PATAGONIAN PUNCH LIST: BANDS FROM CHILE AND ARGENTINA
As hard-core readers of Fine Tuning know, I've spent the last six months based in Concepción, Chile. It's been fantastic. Lots of travel, lots of pisco, and lots and lots of carne. As the sabbatical winds down, I thought I'd compile a post of some of the bands I've learned about while living here that merit a listen. There's a lot of excellent music at the southern tip of the world that has not penetrated the United States. Since I've logged the vast majority of my time in Chile and Argentina, I focus on those two countries. Let’s start in Chile.
It's difficult to write about any aspect of Chilean culture without making reference to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. And so it is with music.
Before moving to Chile I knew embarrassingly little about the country’s history other than the broadest outlines of the coup d’etat in 1973. I couldn't have told you Pinochet remained in power for nearly two decades, until 1990, or that some 28,000 people deemed members of “the opposition” were tortured in a network of secret prisons (most commonly by electric shocks, waterboarding, beatings, and/or sexual abuse), 2,279 were executed, and 1,248 “disappeared.” Nor did I understand the critical role the United States played in the military’s overthrow of Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically-elected president, whom the United States believed was a communist and the first “domino” to fall in South America. A visit to Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago is an extraordinary experience, where the events of September 11, 1973 and the brutal aftermath of the coup are laid bare. Particularly moving is President Allende’s final speech delivered extemporaneously as the Presidential Palace (La Moneda) was being bombed and just before he himself was killed. Here’s a link to the audio with English subtitles if you are interested.
The dictatorship’s legacy remains palpable here 25 years after Pinochet accepted the results of a plebiscite and surrendered power. There are some obvious reminders, like the billboards encouraging the public to participate in the current re-writing of the country’s Constitution which was drafted by Pinochet in 1980 and is still in effect. But there are more subtle reminders as well. You sense it in the absence of a national environmental movement notwithstanding the gaping scars left by the mining and timber industries across the stunning Atacama desert and other singular Chilean landscapes; I was told by a 31-year-old naturalist, who was only 6-years-old at the end of the dictatorship, that the government would not tolerate anyone challenging the desecration visited by the extractive industries that fuel Chile’s economy. And I saw it in the faces of students at the Universidad de Concepción one afternoon as I was eating lunch on the Plaza Peru. An enormous, armored military bus came rumbling up the street, stopped in front of the University’s main gate and fired a water canon on a handful of students who were peaceably protesting the high costs of university education. The students watching the scene from across the street in the plaza did not seem angry. They seemed scared.
And so one can only imagine what it must have felt like to grow up in Chile in the 1970s and ‘80s when the government was actively disappearing people. Music, as it often the case, became a primary outlet for political frustrations and aspirations. One of the leading bands of the era was Los Prisioneros. I was introduced to Los Prisioneros by a Chilean friend in the course of examining his vinyl collection after dinner one night. He spun the band’s first album, La Voz de Los ‘80, released in 1984, on his still-functioning turntable – and then gave me the record to keep.
While they maintain they did not write “protest” songs and did not perceive themselves as political (although given the band’s name and song titles like “Latinoamérica Es un Pueblo al Sur de Estados Unidos,” one might question it), Los Prisioneros were adopted as such by young Chilenos chafing under the dictatorship. The government, too, viewed them as overtly political, banning their music between 1985 and 1990.
Perhaps one of the reasons Los Prisioneros were deemed subversive was because theirs was an entirely new style of music. It marked a radical departure from the Chilean folk scene of the 1970s exemplified by artists like Víctor Jara. [Jara was an outspoken supporter of President Allende who was arrested the day of the coup and then tortured and killed the following day via a gunshot to the head, reportedly administered after several rounds of Russian roulette, his body left in the street to be claimed by his wife].
Any new form of self-expression is regarded warily by a repressive state, but particularly one that creates a common language and means of connection between large numbers of disaffected people. Los Prisioneros mixed strands of punk, rock, reggae and ska to form an innovative sound entirely new to Chilean ears. The influence of the Clash is unmistakable in the music and is acknowledged by the band who were enthralled by the multiplicity of musical genres on the Clash’s 1980 record, Sandinista!
Los Prisioneros are cited as a major influence by nearly every Chilean rock band that has come after them. Here is one of my favorite tracks, “No Necesitamos Banderas” (“We Don’t Need Flags”) from La Voz de Los ‘80, an album which is now a treasured keepsake of my time in Chile.
Of course, brutal dictatorship was not limited to Chile. Across the border in Argentina, the Dirty War was being waged by the Argentinean military in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983, after seven years of dictatorship, a new music scene blossomed in Buenos Aires. As Zeta Bosio, the bass player for the band leading the charge, Soda Stereo, said, “The democracy produced the adrenaline of something new. There was more air for us to make things and to wander.”
