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Musicians in Transit
Argentina and the Globalization of Popular Music
By Matthew B. Karush
Duke University PressCopyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
BLACK IN BUENOS AIRES
Oscar Alemán and the Transnational History of Swing
In 1973, the African American magazine Ebony sent its international editor, Era Bell Thompson, to Buenos Aires to do a feature on Argentina's tiny black community. Although Afro-Argentines represented nearly one-third of the population of colonial Buenos Aires, they had since virtually disappeared from official records. Miscegenation, war, and disease contributed to this demographic decline, but as historian George Reid Andrews showed many years ago, the invisibility of Afro-Argentines was at least as much the product of racism and of the hegemonic idea of Argentina as a white nation. For the Ebony article, "Argentina: Land of the Vanishing Blacks," Thompson interviewed every self-identifying Afro-Argentine she could find. Among them was Oscar Marcelo Alemán, a jazz guitarist who had enjoyed substantial fame and commercial success in Paris in the 1930s and in Buenos Aires during the 1940s and 1950s. By the time Thompson met him, Alemán had recently been rediscovered by Argentine jazz aficionados after a decade in obscurity, during which he had supported himself by giving guitar lessons in his home. Although he told Thompson that he was the son of a Spanish father and an Indian mother, Alemán insisted on his blackness: " 'Some of my six brothers are even darker than I,' he smiled, 'we think there was a black man somewhere.'"
Throughout his long career, audiences both at home and abroad perceived Alemán as a black man, a perception that was made possible by his dark complexion and his own avowal of a black identity, but also by his association with jazz music. Nevertheless, the precise meanings that attached to his blackness changed over the years. This chapter will trace the vicissitudes of his career while reconstructing the shifting discursive landscape within which that career developed. Alemán was a talented musician who played the music he loved, but as with any artist, both his musical creations and the popular reception of those creations were shaped by the world in which he lived. Alemán responded creatively to his audiences' varied racial expectations, performing multiple black identities over the years. In the Parisian nightclubs of the 1930s, being black gave him a certain cachet. Similarly, once he returned to Buenos Aires in 1940, his racial identity strengthened his claim to being Argentina's most authentic jazz musician. Yet as a black jazz musician, he challenged ideas about Argentine national identity in ways that ultimately limited his career horizons.
Alemán's artistic production as well as his commercial successes and failures illuminate the transnational construction of blackness in the middle decades of the twentieth century and complicate our understanding of race in Argentina. Scholars have generally interpreted Argentine racism as a by-product of the desire to join the modern, civilized world. Yet Alemán's career demonstrates that other transnational forces were also at work. Under the influence of North American jazz and French "negrophilia," Argentines were powerfully drawn to blackness as an emblem of modernity. Alemán's reception in his own country was shaped by local appropriations and reworkings of these transnational discourses as well as by Argentine attitudes toward Brazil, where the guitarist had spent many of his formative years. Anthropologist Alejandro Frigerio has argued convincingly that Argentina's self-image as a white nation is premised on the active denial of phenotypic evidence of African ancestry and the firm association of blackness with foreignness. In this way, Afro-Argentines are located in the nation's past and rendered invisible in the present. Yet at the same time, the ambiguous status of blackness in Argentina created space for Alemán to reinvent himself as an attractive exotic in his own country. By developing an exciting and entertaining musical style and by navigating these complex racial discourses, Alemán became a star for two decades in a country thought to be averse to any reminders of its own blackness.
Beginnings: Criollismo and Exoticism
Oscar Alemán was born in 1909 in the remote province of Chaco in northeastern Argentina. As a child, he performed alongside his father and siblings in the so-called Moreira Sextet, a music and dance troupe that specialized in the traditions known collectively as criollismo. The dominant trend in Argentine popular culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, criollismo involved the celebration of the nation's rural traditions. During this period of massive immigration and rapid modernization, native Argentines looked back nostalgically to the culture of the legendary gauchos, brave and violent cowboy figures who roamed the vast pampas, or plains, outside Buenos Aires. At the same time, many foreign-born newcomers also embraced these cultural practices as a means to assimilate. Both groups were likely to read the pulp fiction that narrated the heroics of gaucho rebels, to join criollista clubs, and to attend the criollo circus, where gauchos performed equestrian feats. Although Alemán never explained why his father, the Uruguayan-born Jorge Alemán Moreira, used his maternal surname for the family group, it was likely a strategic choice. While "Alemán" sounded foreign, "Moreira" would have reminded audiences of the most popular literary gaucho of the period, Juan Moreira, whose exploits were first described by Eduardo Gutiérrez in a pulp serial published between 1878 and 1880 before becoming a staple of criollista literature and theater. Alemán's father chose the group's name, its costumes, and its repertoire with an eye toward cashing in on the popular craze for gaucho traditionalism.
