By the ’80s, punk music and the scenes that supported it had been steadily growing in the U.S. and U.K. for almost a decade. So much had the punk movement grown that the classic and relatively homogenous scenes of the mid to late ’70s had broken off to create a whole new set of distinctions within the punk world. Classic punk splintered into hardcore punk, post-punk, new wave, street punk, anarcho-punk, pop punk — the list goes on and on.
Further south in Latin America, punk was becoming a nascent and powerful force at the turn of the decade, spurred on by the injection of these outside punk records into the Latin American airwaves and psyche alike.
Long-term political instability in some countries, wrought by a rotating cast of dictators and failed neocolonial policies, had meant that, for years, vinyl records were too expensive to reach a wide Latin American audience. While in the U.S. and U.K., where punk already thrived, records were affordable to most, in Latin America, they were much more of a luxury.
It was the advent of the cassette tape that effectively democratized music and spread it to the masses.The popularization of cassette tapes meant that music was not only cheaper but could also be quickly reproduced and recorded through do-it-yourself methods. Given the relative ease and accessibility to the global music scene afforded by cassettes, they served as a catalyst for burgeoning punk movements in Latin America. Young punks were able to listen to and share a much greater variety of artists than was originally possible, allowing many to take inspiration from these established bands and grow their own domestic punk movements.
Where elsewhere, punk had somewhat moved beyond the idea that it had to be created under and necessitated by political turmoil, the scenes cropping up in Latin America were inextricably linked to the politics of the time. From Peru to Argentina, punk scenes were a direct answer to the oppressive regimes that governed their founders.
In Peru, these early punks made music amid widespread instability: State-sanctioned murder, rampant violence, extreme poverty, and domestic terrorism all rocked the country and each influenced the country’s aspiring musicians. Raised on European punk and growing calls for political liberation, the Movida Subte (or subterranean movement) of the ’80s was built on the idea that punk should be and could be subversive. Prior to the movement, rock music in Peru had been largely inspired by the mainstream conventions of U.S. and U.K. ’70s rock. These old-school Peruvian rockers sang in English and focused on American and European themes rather than critiquing Peru’s own intense political landscape. The Movida Subte began very insularly, levied by small groups of university students who would serve as both artists and audience members.
Leusemia, created in 1983, was one of the first of these Subte bands. Born out of Lima, Peru, finding inspiration in sources as disparate as the Ramones and Pink Floyd, Leusemia’s music quickly became Subte anthems.
Songs like “Crisis en la gran ciudad,” for example, existed critically within an explicit political context, a common practice in the underground punk movement. “Todos quieren, nadie puede / El sistema es una birria / Todos buscan, nadie encuentra,” sings frontman Daniel F over an orchestrated chaos of incessant guitar riffs and powerful drumming — “Everyone wants, no one can have / The system is a disaster / Everyone looks, no one can find.” With such undeniably political lyrics, the band raged against actors on all sides of the ongoing internal conflict that had rocked Peru since May 17, 1980.
The two main actors in the conflict, the Maoist terrorist revolutionaries of Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian state, both face reproval in Lusemia’s “La gran ciudad” for holding the already impoverished country hostage in a state of constant instability. The massive economic collapse caused by the state’s adoption of failed policies from the International Monetary Fund and the widespread violence carried out by both Sendero Luminoso and the government meant that Peru’s populous was caught between a rock and a hard place with very little room for mobility (as Leusemia scathingly points out). Though seemingly on opposite sides of the spectrum, Leusemia calls out these “fascistas” and “socialistas” all the same.
Other bands of the movement, like Narcosis, used similar political imagery in their music. As seen in the rest of the Subte movement, Narcosis’ lyrical themes included anarchy, activism, depression, the dangers of indoctrination, and Peru’s own political context. Their 1985 garage-recorded release, “Primera dosis,” is cited as “the most copied… and pirated album in the history of Peruvian rock music” — a feat which, like the very existence of the scene, was made possible by the proliferation of cassette tapes.
While punk loomed large in Peru, it wasn’t the only place where such movements were gaining speed.
“The punk movement in Argentina exists because I’m here and I’m one,” wrote Argentinian guitarist Pedro Braun, under the pseudonym Hari B, in a letter to the editor of a popular Buenos Aires music magazine. The statement was in response to the magazine’s claim that Argentina had no real, homegrown punk movement.
It was April 1978, and Argentina was in the bloodiest years of the Dirty War, a seven-year campaign by the country’s military dictatorship, backed by the U.S. government, against anyone believed to be associated with socialism or other leftist movements. Over almost a decade, the military junta eliminated over 30,000 people in a scheme that targeted students, writers, journalists, unionists, and artists of all kinds — including musicians who would have to lay low or use pseudonyms like Braun did in order to evade persecution from these right-wing actors.
Braun’s claim about the existence of an Argentinian punk scene made waves across Buenos Aires and attracted the attention of Sergio Gramátika, a drummer who decided to write to Braun as his “punk friend.” By 1981, the duo had recruited two more musicians to create Los Violadores, one of Argentina’s most influential punk pioneers.
Influenced by the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones, Los Violadores made music that was just as free-spirited and loud as it was rooted in criticism of society and the state. In one of their first releases, “Represión,” for example, vocalist Pil Trafa sings of “fútbol,” wine, and all the other empty pastimes that occupy the Argentinian “pueblo.” To complement Trafa’s cries against the dangers that this repression poses to the masses, Gramátika, Hari B, and the rest of the band jam in the background with powerful instruments and fuzzy, sludgy production that only adds to the intensity of the track.
In another track, “Somos Latinoamerica,” the band emphasizes the need for a Latin American identity that is separate from outside, neocolonialist forces like the United States. Given the U.S.’s involvement in promoting the Dirty War, lyrics like “Hay que acabar / Con la cultura de afuera / Hagamos la nuestra” (“We have to finish / With the outside culture / Let’s make our own”) are especially powerful. At the same time as the song calls out the outside political demagogues and “exploiters,” it calls out Latin American ones as well, making the cutting joke that just like culture in Latin America is better than the one imposed from abroad, the political opportunists at home are better, too.
For Los Violadores to create such politically driven and insurgent music was in itself a dangerously subversive act. Even their name was sometimes seen as too controversial for the repressive right-wing regime that held power at the time. In the early years of the band’s existence, censorship from the military junta meant that they would sometimes have to perform as “Los Voladores,” or the flying ones, rather than Los Violadores, which referred to their rule-breaking.
Of course, Peru and Argentina weren’t the only Latin American countries with growing punk scenes. With the new waves of democracy traversing the region in the ’80s came a large influx of punk bands. The movement was broad, spanning from Olho Seco in Sao Paulo, Brazil to Los Prisioneros in Chile. Across the board, these movements were born both as critiques and reflections of the political realities that continue to manifest in Latin America today.
—Staff writer Sofia Andrade’s column, “Demolición: Punk and Latinidad” explores the often overlooked Latinx roots of the punk scene. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SofiaAndrade__.