Revolution Rock

If rock music used to have a message, then rarely was that message stronger than for South American revolutionaries, for whom it was a significant part of the struggle. Patrick Ambrose traces a history of social uprising, and explains how the music helped fuel it.

Does rock and roll have a role anymore? The recent U.S. presidential election featured not only a high-profile concert-campaign by such rockers as Bruce Springsteen, but also a disappointing turnout among young people. The prospect of a prolonged war in Iraq and the musicians’ grave “Vote or Die” message failed to scare young citizens out of complacency and into the polls. While music during the 1960s and early ‘70s was a pronounced voice for political reform, possibly nowhere was it more evident than in the other America—South America. In the heyday of militarism and dictatorship, musicians literally had no place to hide, and their music wasn’t simply a byproduct of the political landscape, but a force for social change. Brazil’s Tropicália movement, which originated as a musical genre, quickly became a full-fledged artistic phenomenon after the country’s economic collapse and military coup of 1964. The Tropicálistas not only expressed their opposition to government oppression, but sought to protect their art from the cultural hegemony of the U.S. and Europe, combining music, theater, film, and visual art into a political voice for the New Left. In Argentina and Chile, Mercedes Sosa and Victor Jara, pioneers of nueva canción (new song), sang about social concerns like the need to eliminate poverty, in addition to expressing outrage at the violent measures taken by dictators Jorge Rafael Videla and Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Although other South American countries were under some form of military dictatorship during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the circumstances in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile provide the clearest examples of how rock musicians made a concerted effort to bring about an end to the repressive measures of authoritarianism and martial law.

Chile: Augusto Pinochet and the Coup of 1973

Probably no career better exhibits the horrors of South American militarism and the undying courage of the continent’s leading musical artists than that of Victor Jara. While Olivia Newton-John’s “Let Me Be There” wafted over radios throughout the United States, in Chile a U.S.-backed coup toppled Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Popular Unity socialist, and launched Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power. Pinochet’s junta, a combination of military commanders and police officers, subsequently arrested thousands of dissidents and herded them into Santiago’s Estadio Nacional (National Stadium), where many were interrogated, tortured, and murdered, including Jara, whose hands were broken by soldiers, but who still strummed Popular Unity songs until he was finally gunned down.

In “De La Cultura de la Basura,” Los Prisioneros ridicule the fans of contemporary pop music, comparing the consumers of such kitsch to those who collect paper napkins from chic hotels and restaurants. The lower income sector of the Chilean population would become utterly disenfranchised under Pinochet, as he courted the country’s elite and sought advice and assistance from the “Chicago Boys,” a group of University of Chicago economists who helped him develop an economic plan that favored the wealthy and upper middle class. Jara was dead, but his music still spoke volumes to Chile’s working poor; the narrator of Jara’s song “El Arado” (“The Plough”), an alienated peasant, dreams of a better life as he tills his exhausted soil—“Like the tight yoke/I have the fist of hope/because everything changes.” Sensing Jara was, even in death, still a viable enemy, Pinochet endeavored to wipe the great artist from memory by obliterating all of his recordings. Although the regime succeeded in destroying Jara’s original masters, recent efforts have been successful in recovering and anthologizing material from vinyl, cassettes, and reel-to-reel tapes.

The Chilean economic collapse in 1982 weakened Pinochet and gave Chilean activists and artists more freedom to express their disdain for his leadership. Punk-rock trio Los Prisioneros was one of these dissenting voices and in 1988, when a public referendum was held on Pinochet’s one-man rule, Los Prisioneros were among the many who actively campaigned for the “No” vote against Pinochet. Pinochet lost the plebiscite, and was defeated in a 1989 election by Christian Democratic leader Patricio Aylwin.