At the age of five or six, Oscar accompanied his family to Buenos Aires, where they performed at two well-known venues, the Teatro Nuevo in Luna Park and the Parque Japonés. Oscar specialized in dancing the malambo, a stiff-backed, stamping dance performed by gauchos in head-to-head competitions. A 1917 photograph shows him dressed in elaborate gaucho costume, dancing with his sister while his father sits behind them strumming a guitar. The photograph leaves little doubt that audiences would have seen the two children as Argentines of African descent. With his dark complexion and traditional costume, Oscar embodied a well-known criollo type: the black gaucho. Blacks were quite visible in the culture of criollismo, particularly as competitors in payadas, the improvisatory rhyming duels waged by gaucho guitarists. Criollista literature, such as José Hernández's celebrated epic, Martín Fierro, had prominently featured black gauchos, and many of the most famous real-life payadores were Afro-Argentine. Despite the endemic racism of the period, blacks were recognized as authentic participants in the native, rural culture of Argentina. Within the racial codes of criollismo, then, Alemán's blackness served the Moreira Sextet's effort to depict itself as an authentic gaucho troupe. For very pragmatic reasons, Oscar Alemán began his performing career with an unequivocally racialized persona.
From Buenos Aires, the Alemáns took their act to Brazil, where Jorge also hoped to make money in the cotton trade. Business did not go well, and when word came of the death of Oscar's mother, who had stayed behind in Buenos Aires, the family fell apart. After his father's suicide, the ten-year-old Oscar found himself alone in the port city of Santos in southern Brazil. While making a living opening car doors for tips, he taught himself how to play the cavaquinho, the small, four-string guitar used in Brazilian samba and choro. By 1924, Alemán was performing on cavaquinho at a Santos hotel when he was discovered by a Brazilian guitarist named Gastão Bueno Lobo. Lobo and Alemán formed a duo called Les Loups, a name created by translating Lobo's last name into French. Although the duo's repertoire was varied, Les Loups specialized in what was known as Hawaiian guitar. In other words, they offered popular songs from a range of different genres, in instrumental versions that featured a guitar played flat on the performer's lap and fretted with a metal slide. Although Alemán later claimed that he and his partner traded roles, Lobo, who had apparently visited Hawaii years earlier, was the Hawaiian guitar specialist, while Alemán typically accompanied him on guitarra criolla — "native" or Spanish-style guitar. The duo performed on the radio and on stage in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere in Brazil before traveling to Buenos Aires in 1927 as part of a variety troupe led by the Argentine comedian Pablo Palitos.
Over the course of a decade in Brazil, Oscar Alemán had become a professional guitarist, specializing in music that was quite different from the criollismo of his childhood. In the process, he shed one racial persona in favor of another. In Argentina, Les Loups were marketed as an exotic import. The duo was a big enough hit to receive a contract from Victor, the North American multinational record company whose Argentine branch specialized in recording local tango bands. In Les Loups' official photograph for Victor, Alemán and Lobo appear seated, dressed in white suits with neckties and fancy shoes. Alemán fingers a chord on his guitar, while Lobo holds his flat on his lap, Hawaiian-style. To signal the duo's musical identity, each of the two musicians has a lei around his neck. The popular music magazine La Canción Moderna printed the photo under the headline "Bewitching Guitars [Guitarras brujas]" along with a notice describing Les Loups as a "notable duo of Hawaiian guitar soloists, marvelous interpreters of popular regional music." The magazine did not mention the musicians' racial or national origins, and there was no hint that Alemán was a native son. On the contrary, the leis, combined with the group's French name and Alemán's dark skin (in the photo, he appears much darker than Lobo) suggested a vague exoticism. In 1917, Alemán's blackness had reinforced the Moreira Sextet's claims to Argentine authenticity within the criollista idiom. A decade later, he might still be read as black, but instead of dressing as a gaucho and dancing the malambo, he wore a lei and performed in a Hawaiian guitar duo. In this context, his phenotype now accentuated his exoticism.
The music of Les Loups was part of an international fad. Sparked by the hit Broadway musical Bird of Paradise (1911) as well as the appearance of Hawaiian musicians at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, a Hawaiian music craze swept the United States. Tin Pan Alley publishers produced hundreds of songs with Hawaiian themes, while companies like Edison, Columbia, and Victor rushed to record Hawaiian musicians playing ukuleles and lap steel guitar for the mainland market. Although the Hawaiian music fad waned in the 1920s, some Hawaiian artists continued to record and perform throughout Europe and the United States, and the lap steel guitar was widely adopted by North American musicians specializing in blues and country music.
Les Loups' records represented the application of a recognizably exotic sound (slide guitar) and look (white suits, leis) to familiar musical genres. Between December 1927 and December 1928, Les Loups recorded nine two-sided records for Victor. The following year, the record company added the tango violinist Elvino Vardaro, named the group the Trio Victor, and cut six more sides. Taken together, these records feature ten tangos, ten waltzes, and four fox-trots. All of the records are built around Lobo's Hawaiian-style slide guitar or Vardaro's violin, relegating Alemán to the role of accompanist. In the absence of any other instruments, the job of maintaining rhythmic propulsion falls to Alemán, and he responds with regular, somewhat stiffly strummed chords. At the end of each phrase, however, Alemán typically plays a single note run that intertwines with Lobo's melody.
