Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World
Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World

John Shepherd

John Shepherd is Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (Academic) and Chancellor’s Professor of Music and Sociology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He was from 2007-2012 Carleton’s Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs. Dr. Shepherd has been a member of EPMOW’s editorial board since 1990. In 2000, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his role “as a leading architect of a post-War critical musicology.” Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, David Horn

David Horn was a founding editor of the journal Popular Music and a founding member of IASPM (The International Association for the Study of Popular Music). He was Director of the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool from 1988 until his retirement in 2002. Together with the blues scholar Paul Oliver he first proposed the idea of EPMOW in the 1980s, and has worked on the project since that time. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Dave Laing

Dave Laing is the author of several books on popular music and a former editor of Music Week. Former Research Fellow at the University of Westminster where he conducted research on the music industry. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2016


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DOI: 10.5040/9781501329159-20206
Page Range: 197–202

Population: central city – 2,904,000 (1998); metropolitan area – 12,020,000 (1998)

Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina, located on the west bank of the Río de la Plata (the River Plate). Buenos Aires comprises the city proper and Gran (Greater) Buenos Aires, a metropolitan area that is part of the province of Buenos Aires. The larger metropolitan area’s population represents about one-third of that of the entire country. The region encompasses different economic realities, with a standard of living above the average Argentinian standard within the city boundaries and beyond them, although in the latter case this exists side by side with broad areas of extreme poverty. The role of Buenos Aires as a major port has been central to its economic development. The city’s inhabitants continue to be called ‘porteños,’ or ‘people of the port.’

Buenos Aires was first founded in 1536 by a Spanish expedition seeking gold. However, attacks by the indigenous peoples forced settlers to move to Asunción in 1539. A permanent settlement was begun in 1580 as a result of an expedition from Asunción. The province of Buenos Aires, or Río de la Plata, was separated from the administration of Asuncion and given its own governor in 1617. While, during the seventeenth century, the city ceased to be endangered by indigenous peoples, it was subject to raids by the Portuguese. During this time, the population of the city was mainly Spanish, criollos (people of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood) and black African slaves, with a large underclass of artisans and workers. Buenos Aires continued to be subject to the Spanish viceroy in Peru until 1776, when it became the capital of the newly created viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, encompassing much of present-day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. The successful repelling of British raids without the assistance of the Spanish during the early part of the nineteenth century resulted in Argentina’s official independence in 1816. Following tensions between Buenos Aires and the provinces, including a period beginning in 1853 when the city and province of Buenos Aires seceded from Argentina, the city finally became the capital of Argentina in 1862. There were then tensions between the city and the province until 1880, when the city of Buenos Aires was federalized, and the new provincial capital of La Plata was built.

The construction of the Argentinian railroad during the nineteenth century encouraged cultivation of the pampas, the farmlands of the interior provinces, whose products were exported through Buenos Aires. The ensuing economic development attracted immigrants from all over the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, resulting in Buenos Aires becoming the most European city in South America. By 1910, Buenos Aires was the second-largest city of the Americas, surpassed only by New York, and it continued to develop as a major industrial city. Mass migration beginning in the 1930s resulted in more than half the country’s population coming to live in the city (mass migration affected all Argentinian cities in a similar way at this time). This migration led to the development of overcrowded low-level neighborhoods and factories in the provincial areas surrounding the city that came to constitute Gran Buenos Aires, in which is concentrated one-third of the country’s population. Following the 1955 coup d’état that ended the Peronismo, the populist government of General Juan Perón, there followed a succession of civilian governments and military revolutions that resulted in economic deterioration and the impoverishment of the population of Buenos Aires and, indeed, of all Argentina. The apex of this period began with the military revolution of 1976, ‘El Proceso.’ This revolution led to the installation of a military dictatorship that developed an ominous right-wing economic program, crushing all those who opposed it. The disappearance of 30,000 people (‘desaparecidos’) resulted. Democracy was reinstituted after the Malvinas (Falklands) war, but economic chaos continued. In 1994, the government of the city was made independent of the federal government. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century Buenos Aires and Argentina were experiencing the worst economic crisis of their history, a consequence of the dictatorship and ensuing democratic governments. Poverty is evident in Buenos Aires as never before.

