In the early evening of May 16, 1982, thousands of young people descended on the fields of Obras Sanitarias athletic club in Buenos Aires. Despite the steady rain, the rock fans were unwilling to miss El Festival de la Solidaridad Americana. The evening’s lineup featured many of the country’s best rock musicians, and after years of targeted harassment by Argentina’s military junta, fans were thrilled by the chance to gather without fear of repercussions.
It might be easy to take rock en español as a given. Today, many Spanish-speaking households are filled with the sounds of Caifanes, Aterciopelados or Los Prisioneros (y ni hablar de Maná). Just in the past few years, Bad Bunny and Julieta Venegas have collaborated on “Lo Siento BB:/,” Andrés Calamaro appeared on C. Tangana’s El Madrileño and Fito Páez has released a steady stream of new albums. Rock en español, and Spanish language music at large, are reaching wider audiences than ever before.
El Festival de la Solidaridad Americana marked a turning point in Latin American rock music. Faced with an increasingly hostile nation and a potentially disastrous war with Great Britain raging 300 miles off the country’s coast, the dictatorship turned to the performers they had condemned. Now – as the festival solicited donations for the soldiers stationed in the Falkland Islands, called las Islas Malvinas by the Argentines – the dictatorship suddenly presented the musicians as legitimate artists and hoped the concert would encourage nationalism among the youth.
No longer targeted by the junta, and bolstered by a country-wide ban on English language music, Argentine rock quickly swept across Latin America in the years and decades to follow and became the catalyst for our modern Iberoamerican rock scene.
Con mi balsa yo me iré a naufragar
Rock came to Argentina in the late 1950s when artists like Sandro y Los de Fuego gained prominence with Spanish language versions of English language hits and, in the case of Sandro, dressing as Elvis. The short-lived but influential El Club del Clan followed in the early 60s. An effort by RCA Victor to market its local stars, the show brought together the record company’s pop singers – teen idols like Palito Ortega and Violeta Rivas – to sing and dance to the latest in cumbia, bolero, and rock and roll.
But it wasn’t until 1967, when Los Gatos released “La balsa,” that an original rock composition in Spanish began to capture the public imagination. Selling around 250,000 copies, the track called for youth to drop out of the “abandoned” world, build a raft, and float aimlessly before sinking or shipwrecking at sea. Los Gatos’ success was a watershed moment for up-and-coming musicians, who realized that music in Spanish did not need to sound like the blatantly commercial (if ultimately charming) Fabian-esque hits of El Club del Clan.
“From this point on,” says Matthew Karush, professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Musicians in Transit: Argentina and the Globalization of Popular Music, “there’s a clear idea within the rock scene, both among musicians and among fans, that it was important to create music that wasn’t just pandering and commercial, but that was an authentic expression of the youth, that’s artistic and poetic with musical ambition.”
Put another way, while Club Del Clan had been a commercial opportunity, carefully orchestrated by studio heads to sell records to teens, the emerging rock scene was part of a burgeoning youth movement in Argentina. “La balsa” became a sort of anthem for the self-proclaimed náufragos (castaways) who, like their counterparts in the United States, felt disillusioned by consumerism and alienated from mainstream society.
“The very interesting thing about [‘La balsa’] for me is the metaphor,” says Mara Favoretto, associate professor in Latin American studies at the University of Melbourne. “The raft could be a lot of things. Could be drugs, could be escapism, could be political ideas … You can interpret it in a lot of different ways.”
Favoretto grew up in Argentina and remembers that, at the time, “everything we believed was what was published on the newspapers and on the radio that were state-controlled. So what we read and heard was completely censored, controlled, and there was a very clear indoctrination. So just imagine when you find songs that start to make you think out of the box, don’t give you any dogmatic interpretation – that’s when you feel freedom.”
By the 70s, rock music had become young peoples’ music of choice. Magazines like Pinap and later Pelo and Expreso Imaginario kept fans informed of the latest happenings of the rock scene, as musical festivals cropped up across Buenos Aires and a steady tour circuit established itself in the country’s interior.
While funk and glam rock ruled British and North American airwaves, Argentina remained enamored by the hippie counterculture, with Pedro y Pablo charming fans with their straightforward poetry, Pescado Rabioso confusing fans with their Delphic poetry and Arco Iris experimenting with electric guitars and Latin American folk music.
One of the biggest groups at the time was Sui Generis. Military governments of varying intensity marked much of Argentina’s 20th century, and band members Nito Mestre and Charly García spoke to the frustrations of Argentine youth amid growing political violence. With songs like “Confesiones de invierno,” (“Winter confessions”), which told of heartbreak tinged with the threat of police violence, or “Las increíbles aventuras del señor Tijeras,” (“The incredible adventures of Mr. Scissors”) which profiled a man who censors films, the long-haired folk-rock duo captured the surreal state of life under Juan Perón’s leadership and reached unprecedented levels of popularity.