Alemán's own accounts of his musical development during this period are vague, but close listening reveals several possible sources of influence. On the waltz "La criollita," Alemán plays improvised bass lines that are reminiscent of the approach of the Brazilian string ensembles that specialized in choro music. Another possible indication of Brazilian influence is the fact that unlike most North American jazz guitarists, Alemán played without a plectrum, or pick. As a result, he could maintain a simple bass line with his right thumb while using his other fingers to pick out single notes. But even if Alemán's playing on these early records shows signs of Brazilian influence, his approach is also comparable to that of tango guitarists like the Afro-Argentine José Ricardo, Carlos Gardel's longtime accompanist, or even that of the jazz guitar pioneer Eddie Lang, whom Alemán would later cite as an influence. These stylistic similarities reveal the broad overlap among choro, tango, and jazz, musical genres that are too often seen as discrete, unrelated traditions.
Thanks to the development of the radio and to the worldwide reach of multinational recording companies like Victor, the globalization of popular music was well under way in the 1920s. In this early period, genre boundaries were less tightly policed than they would be later. Argentine tango bands played fox-trots and "shimmies" in order to please audiences who wanted to dance to the latest North American rhythms, and visiting jazz bands often repaid the favor by playing tangos. South American and North American genres constituted themselves in just this sort of give and take before audiences throughout the Atlantic World. This transnational cross-pollination is evident in Les Loups' varied repertoire. In 1927, the Paul Whiteman jazz orchestra's recording of "In a Little Spanish Town," composed by pop songwriter, Mabel Wayne, spent fifteen weeks at number one on the North American Billboard chart and was number twenty-one in Brazil. The following May, Les Loups recorded it as the b-side to a tango composed by Lobo. Thus a North American pop tune meant to evoke a quaint Spanish village gained a South American audience and was rerecorded by an Argentine/Brazilian duo featuring Hawaiian slide guitar. Although Lobo and Alemán were marketed as exotics, their music was not, in fact, pure, authentic, or traditional. On the contrary, they were professional musicians who tried to sell records by offering a distinctive, self-consciously hybridized version of the global pop music of the day.
Alemán became a professional musician at a moment when much, if not most, of the popular music that circulated transnationally was associated with blackness. Although many of the leading jazz musicians of the day, including Paul Whiteman and Eddie Lang, were white, the genre attracted attention in Paris, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere precisely because it was seen as an African American creation. Likewise, even though some white Brazilians were embarrassed by the mixed-race bands who made choro music popular abroad, blackness was a selling point in Europe. Even tango, whose famous practitioners were almost all white, had well-known Afro-Argentine roots. Alemán's racial appearance, so useful as an indicator of his exoticism, made a certain sense in musical terms as well.
Black Guitarist: Jazz Stardom in Paris
In late 1928, Harry Flemming, a black tap dancer from the Danish Virgin Islands then on a South American tour, heard Les Loups in a Buenos Aires nightclub and asked the duo to join his show. Lobo and Alemán accepted the invitation, performing their Hawaiian guitar repertoire as part of Flemming's Hello Jazz revue at Montevideo's Teatro 18 de Julio in January 1929. The next month, Flemming and his troupe left for an extensive tour of Europe, and with them was Les Loups. Although the duo split up after two years, Alemán would remain in Europe for more than a decade. Based primarily in Paris, he worked regularly in the touring and recording band of the legendary African American performer Josephine Baker, played alongside dozens of other well-known North American and European jazz musicians, and honed his guitar technique. By the end of the 1930s, he was an accomplished player with a recognizable, hard-swinging style of improvisation. During his years in Europe, Alemán's blackness was reconfigured once more. Arriving several years after the tumulte noir that overtook the continent in the 1920s, Alemán's racial appearance conferred a certain legitimacy that his Argentine origins could not. No longer an indication of a rural Argentine "criollismo" nor of a vague, tropical exoticism, his blackness now resonated with cosmopolitan images of jazz modernity.
Excerpted from Musicians in Transit by Matthew B. Karush. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Note about Online Resources xi
1. Black in Buenos Aires: Oscar Alemán and the Transnational History of Swing 15
2. Argentines into Latins: The Jazz Histories of Lalo Schifrin and Gato Barbieri 39
3. Cosmopolitan Tango: Astor Piazzolla at Home and Abroad 70
4. The Sound of Latin America: Sandro and the Invention of Balada 108
5. Indigenous Argentina and Revolutionary Latin America: Mercedes Sosa and the Multiple Meanings of Folk Music 142
6. The Music of Globalization: Gustavo Santaollalo and the Production of Rock Latino 179
What People are Saying About This
"Matthew B. Karush presents a rich and compelling analysis of these major artists, revealing the importance of international influences on their music while highlighting their role in shaping musical trends across the globe. In the process, Karush provides a fascinating panorama of Argentine popular music."
"From an exploration of early jazz in the 1920s to contemporary rock en español, Matthew B. Karush maps out the shifting topography of Argentine musicianship as no one has before. Musicians in Transit expertly traverses the racial politics and cosmopolitan yearnings that characterized musicians' efforts to define themselves in relationship with the world beyond Argentina. Karush reveals the individual footpaths and transnational bridges essential for decoding the relationship between music, capital, and nation."