The wave of European immigration to Buenos Aires during the period 1880-1914 marked the beginning of ‘porteno’ popular music. The growth of an urban population with its own distinctive tastes in popular music culture was essential to the prominence that tango, originally a mid-nineteenth century genre from the Río de la Plata area between Argentina and Uruguay, was to achieve in the city. The history of porteno urban popular music can be divided into three major consecutive periods, each dominated by a prevailing musical genre. From the nineteenth century until about 1955, the tango was the hegemonic musical form. This was followed by a nativist period, which included the so-called ‘folklore boom.’ Beginning in about 1975, popular music activity revolved around rock, and this has remained the dominant idiom. Along with these prevailing genres, there have been other popular styles. Of all these, the ‘tropical genres’ have been highly significant since about 1960, especially among the lower classes of Gran Buenos Aires. Astor Piazzolla is noteworthy in this context. He was the last creator of a distinctive Buenos Aires sound, and he produced it, paradoxically, when the tango was losing popularity and popular music was starting to follow other paths.

The Tango Period

The beginning of urban popular music in Argentina can be dated to the last decade of the nineteenth century, when Buenos Aires music was becoming distinctive and was gradually leaving the anonymity of the ‘orillas’ (literally, ‘margins’), a term referring to peripheral neighborhoods. After a long period in which tangos originated primarily in brothels, created by unknown composers and passed on orally, in the twentieth century they began to be transcribed for piano and published. Works by the first identified musicians (Mendizábal, Ponzio, Reynoso, García Lalanne, Prudencio Aragón and others) began to appear at this time.

Traditionally, the tango ‘El Entrerriano,’ composed by Rosendo Mendizábal in 1897, has been considered to mark the beginning of the era of the guardia vieja (‘old guard’), which extended to about 1920. During this period there was an increase in professional activity by musicians within the tango genre, and it marks the starting point of the mass dissemination of the tango to all Buenos Aires social strata and to most areas of Argentina. From the brothels of the orillas, the tango spread to various public places in the city: salones (public places where dances were held during the weekends); casas (which were in fact fronts for more central brothels); cabarets (hotels and coffeehouses, restaurants, cafés and bars); and especially academias (public places or houses where dance steps were taught and where popular dances were held). The establishment and spread of the tango in Buenos Aires was linked to and dependent on the first recordings, which were made mainly in France, and after 1910 in Buenos Aires itself (by Columbia Records, Discos Atlanta, Odeon, Pathé, Victor). In addition, by the beginning of the twentieth century a bustling publishing activity had developed in Buenos Aires. By 1910, about 50 publishers were in business (such as Breyer Hnos., Establecimiento Gráfico Roque Gaudiosi and Ortelli Hnos.), and they were committed to publishing popular music, which meant basically the tango. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the most important musicians in Buenos Aires were all involved with the tango, as well as, to a much lesser extent, with other styles and genres of criollo music. Angel Villoldo was the most significant and popular figure of the guardia vieja. Other important musicians were Mendizabal, Juan ‘Pacho’ Maglio, Eduardo Arolas, Francisco Canaro and Roberto Fírpo. The tango also developed in the theater, particularly in the sainete (a popular satirical play), where sung tango originated.

The beginning of the guardia nueva is usually considered to be about 1920, when an impressive increase occurred in the musical activity of all areas of Gran Buenos Aires. The tango continued to be the dominant genre, but different groups included various other related genres in their repertoires (milonga, vals criollo, ranchera), as well as other styles based on North American music, such as shimmies, fox trots, two-steps and themes derived from jazz. Publishing and phonographic activity continued to rise steadily, and within each new sainete new tangos were launched that usually transcended the limits of their original form. Carlos Gardel, Rosita Quiroga, Azucena Maizani, Charlo, Libertad Lamarque, Julio de Cáro, Osvaldo Fresedo, Juan Carlos Cobián, Enrique Delfino and Enrique Santos Discépolo were among the most important figures in popular music in Buenos Aires before 1940. During this time, two genres of popular music that were closely related to the tango appeared in Buenos Aires: milónga and modern candombé. Modern candombé was totally unrelated to the primitive candombé of nineteenth-century porteno blacks.

After a short period of lesser activity, the tango entered its so-called ‘Golden Age’ in the 1940s. It was at this time that the genre attained its zenith, with enormous recording and publishing activity, almost all based in Buenos Aires. It also had a permanent presence in films and plays, in radio programs and at massive dance events (bailes populares masivos), especially at carnival, where the tango and the so-called ‘música caractenstica’ clearly prevailed.