Soda Stereo’s first album, released in 1984, brought new wave to Argentina. But the release of their record Canción Animal in 1990 brought the prominent guitars of rock music to the fore. Fueled by the mega-success of Canción Animal, Soda Stereo went on to become one of the first groups to gain popularity throughout the entirety of Latin America, although they could still never crack the U.S. market. Here's a live clip of my personal favorite, “Sueles Dejarme Solo” (“You usually Leave Me Alone”) from Canción Animal.
But enough about the dictatorships of the past. Let’s get modern. Here are some other bands to check out, in order of newest to oldest.
First up is Concepción’s-own Julius Popper. I was alerted to these guys (and to several other bands you might want to investigate) by some locals in comments they left on my post about the Rock En Concé music festival back in March (click here to read the post). The band’s latest single, released a few months ago, is called “Miau Cat” and I love the brassy jazz elements layered among the straight-ahead power chords. Very catchy stuff.
If you are wondering where the band’s name comes from, thanks for asking. It's quite interesting.
According to my exhaustive research (i.e., Wikipedia), Julius Popper was a real person who left a mark (blotch?) on Patagonian Argentina. Born in 1857 in Romania, and an engineer by training, he helped build the infrastructure for the Chilean telegraph system. But he was then seduced by the prospect of gold in Southern Argentina, leading an expedition to the Argentine side of Patagonia in 1886 where he did indeed find gold. Like any good megalomaniacal explorer of the time, he then formed his own private army, issued his own stamps, and minted his own gold coins (which were recognized as currency after the Argentine peso collapsed in 1890). In an entirely unpredictable next chapter, he then used his private army to commit genocide against one of the native communities in the region, the Selknam. The tale ends with Popper murdered by poisoning at the tender age of 35.
Why does the band take its name from this guy? I have no idea. Neither, perhaps, does the band – their first record is called Julius Popper?
Next up is a band from Mendoza, Argentina called Usted Señalemelo. As best I can tell, the name means something like “you point it to me.” I am just guessing, though, because Google Translate crashed when I entered the phrase.
But of course, the band’s name is beside the point. It’s all about the music, which I heard emanating from the speakers of a record store, one that sold actual vinyl records mind you, in Buenos Aires. When I asked the proprietor about the band, he said they were his favorite new Argentinean group. I can understand why. I expect their eponymous debut album will be particularly well-received by indie-rock fans. The guitars need to be a touch less playful to fully penetrate my rock ‘n’ roll sweet spot, but I still really like the album, particularly “Otra Vez” (“Again”).
After leaving the record store in Buenos Aires with a copy of Usted Señalemelo’s CD, I happened upon a band playing in the street called Toni Montaña. I wouldn't call them a rock band. There's too much brass and nods to traditional music for that. But they have a rock ‘n’ roll spirit, for sure. In fact, their tune “La Rueda” (“The Wheel”) samples from Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Check it out.
The song I heard that day in the street is called “Rumba de Laa Travesti” (I’m not exactly clear on the translation other than that it involves a transvestite). Here’s a clip of them performing it on that same street corner in 2014. Note the guitar player without the hipster facial hair is sporting an Oakland A’s cap (I knew I liked these guys). You can see the A’s emblem clearly at about the 8 second mark of the clip.
Moving back in time a bit, we get to Los Bunkers who have been around since 2000. I heard this band my first day in Chile while buying gum at the Santiago airport. The cashier told me they were his favorite band – “all-time.” And since they were originally from Concepción, I had to check them out. It turns out Los Bunkers are very influential in Chile – one of the first wildly popular rock bands. Here’s a deep cut I like from 2002, called “Mañana Lo Voy A Saber” (“Tomorrow I’ll Know”).
In closing, I want to make special mention of Alien Gun. Alien Gun is a project of one of the guitar players in Chilean Pink Floyd cover band, Brain Damage (click here to read my musings on the Brain Damage show I caught in Concepción). Not surprisingly, the influence of Pink Floyd on Alien Gun is painfully obvious. Sort of like the influence of the Heat Miser on Donald Trump.
But, hey, there are worse bands to emulate. Actually, the band’s record, Tales From Unbroken Souls, sounds more like a David Gilmour solo project if he'd been making solo records during the Wish You Were Here and Animals sessions. There are lots of extended guitar solos and spacey, far-away vocal effects. It's good stuff. The guitar solos on the jam, “Pray for Death” (below), which closes the record, are of particular note, bringing to mind Gilmour’s work on “Dogs.”
It's been an interesting experience learning about the rock scene down here. I've only scratched the surface. I look forward to continuing my education back in the States while mixing a pisco sour and trying to replicate choripán on the grill.