President Perón died in 1974, accelerating Argentina’s descent into social and political chaos. Two years later, a right-wing military coup deposed Perón’s wife, now-President Isabel Perón, and over the next seven years, began to beat, arrest and ‘disappear’ thousands of Argentine citizens. Anyone who so much as appeared to threaten the regime was at risk.
Temple University sociologist Pablo Vila calls the military junta “largely an anti-youth movement,” and says that the violence of their Proceso de Reorganización Nacional prompted a brief and paradoxical reactive surge in rock’s popularity among young Argentines.
According to the 1984 report Nunca Más, 69% of the people that the military made “disappear” were between 16 and 30 years old. Even as the junta targeted guerrilla groups and those it accused of subversion, it also had a paranoia about youth generally. In an environment where fear and suspicion loomed, rock concerts “were a kind of a refuge for feeling that you were not alone, that other [young] people like you … were having the same feeling,” Vila explains. “The most important part of [these concerts] was to feel that you were alive with people like yourselves.”
During these first few years of Jorge Rafael Videla’s junta, Buenos Aires saw an incredible number of concerts, according to Professor Vila. When “a reunion of more than four people [wasn’t] allowed on the streets,” Luna Park Stadium – which he says can fit 30,000 or 40,000 people – and various smaller venues around the city held multiple concerts every weekend filled with young people.
But it couldn’t last. While rockeros had faced harassment and government censorship in the past, repression reached new heights under el Proceso. Off-duty police frequently tear-gassed or raided clubs and “advised” concert hall owners not to hold rock concerts before hauling off musicians and fans to spend endless nights in jail.
In Spinetta: crónica e iluminaciones, Luis Alberto Spinetta, one of the country’s most celebrated musicians, recalls: “In 1977 they took me prisoner without rhyme or reason with other musicians like Bernardo Baraj. On one of the walls of the cell was written a verse from this song: “qué solo y triste voy a estar en este cementerio” (“How alone and sad I’ll be in this cemetery”). When they took me to see the commissioner, the guy told me that his children had my records. “Well, not just your kids – I told him – someone wrote a song of mine in a cell. Come see it.” Before leaving the police station I went back to the cell and added, “qué calor hará sin vos en verano” (“How hot it will be without you in the summer”).
By 1978, amid government threats and the growing impossibility of touring or making a living as a musician, many left the country.
Comunicado Nº 166
SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty
On March 19, 1982, Argentine scrap metal workers arrived on the remote island of South Georgia (called Isla San Pedro by Argentines), and raised their flag over an abandoned whaling station. Two weeks later, on April 2, Argentine forces invaded the Falklands, and after a brief resistance at the capital, the island’s governor surrendered.
The tangled history of the islands looms large in Argentine history. They feel that they inherited the rocky, windswept archipelago from Spain when they declared their independence and believe that Britain stole them in 1833 when warships ousted a small Argentine garrison and established a small, permanent British administration soon after.
No agreement even exists on what to call them. The British designate them the Falklands and call the main islands East and West Falkland. The Argentines prefer the Malvinas and their maps label the main islands Soledad and Gran Malvina.
More urgent for the dictatorship at the time was the complete freefall of Argentina’s economy and widespread public opposition to their regime, not only from Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo and other human rights groups but from students, unions and journalists. The generals hoped that by reclaiming the islands, they might – at least temporarily – gain popular favor and reassert control.
Given Britain’s long-held indifference to the islands, the military never thought that Britain would fight to retake them, and radio announcers across the country began to share the government’s press release: “The Military Junta, as the supreme body of the State, communicates to the people of the Argentine Nation, that today the Republic…has recovered the Malvinas, Georgias and the South Sandwich Islands for our national heritage.” In the days that followed, newspapers soon followed suit and declared Argentina’s triumph over the British. Just as the generals had hoped, patriotic fervor gripped the nation.
Central Press/Getty Images
But the junta failed to account for a similar surge of patriotism in Great Britain and Margaret Thatcher’s own need to reassert control. Her government froze Argentine assets in Great Britain and quickly assembled a “substantial” number of troops to recover the sparsely populated islands. By April 26, British troops had arrived at the islands and shortly recaptured South Georgia (Isla San Pedro). Faced with the possibility of significant bloodshed, the desperate generals looked for ways to mobilize the support of Argentina’s youth and soon turned to the rock musicians they had targeted just years earlier.
