Folclore (also spelled Folklore) is the label attached in the media, in popular parlance, and since the late 1990s also in academic discourse, to musics based on the traditional practices of the rural criollos or gauchos (descendants of Spanish settlers, often with Indian and/or black blood input) of Argentina, but produced in urban centers by professionals and distributed mainly through the national media.
Although folclore designates a phenomenon largely common to countries in South America’s Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Southern Brazil), the various national cultural structures and communication networks have made it difficult to describe it as a whole in its full geographical spread. The unending arguments about a proper definition of the term, and about what it includes or excludes, have always had a strong ideological component – discussions are invariably supported by a nationalistic substratum, but come to widely diverging conclusions depending on the speaker’s affiliation with the ‘conservative’ right or the ‘progressive’ left. The term’s synonyms usually betray one of those two political outlooks: nativismo (‘nativism’), tradicionalismo (‘traditionalism’) and música autóctona (‘autochtonous music’) belong to the first, more exclusionary approach, and proyección folklórica (a term introduced in 1969 by the scholar Augusto Raúl Cortázar to identify ‘manifestations produced outside the geographic and cultural environment’ of folklore, ‘designed for a general, mostly urban, public and transmitted by institutionalized and mechanized media’ [(1977, 77]) and música de raíz folklórica (‘folkloric roots music’) belong to the second. In both proyección folklórica and música de raíz, the accent is more on the popular roots of the music and less on its locality. The former set of terms tends to reject modernizing, urban and non-Argentinian influences and developments, whereas the latter two favor the view of a pan-Latin-American (or even Third-World) patrimony and often include ‘urban folklore,’ such as cuarteto and tango. The present article, however, will be confined to the heritage of the rural Argentinian tradition.
The rare academic discussions of folclore in the second half of the twentieth century used to emphasize the difference between the ‘authentic’ rural tradition, for which the term ‘folclore’ was reserved, and its ‘commercial’ variants, but new conceptions of tradition, gaining strength since the 1980s, have made such a hard-and-fast distinction obsolete. Folclore in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries may be best understood as a ‘field’ in Bourdieu’s sense (1979): a dynamic structure including (1) a repertory that is open but subject to certain rules for inclusion, exclusion and transformation, (2) a number of creators (composers, lyric-writers and performers), (3) a group of producers, (4) a consuming public and (5) a distribution network that coincides in part with the networks of the national and international music industry. It has its own internal power structure (with attendant struggles), its own dialect and its own set of practices, used to legitimize products, people and institutions. Of course, given the dual nature of the field (traditional and modern values), uncertainty and disagreements about its limits are inevitable.
The term ‘folclore’ has been popularly applied to this field from its very inception in the 1930s and 1940s. Previously (since the late 1880s) it had designated anonymous, traditional customs and artistic objects, as well as the discipline that gathered and studied them. Throughout this earlier period, criolla (Creole), tradicional (traditional), gauchesca (of the gauchos), nativa (native) and nacional (national) were the preferred adjectives used in reference to urban presentations and adaptations of the rural heritage. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, urban culture, under the influence of the ideologies of progress and Europeanization, had gradually become estranged from that of the hinterland. Paradoxically, it was the European ideology of cultural nationalism that belatedly sparked the interest of urban dwellers for the music of the rural gauchos (cowboys and, more generally, peasants). A first wave followed on the heels of the immensely popular Martín Fierro by José Hernández, a long poem that idealized the gaucho’s customs and wisdom (68,000 copies sold between 1873 and 1879, when the total population of Argentina was under 2 million, largely illiterate). Traveling circuses as well as stable theaters began to highlight the performances of singers in fancy gaucho-like attire, who rendered zambas, milongas, estilos, rancheras and other genres from the southern pampas to the accompaniment of one or more guitars. The inclusion of these songs and dances within pantomimes and spoken plays (zarzuelas, sainetes, criollos) induced many authors to write their own songs in imitation of the traditional ones. At this time, collectors and composers began publishing anthologies of ‘national songs’ (Ventura Lynch 1883; Antonio Podestá 1896), as well as sheet music editions of new songs cast in traditional molds. The dozen or so respectable publishing firms in Buenos Aires at the start of the twentieth century (e.g., F. Núñez, Casa Breyer) were complemented by a significant number of mere printing shops, of which Ortelli Hnos. is a good example. Songwriters had their works printed by these shops, retaining the copyright. The gaucho thus invented was rather one-dimensional and embodied the romantic-nationalist reaction against modernization and the huge wave of immigration that transformed Argentina’s life between the 1870s and 1914. The challenge posed by these new forces was answered by the foundation of centros criollos (Creole centers) – clubs or associations where the urban lower bourgeoisie learned to sing and dance traditional music, thus absorbing argentinidad (‘Argentinianness’).
