Geopolitics

Nothing Is More Latin American Than Not Wanting To Be One

Argentine President Fernández's suggestion that Argentines were more European than others from the region was a sorry bid to ingratiate himself with Europe — and so typically Latin American.

Nurses Protest in Buenos Aires, May 12, 2021
Rafael Toriz*

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — The denial of reality, provoked by a range of neuroses, is a particularly acute malady in Argentina. It's as if facts were banished in this strange land and only their interpretations permitted. Even anachronistic and decadent interpretations are welcome, like those this week from President Alberto Fernández...

The Argentine President declared on a trip to Spain — in a supposedly "eurofriendly" gesture — that he had a "European vocation. I'm someone who believes in Europe." Revealing an indelibly colonial mind, he explained that this was because Argentines were "from Europe." He cited Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who he claimed once wrote that "the Mexicans had come from the indians, the Brazilians had come out of the jungle and the Argentines, we had arrived in boats. They were boats from Europe." These were gratuitous words, no doubt uttered just to get along!

Without considering his syntax —which presidents spoil more often than most — the declaration was unfortunate for so many reasons. It would be best to stick to his words, to avoid any suspicion of spite.

Octavio Paz, the patriarch of the main, if now dented, tradition of Mexican literature, may be accused of many dubious utterances but nothing as coarse and mediocre as the words attributed to him by this president (which are in fact from a "trendy" if dated song by Litto Nebbia, We Came in the Boats).

Now, while the current state of our democracies may be turning us into believers in magic, circus acts and hat tricks, neither the Mexicans nor Brazilians "have come out" of anywhere. We are a mix of Europeans and native Americans, to which we may add those brought here in the millions from Africa in the course of the continent's domination and colonization. Regarding those African migrants in the New World, let us recall that they were the ones who built buildings, bridges and cities and broke their back —alongside indigenous people — to work the land, sea and even the mines, and who gave this continent its countenance, its population and foundations.

"We are split between our deepest desires, what we can do and what we are."

We all know Argentina long thought of itself as the continent's most European society. This impression (and undoubted imprecision) is the fruit not just of foreign travellers' tales, but of a potent public myth fomented by the country's élites. Their deep and superficial vanity still cannot resist the slightest nod of approval or flirting from Mother Europe.

While rightly mocked by internet memes across the continent, the Argentine case and its aspirations are in fact deeply Latin American. You have to have been born somewhere between the Río Bravo and Patagonia to know just what it feels like to belong to this part of the world. We are split between our deepest desires, what we can do and what we are. In its totality, Latin America is a perennial, relentless struggle between reality and desire, between what we see in the mirror of our fantasies and the reality revealed in the gaze of others.

An old train station at La Plata, Argentina — Photo: Noralí Nayla

There is nothing more Latin American than not wanting to be one. As the Guatemalan poet Alan Mills wrote,

"The indian is not the one you see on the tourist brochure/Loading bundles/Or serving you your food/.

No, the indian is inside/Coming out at times, so just accept him/Even if you would bury him under surnames/

And thwart him at every turn/And negate your childhood stain,/No, that's the one,/ I'm the indian,/Now, repeat after me."

Look straight in the mirror Mr. President and, to say it in my crystal-clear Mexicano: no la chingue.

(Don't f**k up)

*Toriz is a Mexican author living in Buenos Aires. His books include Animalia and La distorción.

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Society

Oui-haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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