The ‘Folklore’ Period

At about the time of the coup d’état that ended the Peronismo, a significant change started to take place within popular music in Buenos Aires, with the beginning of the gradual decline of the tango, and the slow rise of traditionally rooted popular music, or simply ‘folklore,’ as it was called. Several factors combined to bring about this cultural development: the fundamental socioeconomic change that the great domestic migration had brought about since 1935, which had resulted in the appearance in the city and the surrounding area of many groups from the provinces, singing and dancing their various regional repertoires; the inclusion of criollo dances and songs in the repertoires of tango orchestras; the great annual success of the traditional Argentinian country songs and dance shows by the Andrés Chazarreta company from the province of Santiago del Estero since 1921; and the proliferation of criollo centers and peñas (a kind of folklore circle).

The first musicians of importance to bring the new music from the provinces were Atahualpa Yupanqui from the province of Buenos Aires, the Ába los Brothers from Santiago del Estero, Ramón Ayala from Misiones, and Los Chalchaleros, Los Fronterizos and Eduardo Falú, all from Salta. During the almost 20 years when nativism experienced a broad expansion in Buenos Aires, the centralized nature of the Argentinian music business meant that the main composers, performers and poets, with only a few exceptions, came from the provinces and settled in the city.

In the 1960s, during the so-called ‘folklore boom,’ provincial culture was accepted by the city and reflected back to the whole country. By 1963 the porteño television channels were broadcasting 22 weekly programs of nativist music, and in that year a compilation recording entitled Coronación del folklore was the bestselling record. Only Misa criolla by Ariel Ramírez surpassed it, the following year. New figures appeared on the music scene, most of them from the Argentinian interior, and enjoyed great success: Horacio Guarany, Los Cantores de Quilla Huasi, Jorge Cafrune, Ramona Galarza, Los Huanca Hua, Mercedes Sosa and many more. In the city and Gran Buenos Aires hundreds of peñas were started in schools, neighborhood social clubs and community associations. Folklore dance schools and private or community nonprofessional institutes, where the rudiments of guitar playing ‘by tones’ were taught, also proliferated in the various porteño neighborhoods.

Around 1970 ‘folklore’ began to decline, due to the rise of new popular music trends (cumbia, the so-called ‘fashion song,’ and rock nacional), the stagnation of artistic creation within the genre and, finally, the violent repression and censorship that the genre underwent after the 1976 military coup. The so-called canción de protesta, a protest song against social injustice, was developed within the framework of traditionally rooted music.

Around 1980, several musicians appeared in Buenos Aires with a new folk-rooted repertoire of exceptional musical quality: Antonio Tarragó Ros and Teresa Parodi from Corrientes, Peteco Carabajal from Santiago del Estero and León Gieco from Santa Fé, the last of whom turned to traditional music without quitting rock. In the mid-1990s, a new folkloric fashion began with the spectacular rise of Soledad Pastorutti from Santa Fé. Along with the widespread national circulation of her recordings, she also performed for large audiences in Buenos Aires, singing chacareras and presenting a show organized along the lines of a rock concert. The Los Nocheros band from the province of Salta, with its romantic zambas, was well received in the city. But except for Soledad, who went on to devote herself to Latin American melodic expressions, Los Nocheros and Astor Piazzolla, who left a permanent mark, neither the tango nor the traditionally rooted popular music genres in Buenos Aires continued to enjoy wide popularity. They were enjoyed primarily by those generations that had lived through their respective periods of glory.

The Rock Nacional Period

Along with the commercial revival of nativist music and the decline of the tango as a mass genre, the 1960s marked the start of a trend until then known only in its imported versions. With time, it came to be called ‘rock nacional.’ Like its foreign models, it was characterized by a bringing together of a series of genres. Rather than possessing a determinate musical structure, it was united by a manner of performance, including rock ’n’ roll in its most c lassic form, but also sounds and instruments from other genres. At first, Argentinian singers performed their own versions of compositions by artists such as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, in English or in their Spanish translations. Among the pioneers were Palito Ortega, Sandro y los de Fuego, Eddie Pequenino, and the members of a clearly commercial movement known as El Club del Clan. After that first stage, a new group of artists appeared that were more aesthetically related to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and the hippie movement: Moris and Tanguito, and the bands the Wild Cats, Los Gatos (from Rosario in the province of Santa Fé and led by Litto Nebbia), Manal, and Almendra (led by Luis Alberto Spinetta). Unlike their predecessors, they presented their own songs, first in English, and later only in Spanish, in a poetic style that was not restricted to affairs of the heart.