After a short-lived downturn of the nationalist mood during World War I, the shows and triumphant tours of Andrés Chazarreta’s company of musicians and dancers from Santiago del Estero (beginning with his 1921 appearance in Buenos Aires) set the stage for the emergence of a folclore field. To a large extent, they also determined the musical traits of the folkloric genres as they would be cultivated and expanded later on: the santiagueño versions became standard, ignoring the vast diversity of previous local traditions. Only the criollo or camp-ero (country) repertoire of the southern pampas, by this time assiduously adopted by composers, soloists and duos who cultivated the nascent típico (tango, milonga and waltz) repertoire, represented a different strain of folclore until the arrival in Buenos Aires, in the 1930s and 1940s, of groups from Cuyo and from Mesopotamia (westcentral and northeastern Argentina, respectively), although the latter performed almost exclusively to lower classes on the outskirts of the city. Beginning in the restricted circuit of centros criollos, these new groups gradually acquired a wider audience through recitals in theaters, radio performances and recordings, two media that by this time were reaching almost all the urban population. By the 1940s, within a media scene dominated by tango, folclore had acquired a national dimension and a mass of fans. Foremost among the host of artists who contributed to and enjoyed this success (Antonio Tormo, Margarita Palacios, Hilario Cuadros, Julio Argentino Jerez, Eduardo Falú and the Ábalos Brothers) was Atahualpa Yupanqui, whose songs quickly became classics. A long-time affiliate of the Communist Party, he included in his lyrics, in addition to the traditional celebration of local landscape and regional heritage, strong denunciations of poverty and inequality, which were to spark off an important line of development within folclore. His life as an errant laborer had afforded him a direct experience of traditional musics of different Argentinian regions; his pieces were widely recognized as ‘authentic.’
By the late 1950s the stage was set for a folclore ‘boom.’ The younger generations seized upon the fare offered to them, through TV shows, recordings and massive festivals, by a host of new quartets (four singers in gaucho attire, accompanying themselves on three guitars and bombo) and soloists. Although the northern province of Salta was at the time the main site from which folclore artists were recruited, the recording studios in Buenos Aires and the festivals in Córdoba Province were the centers of irradiation; control over programming and budget in these was soon assumed in most cases by people linked to the recording industry and mass media (most notably, Julio Márbiz at the festival in the town of Cosquín). The old, traditional centros criollos were replaced by more informal peñas folklóricas (folklore bars or pubs), catering mostly to a youth whose musical tastes embraced both international pop and national folclore (tango was definitely ‘not cool’). Festivals and TV shows instituted country-wide competition networks for new performers and songs, with a hierarchy of local, regional and national events. Among the most popular groups were Los Fronterizos, Los Chalchaleros, Los Cantores del Alba and Los de Salta (all of them from Salta), Los Tucu Tucu from Tucumán and Los Cantores de Quilla Huasi (from different provinces). Among soloists may be mentioned Eduardo Falú and Horacio Guarany (singers/guitarists) Ramona Galarza (singer), Ariel Ramírez (pianist) and Jaime Torres (charango player). In the early and mid-1960s, a new crop of solo singers joined them; Daniel Toro, Jorge Cafrune, César Isella and Mercedes Sosa were the most popular. The new groups at this time were more ‘modern’: dressed in jeans and sweaters, Los Huanca Hua, Grupo Vocal Argentino, Los Trovadores, Las Voces Blancas, Cuarteto Zupay and Dúo Salteño incorporated elements of international youth culture and more sophisticated arrangements. At this time a political split became apparent in the field. The left (including the nuevo cancionero led by the Mendoza poet Armando Tejada Gómez) took up Yupanqui’s legacy of commitment to indigenist or populist causes, while the right wing, exemplified by the solo singer Roberto Rimoldi Fraga, defended the conservative’s slogan ‘fatherland, family and tradition.’ The latter found favor with successive military regimes, while the former often suffered censure, blacklisting and persecution.
