Music censorship and restrictions in Argentina
From the mid-1980’s the dictatorships were gradually replaced by freely elected, civilian governments. But did censorship and restrictions on the freedom of expression also disappear? Do musicians have the freedom to create, publish and present their music? Officially yes, but has this been the real situation during these last 15-20 years?
A general view
Officially no country in Latin America has political censorship. All countries have signed and ratified The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Convention of Human Rights, also known as The Pact of San José de Costa Rica from 1969.
Article 13, par. 1 in the latter says:
All governments sustain that there is freedom of expression in their respective countries. But the range of interpretations is wide and apparently arbitrary. Which means that censorship is a fact in most Latin American countries, though rarely as explicit political censorship, but most often disguised as charges of “immorality” and “violation of public decency”, etc.
Argentina is one of the Spanish speaking countries where most cases of censorship and restrictions on music has been reported. This does not necessarily mean that Argentina is one of the most repressive countries against music. The explanation is rather that Argentina is one of the best developed countries in Latin America, with an infrastructure and communications network that covers practically all the country, and that Argentines and Argentine media are among the most conscious in Latin America about human rights and human rights abuses.
Argentina has an old tradition for repression and restrictions on civil liberties and human rights, and in spite of what has often been written in Western media that it is a country with a deep rooted democratic tradition, democracy has traditionally had hard conditions. Authoritarian governments, military dictatorships, populist regimes and (often weak) democratically elected, civilian governments have since independence in the early 19th century ruled a country any cultural expression different from what the small and powerful elite considered acceptable, was branded “indecent” or even “subversive”. That happened to the tango during this music’s first decades. It was not before the tango became fashionable in Paris and other European capitals during the second decade of the 20th century, that the bourgeoisie and the new middle classes began to accept it.
During the conservative dictatorship 1930-43, the populist, military regime 1943-46 and general Juan Domingo Peróns populist regime 1946-55 several tangos and folksongs were banned. Many musicians were forced into exile. During the chaotic years from Perón’s fall in 1955 to the military coup in March 1976 the country was ruled by shifting democratic governments (always in the shadow of the conservative military forces) and rightist and repressive military regimes.
The military dictatorship 1976-82 was one of the most cruel and repressive known in Latin American history. Approximately 30,000 persons were disappeared by the regime, human rights were systematically violated and up to one million Argentines were forced into exile. Political repression affected all sectors of society. It was justified as a fight against subversion and a defense of what the military considered “the values of the Western Civilisation”.
Black lists of actors, journalists, intellectuals, writers, musicians and others were distributed to the media to assure that they could not be mentioned nor write, act or play. The regime did also prepare black lists of works (i.e. books, poems, plays, songs, etc.) which were “non advisable”, “dissolvent” or “immoral”.
The lists of banned music included foreign songs like Eric Clapton’s Cocaine, and several pieces by Donna Summers and Barry White were banned in the discoteques “because they (the military censors, jl) said that they exceeded in erotic insinuations. And black light and stroboscopic light were banned because they caused hallucinations”, says Alejandro Pont Lezica, the most famous disc jockey in those years to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín 25 years after the coup in 1976. Disco music was considered a symbol of frivolity and indecency.
Many foreign records could not be sold and distributed unless the covers and the titles were changed. Rod Stewarts Hot Legs had to be changed to Piernas sugestivas (Suggestive Legs) and Talking Heads’ first record, Drugs, had to be renamed Medicina, before they were allowed.
The most repressed Argentine music was folk music by artists known as leftists and critical, first of all Mercedes Sosa, Horacio Guarany and Atahualpa Yupanqui who were all forced into exile – for Sosa and Yupanqui it was not the first time. Others went into exile for different reasons, such as restrictions, lack of jobs and freedom, or even “suggestions”, as was the case of Litto Nebbia, Miguel Cantilo, Miguel Abuelo and Moris.
Surprisingly enough the regime was rather indifferent towards rock, except for the police razzias against some of the rock concerts that became popular during its last years.
Neither tango was considered controversial or subversive. While the tango under other regimes had been censured, in the 1970’s it had become either tame and uncontroversial or experimental and limited to a narrow group of people, mostly intellectuals who had fled or emigrated.
After the military regime was replaced by a democratic government in 1983, censorship was officially lifted. However, many of the restrictive moralistic values predominant in the military regime seem to have survived, and specially since Carlos Menem came to power in 1989 different forms of restrictions and selective (unofficial) censorship was gradually imposed on those media, journalists and artists who criticized the growing corruption. Musicians were also censored for attempting against “public morality”.
In contrast to the years under the military regime, when rock was tolerated by the authorities, during the last years Argentine rock groups have been the main target of the censorship and restrictions. One important reason may be that until around 1980 Argentine rock was written and performed in English. Today almost all rock, punk, new wave and variations and combinations are written and performed in Spanish, and the language is very often deliberately provocative, either criticising the politicians or using rough or bawdy terms.
An example is the case of the group Bersuit Vergabarat, whose fourth record, Libertinaje (Licentiousness) was banned in the Argentine radio stations when it was launched in 2000. It was the song Sr. Cobranza (Mr. Retriever), which denounces the relationship between many Argentine politicians and the drug traffic, mentioning the then president Carlos Menem by name.
The row caused by Libertinaje and the banning of Sr. Cobranza contributed to the big success and popularity of the group.
There is another kind of limitation on Argentine music and musicians, which has not had as much publicity, but which gives a better picture of where some of the most important limitations on Argentine music and musicians may lie: the economic restrictions, caused not only by the economic crisis, but also by the discriminating behaviour of Argentine politicians and bureaucrats towards Argentine musicians.
Generally the musicians in the many classic orchestras and music groups around the country, many of them highly professional and with a background in the conservatories, go unnoticed in the media. Until July 2001 when several musicians denounced in the newspapers that several orchestras and groups had not received their payment from the Secretary of Culture in the Province of Buenos Aires (the most important in the country) several months after having played important concerts – among them several concerts at a chamber music festival in the city of La Plata. According to one musician, violinist Haydée S. de Francia, the Argentine musicians had to wait nine months for their money, while the foreign musicians were paid immediately (La Nación, July 14, 2001).
She also mentions a concert in December 2000 for which the Argentine musicians had not yet received their pay.
Since then the situation has become worse. One of the effects of the economic breakdown in December 2001 has been that Argentine musicians, and foreign as well, do not get paid at all. Once again Argentine musicians – from all genres – may be forced into exile, just to be able to survive.
This is an excerpt from ‘A Survey Of Censorship And Restrictions On Music In Spanish America’ by Jens Lohmann. Published by Freemuse. Copenhagen, 2002.
Jens Lohmann is a Danish journalist and author. He is known as one of Scandinavia’s most knowledgable experts on Latin American music. Born in 1940 and grew up in Mexico.
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