During the first part of the 1970s, musical aspects of rock nacional became more sophisticated, with the inclusion of instruments such as the saxophone and the flute and a stronger jazz influence, and with lyrics expressing protest. Thus, the careers of artists such as Aquelarre, Pappo’s Blues, Invisible, Pedro y Pablo and Vox Dei were launched, though it was the Sui Generis duo – consisting of Charly García and Nito Mestre – that had the greatest success. Between 1975 and 1981, Argentinian musicians were exposed to the influence of symphonic rock, and they increasingly dared to experiment with elements from the tango and folk-rooted music. The bands Alas, La Máquina de hacer Pájaros (led by Charly García), Serú Girán (also led by García) and Desconocidos de Siempre belong to this period.

The 1982 war to recover the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands gave a strong boost to music in Spanish, due to the military dictatorship’s specific ban on broadcasting music in English. Thus, as old folk records were reedited and more time was devoted to artists such as Mercedes Sosa, there was a revival of names such as Charly García, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Litto Nebbia and León Gieco. Fito Páez and Juan Carlos Baglietto, coming from Rosario, joined in the revival. At the same time, pop appeared – again in tune with trends from the United States and Europe – as well as contributions from genres such as reggae, ska and techno music. The most important bands of this period were Soda Stereo, Sumo, Los Enanitos Verdes, Los Twist, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Virus and Los Pericos. Some of these bands have continued working into the twenty-first century.

In the 1990s, the scene was expanded by the appearance of other artists – Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas, Babasónicos, Divididos, Las Pelotas, Los Ratones Paranoicos – although they failed to develop a new aesthetic. Perhaps the most important phenomenon was Patricio Rey y los Redonditos de Ricota, a band originally from La Plata, a city in the province of Buenos Aires, which ended up settling in Buenos Aires. Closer to a more classic kind of rock ’n’ roll and to the subtleties of bands such as Pink Floyd, and with a strong emphasis placed on their lyrics and on the voice of their leader Carlos ‘Indio’ Solari, they have developed an international reputation. The major international labels (Philips, EMI, Warner, CBS-Sony, RCA) were firmly established in Buenos Aires after World War II. They were central to the development of popular music in general, and rock and pop in particular. Since the 1980s, many national labels, such as Mandioca, Talent, DBN, Del Cielito, Radio Trípoli, Acqua Records, Epsa and Indice Virgen, have appeared (and disappeared). They have mainly concentrated their efforts on advancing the careers of those Argentinian artists who have not been signed by the major labels. Although in recent years they have lost some of their influence, they were essential at the beginning of rock nacional.

The concentration of population, economic advantage and political power in Buenos Aires, as well as a centralized mass media, has resulted in cultural and musical domination over the provinces. This has been evident since about 1970, when the traditional forms of popular music, the tango and folk-rooted expressions, began a sharp decline in the face of the continuous advance of Anglo-American models. In the popular music field, this fact has two noteworthy consequences: a distorted form of national consumption, as music produced throughout the country is centralized and then circulated from the city; and the near-absolute monopoly of foreign musicians, who confine their performances in Argentina almost exclusively to the central city. The only popular musicians who, since 1970, have not needed to settle in Buenos Aires as the only way of making a living or advancing their careers are those who are working in the ‘tropical genres’ and who have had access to widespread national circulation from their original locations.

Since 1990, Buenos Aires has been essentially transformed into a center for popular music consumption. Important international artists, and occasionally national singers or bands, stage their shows in football stadia, in enclosed mini-stadia or in the large porteño theaters downtown. However, there is no characteristic musical movement or sound in the city. Perhaps, far away from the bustling activity of Gran Buenos Aires, the only sound typical of the 1990s was the one that appeared within the framework of bailanta, the mass phenomenon of popular dances in which multiple varieties of ‘tropical genres’ prevail.