Using biting sarcasm, abrasive two-chord guitar riffs, and funky bass slapping, Los Prisioneros produced a body of work that rivals the Clash’s early material. Nobody is spared from their scathing critiques—wealthy elites, Yanqui imperialists, even the fans of Julio Iglesias, Luis Miguel, and rockabilly. In “De La Cultura de la Basura” (“From the Culture of Garbage”), Los Prisioneros ridicule the fans of contemporary pop music, comparing the consumers of such kitsch to those who collect paper napkins from chic hotels and restaurants. In September 2003, Los Prisioneros performed two concerts in the Estadio Nacional to commemorate the 30 years that had passed since Pinochet’s atrocities and to honor the lives of Salvador Allende and Victor Jara.

Argentina: Jorge Rafael Videla’s Dirty War

On March 24, 1976, a junta of Argentine armed forces, led by General Videla, overthrew the government of President Isabel Martinez de Peron and began a savage campaign against leftists and labor leaders. All political activities were banned, wages were slashed, and thousands of union activists lost their jobs. Between 1976 and 1983, an estimated 11,000 people were murdered by Argentina’s military during the “dirty war” against the Argentine left. But the exact number killed is impossible to verify because the bodies of many victims were never found. These “disappearances” of Argentine citizens mobilized a group of women activists—the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, many of whom had lost their children in the dirty war. These women, who assembled every afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, defiantly displayed the names and pictures of their missing children. Although often harassed by the military, the mothers were permitted to continue their protests. Even today, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have remained actively engaged in human-rights issues, and petitioned the Chilean and Spanish governments to bring Pinochet to justice for the crimes he committed against Chilean and Spanish citizens.

Shortly after Videla came to power, the music of Argentine folkloristas Mercedes Sosa and Victor Heredia was banned from the radio. Pioneers of Argentine nueva canción, Sosa and Heredia incorporated political messages into their classical Argentine songs that challenged the junta’s violent tactics against organized labor and opposition groups. Yet despite the ugly threat of the dirty war, Sosa continued to perform and even blended her classic folkloric sounds with rock rhythms and lyrics that expressed her discontent with Videla’s government and voiced the hope for a peaceful, unified continent . In the stunning, emotional masterpiece “Venas Abiertas” (“Open Veins”), Sosa expresses her longing for a Pan America—“We have open veins/wounded hearts/we are fervently Latin American.” Her courage and refusal to remain silent caught up with her in 1978, when she was arrested during a performance and ordered to leave the country.

Unlike the folkloristas, many of whom were exiled, Argentina’s rock musicians, or roqueros, like Charly Garcia, were permitted to remain in the country, but their work was subjected to ruthless censorship. Government officials scrutinized every recording and live performance and any song with political overtones was banned. At one point Garcia was incarcerated for his dissenting views, and consequently, he became subtler in getting his message across. In “Los Dinosaurios,” Garcia passionately recalls the desaparecidos (the disappeared), using “dinosaurs” to represent Argentina’s military regime—“Those who are on the street/May disappear in the street/Neighborhood friends may disappear/But the dinosaurs are going to disappear.” In 1982, Sosa celebrated her return to Argentina by performing with Garcia and fellow Argentine rock legends León Gieco and Nito Mestre. Although Videla was prosecuted and imprisoned by the civilian government that replaced him, he was later pardoned in January 1991 by President Carlos Saul Menem, which sparked public protests by citizens and activist groups—most notably, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Brazil: The Military Coup of 1964 and the Tropicália Phenomenon

In 1964 Brazil was nearing default to its foreign creditors and the country had a wide disparity between rich and poor, with 10 percent of the population controlling over 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. And like many South American countries, the military provided social and economic mobility for the working poor. By enlisting in the armed services, poor people could enjoy job security and opportunities for career advancement. Therefore, as an institution, the military sided with the needs of the upper and middle class in order to protect its own interests. When president João Goulart, an ally of labor leaders, addressed the needs of peasants and workers by proposing land-reform measures and rent controls, he threatened the country’s elite—the landholders, industrialists, and military personnel—initiating what appeared to be a peasant-worker alliance and conditions for class warfare. On April 1, 1964, a military putsch overthrew the Goulart government, and from 1964 to 1985, a series of authoritarian regimes, each headed by a four-star general, governed the country.