El Festival de la Solidaridad Americana began at 5 p.m. on May 16, 1982, and gathered some of the the most prominent names of Argentine rock, including: Litto Nebbia, David Lebón, Piero, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Ricardo Soulé and Edelmiro Molinari (also, the Uruguayan Rubén Rada). “To give [the concert] a more continental touch, the Chancellor’s office invited the children of Latin American diplomats appointed to Buenos Aires,” Juan B. Yofre writes in Fuimos todos: Cronología de un fracaso, 1976-1983.
While some groups refused to participate – namely Virus and Los Violadores – Pablo Vila of Temple University feels it’s unfair to condemn those who performed. “[Critics] don’t realize in ’82 people were really afraid of their lives … And I think that [the musicians] decided to go because of that, and they tried to do their best to transform from inside the message of the cause.”
Many of the festival’s musicians were opposed to the invasion and the nationalism it inspired, and while the government hoped to rouse support for the war, the evening soon gave way to something else – a call for peace.
The 60,000-odd young men and women who came to the fields of the Obras Sanitarias stadium paid their entrance with handkerchiefs, cigarettes, sweaters, and other useful items to send to the conscripts in the Falklands (Malvinas). Still more listened on the radio or watched on state television as songs of peace filled the night and León Gieco sang:
“Sólo le pido a Dios (I only ask God)
Que la guerra no me sea indiferente (That I not be indifferent to war)
Es un monstruo grande y pisa fuerte (It is a great monster that stomps)
Toda la pobre inocencia de la gente (On the poor innocence of the people)”
The concert wound down with Raul Porchetto’s rendition of “Algo de paz” (“Some peace”) before ending with Nito Mestre and Charly García reunited, along with David Lebón, Raúl Porchetto and León Gieco, to sing Sui Generis’ “Rasguña las piedras,” (“Scratch at the stones”) a song about the hope of getting free.
In their coverage of the concert, Pelo wrote that “The music of Argentine rock, throughout its history, knew how to cope with and survive the onslaught of economic crises and eventual attempts at marginalization by obscurantist sectors … When the crisis is overcome … no one will be surprised by the convening power of this music because for a young country like Argentina, modern and authentically local expressions cannot be ignored.”
The war raged on until June 14, 1982. In the end, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders lost their lives. Days later, the head of the junta, General Leopoldo Galtieri, resigned as president, the first step in the return of democracy to Argentina.
Soy moderno, no fumo
As the first Argentine soldiers landed on the islands, General Galtieri issued a decree banning the broadcasting of all English language music, University of Melbourne’s Mara Favoretto has written. Never mind that The Rolling Stones had very little to do with Margaret Thatcher’s policy decisions (though Pink Floyd later wrote an album inspired by the war), at a time when radio remained the primary source of music discovery, the ban created a major opening for Argentine rock musicians.
Stations couldn’t expect to play zamba or tango and keep the fans who had tuned in expecting Joan Jett, so “record companies saw this great opportunity to increase their production and sell more records and gave many upcoming artists the chance to go mainstream,” Professor Karush explains. “The war represented a moment when record companies were interested in producing much more, and as a result, the rock scene grew fast. … In 1981, there were 37 LPs of Argentine rock music. In 1982, there were 63 – a pretty big jump. And then it just kept going. In ’83 it’s 77 and in ’84, it’s 81.”
Like Spain’s Movida Madrileña, Argentina’s return to democracy in December 1983 prompted an explosion of cultural and musical creativity. While acoustic guitars had dominated the scene for years, the opening borders and loosening censorship compelled many artists to embrace modern trends and U.S. production styles.
With their high energy and catchy choruses, groups like Los Twist, Viuda e Hijas de Roque Enroll, and La Torre quickly caught the ear of multinational record companies. Soda Stereo soon proved to be a juggernaut of this new generation of Argentine rock, becoming one of the first Spanish-language rock groups to embark on a tour across Latin America – something that would have been unimaginable even a decade prior.
Argentina soon became the epicenter of an emerging transcontinental scene as dictatorships steadily fell across Latin America in the years that followed. In these newly open societies, record companies were willing to develop emerging bands and invest in promotional campaigns and touring costs that offered new opportunities for bands in Mexico, Peru and other countries across the Americas.
In the early days of Argentine rock, many groups – including rock icons like Vox Dei and Almendra – considered singing in Spanish tacky. Even in the wake of “La balsa,” as numerous musicians and fans came round to the idea, still more wouldn’t be caught dead listening to anything in Spanish. El Festival de la Solidaridad Americana and the musical innovation that followed the country’s return to democracy was a breakthrough in how Spanish language rock was perceived, and proved to Argentine, and eventually Latin American, youth that their language was something valuable and, perhaps, even cool.