Agarrate. Testimonios de la música joven en Argentina [Hold on Tight: Testimonies of Young Music in Argentina]. 1970. Buenos Aires: Galerna.

Antología del tango rioplatense, vol. 1: desde susorígenes hasta 1920 [Anthology of the Rio de la Plata Tango,Vol. 1: From Its Origins Until 1920]. 1980. Buenos Aires: Instituto Nacional de Musicología Carlos Vega.

Berti, Eduardo. 1994. Rockología: documentos de los ‘80 [Rockology: Documents of the 1980s]. Buenos Aires: Beas Ediciones.

Colombres, Adolfo. 1987. Sobre la cultura y el arte popular [About Popular Culture and Art]. Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Sol.

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Ferrer, Horacio. 1977. El libro del tango: Crónica y diccionario, 1850-1977 [The Tango Book: Chronicles and Dictionary, 1850-1977]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Galerna.

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Grinberg, Miguel. 1977. La música progresiva argentina (cómo vino la mano) [New Music in Argentina (How Things Happened)]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Convergencia.

Hidalgo, Brunelli, Omar, García, and Salton, D. 1985. ‘The Evolution of Rock in Argentina .’ In Popular Music Perspectives, 2 , ed. David Horn. Göteborg and Exeter: IASPM, 296–303.

Kohan, Pablo. 1988. La creatividad en la música argentina: Una aproximacion [Creativity in Argentinian Music: An Approach]. Buenos Aires: Segunda conferencia anual de la AAM.

Kohan, Pablo. 1991. Variantes y estilos compositivos en el tango de los años ‘20 [Variants and Compositional Styles in the Tango of the 1920s]. Buenos Aires: Quinta Conferencia de la AAM.

Kohan, Pablo. 1997. ‘Cada dí compone mejor: Los tangos para el cine de Carlos Gardel’ [Each Day He Composes Better: The Film Tangos by Carlos Gardel]. In Viva el tango!: libro periódico de la Academia Nacional del Tango [Long Live the Tango!: Journal of the Academia Nacional del Tango]. Buenos Aires: Academia Nacional del Tango, No. 7, 63–73.

La historia del tango [The History of Tango]. 1976. Buenos Aires: Corregidor.

Marzullo, Osvaldo, and Muñoz, Pancho. 1986. El rock en la Argentina: La historia y sus protagonistas [Rock in Argentina: Its History and Its Exponents]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Galerna.

Mero, Roberto. 1988. La Mona, va!: Carlos Jiménez y el fenómeno social del cuarteto [‘La Mona’ Goes On!: Carlos Jiménez and the Social Phenomenon of the Cuarteto]. Buenos Aires: Editorial Contrapunto.

Portorrico, Pedro. 1997. Diccionario biográfico de la música argentina de raíz folklórica [A Biographical Dictionary of the Folkloric Roots of Argentinian Music]. Buenos Aires: E.P. Portorrico.

Pujol, Sergio. 1999. Historia del baile: De la milonga a la disco [The History of Dancing: From the Milónga to Disco]. Buenos Aires: Emecé.

Rossi, Vicente. 1926. Cosas de negros: los oríjenes del tango y otros aportes al folklore rioplatense: Rectificaciones historicas [Negro Folkways: The Origins of the Tango and Other Contributions to the RRo de la Plata Folklore]. Buenos Aires: Imprenta Argentina.

Salas, Horacio. 1995. El tango [The Tango]. Buenos Aires: Planeta.

Sierra, Adolfo. 1985. Historia de la orquesta típica: Evolución instrumental del tango [History of the Orquesta Típica: The Tango’s Instrumental Evolution]. Buenos Aires: Corregidor.

20 anos de rock nacional: La enciclopedia total [20 Years of Rock Nacional: The Complete Encyclopedia]. 1985. 3 vols. Buenos Aires: Cantarock.

Vega, Carlos. 1981. Apuntes para la historia del movimiento tradicionalista argentino [Notes for the History of the Argentinian Traditionalist Movement]. Buenos Aires: Instituto Nacional de Musicología ‘Carlos Vega.’

Discographical References

Coronación del folklore . Philips 510 505-2. 1963: Argentina.

Piazzolla, Astor. ‘El Entrerriano.’ Tango . Absolute Best 101. 2000: USA.

Ramírez, Ariel. Misa criolla . Milan 35603. 1964: France.