Folclore entered a stage of decline in the 1970s. This was due partly to the repressive military governments, which looked askance at the attitudes and ideologies of the rebellious younger generation who sustained nuevo cancionero and similar repertoires. But the main reasons for this decadence should be sought in internal factors and market conditions. Dedicated radio and TV programs went off the air, and very few new recordings were issued. Many composers and performers had to go abroad, both to make a living and to safeguard their lives. Only a few, like the litoraleños Teresa Parodi and Antonio Tarragó Ros, kept the folclore scene alive. Many youngsters shifted their allegiance to Argentinian rock and international pop music. The most important festivals were still held yearly, but their importance within the music business and their status as national symbols were strongly diminished. To counteract the loss of revenue, many of them started diversifying their musical fare; others simply folded. The 1990s witnessed a revival, which has continued to some extent into the twenty-first century. The younger generations (notably teenagers) took up chacarera, one of the western Argentinian genres, as a symbol of identity. They recovered the dance dimension of music that had been treated during the boom years mainly as songs, and improvised new choreographies or reproduced the traditional ones in discotheques, where they shared time with rock and other pop music. Audiences began to return to festivals in numbers and the national media again promoted and broadcast Cosquín, Jesús María and the like. Peteco Carabajal and Soledad Pastorutti have been key figures in the chacarera revival. ‘Chaqueño’ Palavecino has extended it both in terms of his wider gamut of genres and of his tremendous popularity among all age groups. Another facet of the revival is ‘romantic folklore’ (Los Nocheros, Los Guaranys, Jorge Rojas), which may be understood as fusión between folclore and bolero. The frankly erotic lyrics and genre mixtures performed by these groups (traditionalists have called them ‘lingerie folclore’) also appeal to a wide variety of audiences from middle- and low-income strata. (For a fuller account of the origins, regional variants and history of folclore, see Waisman and Restiffo 2005.)
The only firm constants between rural tradition and modern folclore seem to reside in the rhythmic patterns associated with the different species that the genre encompasses. In order of decreasing importance, we may include other earmarks: formal structures, instrumentation, vocal styles, topics and vocabulary of the lyrics, choreography and the performers’ costumes. From its protean rural origins, several species crystallized during the first half of the twentieth century. (In common Argentine parlance folclore as a whole is usually referred to as a ‘genre,’ and the different types of songs and dances within it are commonly called ‘species’ – rather than ‘sub-genres,’ as is common elsewhere.) First and foremost is the zamba, the standard bearer of the genre, considered representative of a nationwide ambit. Chacarera, cueca, litoraleña, chamamé, milonga, vidala and gato are other species with wide but less universal appeal. Carnavalito, huayno, baguala, chaya, bailecito (northwest), rasguido doble (littoral – the River Plate area in the northeastern part of the country, bordering with Uruguay), tonada, estilo and valsecito are closely tied in the folclórico imaginary to particular regions, and have been favored mainly though not exclusively by local composers. Additionally, there are several dozen folk genres – sung and, especially, danced – that are still heard in their traditional melodies, mostly in folk-dancing academies and companies. These are mostly genres with only one exemplar: La firmeza, El cuando, El escondido, El palito, El pericón, La media caña, etc. Some species that were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, such as the cielito, have scarcely been tapped by modern folclore. The formal schemes of the different species are varied, but a common disposition comprises two or three sections, each one constituted by several stanzas followed by a refrain. Rhythmic patterns are also diverse, but many of them are based on hemiola-related devices, both simultaneous and successive. The common practice of singing in parallel thirds is congruent with the prevailing ending of melodic phrases on the third degree of the scale (5-4-3 for the top voice, 3-2-1 for the lower voice). A large proportion of the repertoire (excluding the northeastern species) relies on what Carlos Vega has called ‘bi-modality,’ assuming the double scales in parallel thirds to derive from standard European major and minor modes (Example 1). Although this phenomenon may be more simply understood as a particular variant of the first ecclesiastical mode (Dorian) current in early-modern Spain, Vega’s terminology is widely employed. Twentieth-century arrangements intensively exploit the augmented-fourth relationships produced by alternation between the I and II degrees in the major segment of the scale (Example 2).
