Rhythms of dissidence: music as cultural expression

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Boris Berenzon Gorn.

My song is a free song

What do you want to give?

Whoever shakes his hand

Whoever wants to shoot

Victor Jara

For centuries, the study of history and culture was affected by simplifying limitations that hindered the understanding of many phenomena. On the one hand, what was considered “culture” was influenced by class criteria that only valued the so-called “high culture” within Western aesthetic standards and models of “white” superiority. In this way, art responded to criteria imposed from a position of power and everything that remained on its margins was ignored.

On the other hand, some sources and traces of human activity were believed to be more important than others. To a large extent, historical construction was based on political and military events, which meant that only the sources that seemed to have value were those that allowed us to reconstruct those turbulent moments in our history. Human life, seen from this perspective, was reduced to important moments of change, and everything in between was lost in time.

It is natural to wonder what was left before these two great cuts that limited human existence. On the one hand, by privileging the narration of military and political events there was a patriarchal perspective; The conflict was seen as the driving force of history and the violent irruption as the only potential for transformation; temporalities were restricted and superfluous, a successful symptom of the system. On the other hand, the exclusion of any manifestation that escaped the predominant model: that of the white, heterosexual and Western man. The enormous amount of cultural manifestations that were left out is immeasurable.

In this context, the history of music focused solely, and above all, on classical music, on its medieval Christian antecedents and the manifestations accepted by the groups in power as beautiful and worth preserving, including the popular music of the minstrelsy and songs passed down from generation to generation were excluded. In fact, the appreciation of popular and feminine expressions of music is a relatively recent approach, subsequent to the theoretical transformations of the second half of the 20th century, which we have talked about in Rizo at other times.

However, what I am interested in emphasizing is that music is one of the most vital and important human manifestations that allows us to understand cultures over time. Music not only reflects the most recurrent values ​​and feelings of a society, but also allows us to interpret what is not said, what is repressed and censored in a given era; Desire, with a capital “D”, because it is often the only place where you can express what cannot be said normally. Shakira and the commotion she has caused against her ex-partner is a happy reminder of the power of music, although it does not compare at all with the transgression that Violeta Parra and the new Chilean song represented, since through music they manifested the political culture of her time giving a space to female musicians in a particularly misogynistic horizon.

Although classical music is considered to be the model of elegance and refinement, within its own history we will find that at the time those we consider great today, such as Mozart or Beethoven, were considered simple and even vulgar compared to more orthodox models. Where is the pleasure of listening to the sensuality of music without more? And despite being stigmatized, the music of the marginalized classes can often be a true indicator of political, social and economic instability; since it manifests the resistance to the hegemonic classes and their spaces of representation of a more “genuine” desire.

It is not necessary for a song to openly talk about a political issue to call for dissent. Sometimes a joke, metaphor, or pun is enough; mockery and ridicule are signs of discontent. If we analyzed all the musical experiences that have been forgotten for years, it would surely take us an eternity to decipher their codes and give their proper value to their role as symbolic elements in the narrative of an era.

Examples abound, such as Spanish flamenco, enriched by gypsy, Arab and Andalusian influences; or the Argentine tango, a mixture of gaucho, European, Afro-descendant and indigenous sounds that created a complex musical fusion that took to the streets of the brothels and taverns of Buenos Aires and that, far from representing good taste, as it is currently considered, It was marginal and subversive music associated with the nightlife of the lower classes, described as vulgar for its controversial and melancholic lyrics that exhibited sexual desire, crime and inequality.

The same goes for Cuban salsa, the essential component of any Latin party these days. Its lyrics evoke both love, happiness and passion, as well as the misery and inequality of life, but always with happy and contagious rhythms that must be danced to. Cuban salsa is also the result of the mixture of diverse influences, from African rhythms and Spanish instruments, to the incorporation of sounds from other Latin American latitudes. Cuban salsa was considered marginal due to its Afro-Cuban elements, such as rumba and Yoruba music, which were related to religious rituals and clashed with predominant Catholic conservatism. Furthermore, it contains explicit sexual elements and sensual and provocative dances, and, of course, it was considered – still is in certain parts of the world – the music of the working classes.

Music is par excellence the space of the culturally subversive. Cumbia, rumba, salsa and merengue have their origins in the repressed passions of enslaved people who, to remember their African origins, retired to the mountains at night to express their feelings of freedom and longing; This is shown by the rumba in the Congo, for example. rap and

Hip-hop has played a key role in the resistance of African-American and Afro-descendant peoples in various parts of the world. For its part, the Riot Grrrl movement was quite a revolt in the nineties, as it sought the representation of women in the feminist fight and for gender equality with bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney that continue to be recognized. The punk underground is the main venue for independent and experimental music; while more and more specific manifestations of LGBT groups emerge, either through the introduction of their themes into other musical genres, or through the appropriation and reinvention of genres that are considered LGBT and drag queen territory.

Reggaeton, for its part, emerged in Puerto Rico in the 1990s and mixes influences from reggae, hip-hop, Latin music and dancehall. As in other cases, it was considered the music of the marginalized and lower classes, stigmatized both for its explicit and sexual lyrics and for talking about life on the street and the problems of violence and inequality that affect the less privileged. . Starting in 2000, it gained popularity and mixed with other rhythms, especially pop, which in itself is a commercial genre. As it was incorporated into the life of the middle and upper classes, it was discreetly renamed “urban music”, to mark a border between street reggaeton, which continues to exist and of course being marginalized and marked as undesirable, and the that it is socially acceptable to consume.

The musical manifestations of our time seem to continue showing cultural representations and signs of power versus social dissidence. There are political, social and even class criteria to classify music, they are rarely strictly aesthetic. Certain types of music are associated with certain groups and are given a series of attributes that go beyond their rhythms: there is a narrative representativeness that describes the cultural universe. Unfortunately, sometimes musical genres only become acceptable when the classes that hold ideological power adopt them and strip them of their sensual and political content.


Vindicated by time and turned into an anthem, “Cambalache” by Enrique Santos was written in 1935 but fell very badly in the society of the time:

That the world was and will be crap, I already know

in five hundred and six and in two thousand too,

That there have always been tricksters, Machiavellians and scammers

happy and bitter, values ​​and doubts

But the twentieth century is an unfolding

of insolent evil, there is no longer anyone who denies it

We live wallowing in a meringue

and in the same mud they are all handled

Today it turns out that it is the same to be right as to be a traitor

ignorant, wise, squirt, generous, swindler

Everything is the same, nothing is better

the same as a donkey and a great teacher [Fragmento]

Narcissus the obscene

Yes I like reggaeton, but they do play it in Polanco.

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