Murga: The Unknown Buenos Aires’ Carnival

By - 13 February, 2011

Throughout Latin America, carnival traditions are intrinsically tied to the African slave descendents and their culture and struggle. It’s said that during colonial times, the week of carnival (a Christian traditional celebration of pagan origins that happens right before lent) was a period of permissiveness when the European class would allow their servants to go out to the streets, play their “primitive” drum-based music and dance. Since then, carnival, in many places of Latin America has become synonymous with black, mulatto, and mestizos parading down the streets with colourful costumes to the irresistible rhythm of Afro-Latin percussion.

Of course Brazilian carnival, and Rio’s in particular, is the most well known example of this, from a foreigner’s perspective. But in smaller scales, carnival still subsists in many other countries of the region and maybe the most paradoxical of all is Argentina’s case.

Argentina, the most proudly Eurocentric country of the continent once too had a large population of African descendents (in some provinces it accounted for up to 50%). However, sometime in the second half of the IXX century most of them mysteriously disappeared. A touchy topic classically avoided by most history books. Many revisionists nowadays theorize about an unaccounted systematic racial cleansing that took place during that period, simultaneously with the genocide of the aboriginal peoples. The founding fathers of the modern Argentine nation (Sarmiento, Roca, Mitre) viewed Blacks and “Indians” as an obstacle in the progress of the country towards a civilized, industrialized society and while they encouraged European immigration, they got rid of the “undesirables.”

Carnival, however, somehow managed to survive. In a city like Buenos Aires, the most white-European city in the most white-European country of the sub-continent, carnival is still an important festivity for a large segment of the population and even though most of them lack Afro-Argentinian lineage they embrace the traditions of dance, music and costumes as their own.

Against the desires of the white upper-classes and past dictators, who tried to erase the week of carnival from the calendar, in the last couple of decades a new generation of Argentinians adopted these traditions making them popular once again by mixing them with the street youth culture of soccer, rock and cumbia.

While Brazilians have samba and Afro-Uruguayans have candombe, in Argentina the music genre that’s synonym with carnival is called murga. Murga is a percussion-based rhythm usually performed by a marching band, live on the streets, without amplification and its dance sometimes involves complex aerial, almost acrobatic moves. Lyrics usually abound in social criticism and are frequently targeting allegedly corrupted politicians. Unlike Brazilians’ minimalist attires that leave little to the imagination, Argentine murga dancers wear colourful shiny costumes that cover most of their bodies in the shape of classic gentlemen’s suits, many times including top hats and other symbols of aristocracy from colonial times taken out of context; it’s said that wearing these was a way for the slave to subtly mock their masters.

Un Murguero (photo by Pablo David Flores

It was during the mid-‘90s that murga music experienced an unexpected revival and was adopted by the disenfranchised youth in the big city. Before that happened, murga was seen as either something of the past or something that belonged only with the marginal, poor communities of the city’s outskirts and the inner provinces. Maybe the first and the most emblematic case that kick-started this trend was Los Auténticos Decadentes, a party band of ska/punk origins that emerged into the scene in the late-‘80s by incorporating into their repertoire a wide array of Afro-Latin beats with an irreverent attitude, funny lyrics and exaggerated kitsch aesthetics. During the ‘90s Los Auténticos Decadentes became a staple performer at the largest carnival parties in the city, in big part thanks to their hits that incorporated murga rhythms like 1992’s “Siga el baile” (a cover/tribute to a murga pioneer, Alberto Castillo, guest starring Castillo himself) and 1995’s “El Murguero” the song that became murga’s ultimate anthem for this generation and it remains until today a mandatory dance-floor killer at any party where Argentines are present. “El Murguero’s” video accurately depicts the carnival celebrations of Buenos Aires in all their splendour and in its time it worked as a great introduction to the genre for many big city kids who were traditionally oblivious to this subculture.

Since the ‘70s and ‘80s Argentina’s rich rock scene had always been focused on trying to sound as European as they could, while openly disregarding all traditional Latin rhythms, considering them tacky and hick. (Paradoxically, one of the most iconic local rock hits of the 80’s was Soda Stereo’s “Cuando Pase El Temblor” which mashed up their British new-wave aesthetics with a carnivalito rhythm, the genre played during carnival by the peoples from north-western Argentina, more related to Andean folk than African traditions). But in the mid-‘90s a shift in the opposite direction started to happen when some prominent rockers started to look inward for inspiration, instead of focusing so much in Europe.

Many bands from the underground rock scene known as “rock barrial” (rock from the ‘hood) started to incorporate elements from murga after the surprising success of Los Piojos in 1996 with their hit “Verano del ’92.” That stand-out song alone made history for murga unleashing a new murga fever and most of its success was based on the fact that, unlike Los Auténticos Decadentes, Los Piojos (a band that started as an imitation of The Rolling Stones) enjoyed street-credibility amongst the hardcore rocker crowds. That song also helped put on the map the band La Chilinga, who contributed the drum section for the recording and many of their live appearances. Long after the disappearance of Los Piojos, La Chilinga still enjoys the status of being the main murga band in Argentina and one of the only sources of good murga music recorded in a studio (a rarity in itself since most “real” murga is traditionally performed exclusively in the streets and almost never gets released in album format).

Right after rock barrial’s late ‘90s apogee the cumbia villera phenomenon emerged in Argentina at the dawn of the millennium and the use of murga loops became a common resource among the new breed of commercial cumbia producers (groups like Yerba Brava, Altos Cumbieros, Epidemia and Hombres de Negro abound in murga references). The current fashionable scene of digital cumbia spearheaded by blogger’s favourite Zizek Collective [see ZZK Records] also approached murga in their depiction of neo-cumbia, as in the case of Chancha Via Circuito’s song “Cumbia Murguera.”

Although the following are not particularly famous in mainstream Argentina and should indeed deserve a whole separate article focused just on them, there’s currently two main players in the re-emergence of murga, curiously both are Argentinians living in exile in Europe. Juan Carlos Cáceres in France and Ariel Prat in Spain have done the most serious and accomplished explorations of the murga tradition, searching for the long-dead and massively denied historic connections between murga and early tango; something that bothers many old-school tango heads because it implies the acknowledgement of tango’s Afro-roots. Their impressive respective albums Murga Argentina (2005) and Negro Y Murguero (2008) are must-haves for anybody who wants to get deep into this obscure, but still irresistible, genre.

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