, Mercedes Sosa, León Gieco and Facundo Cabral in Argentina, Alfredo Zitarrosa and Daniel Viglietti in Uruguay, Nilo Soruco in Bolivia, Chico Buarque in Brazil, Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés in Cuba.
These were just some of the top voices of a generation, most of them silenced by the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.
With the region marked by relative calm in the first decade of this century, Latin America seems headed for more convulsions, with a political crisis in Venezuela and the resurgence, again, of the unresolved if clichéd problem of inequality. This time however front-line artists appear not to be accompanying the process (with exceptions: Chile's Ana Tijoux, Nano Stern, Manuel García and Chinoy; Orishas and Carlos Varela in Cuba and Puerto Rico's Calle 13)
The reasons I think can be broken down into four categories:
Social networking: Facebook and Twitter ensure we are no longer anonymous. Today we all have a face, and opinions, on the Internet. We used to seek identification and to hear our ideas in a discourse, and musicians were the people needed to articulate it, to raise and publicize the banner of the masses. Today, I can publish my own ideas on the web in seconds, even if only five people read them. The musician is merely another vector, and increasingly of lesser importance.
Musical elitism: To live off music and make it a career, you need money, and a measure of talent. Economic support somehow defines our lives and actions. Using the Chilean example, Violeta Parra and Victor Jara came from difficult backgrounds, which they knew intimately and expressed.
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Violetta Parra in the 1960s — Photo: magicasruinas
The same applies to the Prisioneros who emerged from the working-class district of San Miguel in Santiago, and whose experiences transformed them into the best conveyors of anger felt in poorer districts against the Pinochet dictatorship. We may best illustrate this with American or British examples, where music still provides young people a way of escaping marginal conditions, as happened with Eminem and Noel and Liam Gallagher. Today, realities not lived or known have become a marginal part of the repertoire.
Musical introspection: The themes have obviously changed. The social element has given way to the artist's journey within. Self-discovery and feelings are the stuff of the best lyrics today. The forceful entry of electronic music, where sound matters more than words, has been another factor. A lot of DJs then, but very few with a critical word to say — about anything!
Context: The reality of the last century differs greatly from ours. Latin America, in spite of being one of the world's most unequal regions, has moved away from dictatorial regimes and many its citizens are enjoying the fruits of economic progress. Access to credit has changed the lives of Latin Americans, who can now have things that were previously beyond reach. The dictators of those years are gone, as are the armies on the streets or the secret police oppressing citizens. The enemy has changed, and we seem to have trouble identifying its latest manifestation.
The front line of artists, as we can see, now spurns the social role. While some underground groups have in recent years managed to earn a measure of success in this area, it has proved ephemeral. There were for example the cumbia villera and reggaeton, two genres very popular for a time in several countries and both emanating from harsh living conditions and angry reactions to them. Curiously, both lost their "social vocation" with international success.
Latin America's guitar heroes are tired. They have become the venerable idols that go on stage from time to time, to remind us of what seem like distant times. The "Sudamerican Rockers" wait in the wings, for something to change in the air and on the streets, when they can walk out again onto center stage.