The one instrument that functions as a steady feature of folclore is the acoustic guitar (though fusions with rock usually substitute the electric instrument). Only for huaynos, baguala and other species of the extreme north-west is the charango (small plucked chordophone made from an armadillo shell) considered an adequate replacement for the guitar. Harp and bandoneón (a type of concertina), still common nationwide in the early decades of the twentieth century, have become unusual in folclore. A single violin is a traditional addition for chacareras that modern folclore has highlighted, and a double bass is often included in versions of themes from the litoral. Northwestern music makes use of the quena (notched vertical flute) and other aerophones of indigenous parentage, and the species from the litoral feature prominent use of verdulera (a type of concertina) or accordion. Pieces derived from dance music (though not often danced nowadays) incorporate percussion: the bombo (two-headed long cylindrical drum) is by far the most frequent, but the caja (flat snare drum) is often substituted for it in northwestern music. The piano, frequently used in the first half of the twentieth century, dropped out of most ensembles in the heyday of the folclore ‘boom.’ ‘Modernizing’ ensembles, often with college-educated players, include prominent use of an orchestral flute and/or a cello, as well as a wealth of Latin-American percussion instruments such as the Peruvian cajón; fusions with rock and jazz include drum sets, saxophones and all sorts of electronic and amplified instruments, such as keyboards and bass guitars.
In the first decades of the twentieth century the vocal duo accompanied by several guitars was a widespread type of ensemble, offering both típico and folklórico repertoire; most famous in the 1910s were the duos of Carlos Gardel and José Razzano and Francisco Brancatti and Léon Lara, followed in the 1920s by that of Agustin Magaldi and Pedro Noda. In the ensuing decades larger ensembles became common (Los Hermanos Ábalos, La Tropilla de Huachi Pampa), but the standard since the ‘boom’ years has been the vocal quartet with guitars and bombo accompaniment (Los Chalchaleros, Los Fronterizos, Los Cantores de Quilla Huasi). The more ‘progressive’ trends initially favored a cappella groups with frequent vocal imitations of instrumental sounds or scat-type singing (Los Huanca Hua, Grupo Vocal Argentino, Buenos Aires 8), but soon came to include all sorts of vocal and instrumental combinations. Concurrently, during the entire history of folclore there have been well-known soloists, many of them also poets and/or composers, who accompany themselves on the guitar (Atahualpa Yupanqui, Eduardo Falú, Horacio Guarany); others function only as singers (Antonio Tormo, Mercedes Sosa, Chaqueño Palavecino). In the 1990s groups and soloists such as the violinist-singer-composer Peteco Carabajal often incorporated some of the perks of pop shows: choruses, movement, lighting effects. The older type of vocal quartet, with a new sensual romántico touch, has been continued in the first decade of the twenty-first century by the wildly popular Los Nocheros.
Arrangements in the folclore idiom in the first part of the twentieth century were fairly standard: the tendency was for the melody in parallel thirds, with straightforward guitar strumming and percussion ostinatos as accompaniment and short instrumental introductions and interludes provided by a solo instrument to the same accompaniment. The quartets of the boom often duplicated the melody at the higher octave or sixth and introduced solo-tutti effects within a limited variety of vocal scoring. Soon afterward, arranger-composers such as ‘Chango’ Farías Gómez or ‘Cuchi’ Leguizamón became central figures. Vocal groups in the 1960s (Los Trovadores, Las Voces Blancas, Los Andariegos, Cuarteto Vocal Zupay) relied on the resources of choral academic composition and on more complex harmonies, sometimes in a barbershop quartet configuration. A delicate use of harsh dissonances, a thorough exploitation of the falsetto register and extremely slow tempos to highlight the resulting sonorities were the trademarks of the Dúo Salteño. Instrumental virtuoso display and jazz-like improvisation were slowly incorporated, featuring the guitar in the 1960s (Tres Para el Folclore), and other instruments in the 1980s (Lito Vitale on the keyboards, Dino Saluzzi in bandoneón). The litoraleña (northeastern) segment, however, has mostly retained the simple harmonies and arrangements of earlier times, in spite of the emergence of youthful new figures in the 1980s (Antonio Tarragó Ros, Teresa Parodi).