The Brazilian audience was already under the spell of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles. During the first two military governments, Generals Castello Branco and Artur da Costa e Silva tried to resolve the country’s economic crisis by overhauling the banking system, creating a stock market, and relaxing labor regulations. None of these methods worked, and massive demonstrations were held in urban areas. The military responded by cracking down on protesters, and after guerilla insurgencies arose, the government began imprisoning, torturing, and murdering those suspected of aiding the opposition.

During this grim era of restriction and prohibition, Brazilian artists had to be particularly skilled in the use of metaphor if they wanted to criticize the government. Following the coup, a group of musicians emerged who not only challenged the repressive measures of the new regime, but redefined Brazilian music altogether. Tropicália combined bossa-nova textures, electronic instrumentation, urban noise, samba, and African and indigenous rhythms. But the mission of Tropicália was not only to voice dissent: Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, the movement’s founders, also sought to protect Brazilian music from the cultural imperialism of the North. According to Veloso, any adoption of British and North American influences was an attempt to win over a Brazilian audience already under the spell of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles.

Tropicália’s uniqueness wasn’t only its rhythmic complexity, but the paradoxical way in which the lyricists relied on humor and satire to illuminate the dark cloud of despair that martial law exercised over the Brazilian people. Tom Zé, another Tropicália pioneer, wrote the scathing “Parque Industrial” in which he ridiculed Brazil’s export economy and “the industrial advances” that “bring our redemption.” “Parque Industrial” was sung by Veloso, Gil, and Gal Costa on the classic album Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis (Tropicália or “Bread and Diversion”), which introduced the rest of the world to Tropicália’s countercultural message. The demand for social change and the unmitigated creativity of stars like Veloso, Gil, and Zé transformed Tropicália into a uniform voice, synthesizing a wide variety of artistic forms—including the dramatic arts.

Singer-songwriter Chico Buarque delivered Tropicália’s knockout blow to social convention in 1968 with his play Roda Viva, a caustic parody of artistic self-absorption and mob mentality that integrated the audience into the actual performance. Ox blood splattered spectators during one São Paulo production that was raided by the military, and many of those present were beaten and imprisoned for participating in this “subversive” act. Soon afterwards, Buarque moved to Italy to escape the wrath of the military government. Veloso and Gil, on the other hand, were arrested on December 27 of that year, and imprisoned for two months. Following their release they were permitted to perform a concert in Salvador to raise funds for plane fare to London, where they remained in exile until 1972.

The democratization that took place across South America during the ‘90s had a de-politicizing effect on some of the music. Argentina’s Soda Stereo, one of the continent’s most popular arena-rock bands of all time, rarely acknowledged politics in their songs, but cultivated a wonderfully eclectic sound through their unique blend electronic music, sophisticated bass lines, and singer Gustavo Cerati’s multi-genre guitar noodling. Although Grammy award-winning groups like Chile’s La Ley and Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs addressed global issues in their music, calls for revolutionary change are conspicuously absent from their lyrics. In 1994, Veloso and Gil released “Tropicália 2,” which picks up where the Tropicália movement left off in the ‘60s, combining bossa nova and reggae rhythms, neo-psychedelic guitar, and hip-hop verse. “Haiti,” one of the album’s best songs, offers a blistering critique of how the needs of this poor country are ignored by the wealthy nations of the Northern Hemisphere.

In recent years the appeal of South American rock has spread northwards, to the land whose influences it initially sought to avoid. In 2003, La Ley, Los Prisioneros, and Cerati all conducted U.S. tours, and Caetano Veloso recently released an album in English, A Foreign Sound, in which he covers North American songs as diverse as George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” and Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.”

But perhaps the most ironic twist of all belongs to Gilberto Gil, who now holds a position unthinkable during the mid-’60s, when he was forced into exile for starting a radical cultural movement—he’s currently Brazil’s Minister of Culture.


TMN Contributing Writer Patrick Ambrose resides in North Carolina. His other work has appeared in Creative Loafing, Timber Creek Review, and Mysterical-e. More by Patrick Ambrose