The lyrics of folclore are varied in topic and language. They include a large proportion of love poetry (which was the almost exclusive concern of the previous rural tradition), a nearly equal share of verses extolling the beauties of local landscape (often expressing the nostalgia of the migrant worker for his native soil) and quite a few poems celebrating the virtues of traditional rural trades: carpenters, quarry workers, woodsmen, cowboys, teachers, etc. References to actual people are fairly common, be they historical personalities (here the ideological slant – right or left – is usually conspicuous), local figures or simply the author’s friends and companions in wine-drinking. The more traditional lyrics use the language and syntax invented by gauchesca literature (poems and dramas describing rural customs and imitating the speech habits of the gaucho) in the decades around 1900 on the basis of popular rural language; this may be spiced up by the introduction of local expressions, words in Quechua or occasional references to current slang. Since the 1940s, however, several poets, such as Manuel J. Castilla, Jaime Dávalos (from the neo-romantic and nationalist ‘generación del ‘40’) or Armando Tejada Gómez (influenced by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the leftist avant-garde), adopted a more ‘literary’ manner, highly metaphorical, often relying on a more complex syntax and a sophisticated vocabulary. Strangely enough, this has not stopped their verses from attaining widespread popularity. ‘Protest’ or testimonial ‘lyrics have always been a prominent strain within folclore, embracing all the popular causes of the left: the poor, the migrants, indigenous people and the defense of national patrimony against imperialism, of human against commercial values and of nature against its senseless exploitation. Mention must be made of the illuminating and witty parodies of folclore produced by Les Luthiers, the best-known Argentinian musico-comic ensemble: by over-emphasis and by recourse to the absurd, they unmask some of the ideological assumptions undergirding the idealization of folclore as ‘the essence of the nation.’
Folclore is practiced in multiple ways. In small towns and rural areas, convivial gatherings often include ‘guitarreadas’ (roughly, ‘guitar parties’), where local traditions, local composition and media-circulated repertoire coexist. Urban fans get together to sing, either in private homes or in peñas, the dedicated pubs, where anyone may pick up a guitar provided by the house, and sing, and which may also offer shows by professionals, who perform as well in auditoriums and clubs. Many large, open-air, weeklong festivals are held every summer in different locations, featuring famous artists. Some of them (e.g., Cosquín) have national networks of sub-festivals where new talent is scouted. International record labels have paid varying attention to this music ever since the 1920s: during the 1960s and 1970s Philips was hegemonic; since the 1990s it has been partly replaced by smaller local labels. TV and radio programs played a major role in generating the ‘boom’ around 1960, but their coverage was greatly reduced later on; although there are some specialized FM and cableTV stations, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the mass media do not reflect the size of the folclore public. Sheet music was plentifully provided by many specialized publishers until the 1960s (Breyer, Lagos), later superseded by lyrics printed as cancioneros (songbooks) or in fan magazines (such as Folklore).
Contacts between folclore and other fields of popular music have multiplied, including joint projects with rock and tango artists. One especially celebrated example of this was León Gieco’s De Ushuaia a La Quiaca, a four-CD set (2005) in which the rock singer performed together with more than 100 professional and amateur folclore musicians from around the country. The blending of elements from folclore with tango, rock and jazz idioms and instruments is known in Argentina as fusión. The limited media exposure that folclore receives in the early twenty-first century hides its persistent cultivation by an important segment of the Argentinian population. Argentine folclore was very popular all over Latin America and Spain in the 1960s and 1970s, with enclaves as far as Japan; in 2011 there were still a number of folclore groups in several distant countries, and the more celebrated contemporary Argentinian performers frequently carry out international tours. Although oral traditions have long been the subject of serious study (Vega, Aretz-Thiele), little academic attention had been paid to urbanized folclore before the work of scholars such as Díaz (2009), Kaliman (2003) and Sánchez (2004).
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