Cross-border beats

Musicians in Transit: Argentina and the Globalization of Popular Music
Matthew B Karush
2017, Duke University Press
268 pages, plates, paperback

POPULAR music in Latin America, Matthew Karush’s book reminds us, is intrinsically transnational, feeding upon while simultaneously nurturing genres from within the region and abroad.

In this fascinating survey of the careers of seven of Argentina’s most influential musicians of the twentieth century – swing guitarist Oscar Alemán, composer Lalo Schifrin, jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri, tango innovator Astor Piazzolla, folk singer Mercedes Sosa, balada singer Sandro and rocker Gustavo Santaolalla – the author identifies four main transnational webs by which interactions occurred.

Alemán created versions of foreign genres for domestic consumption; Schifrin and Barbieri also used foreign tools but aimed them at North America; Piazzolla and Sosa incorporated foreign influences in very Argentine musical forms; and Sandro and Santaolalla invented new genres to appeal beyond Argentina to a growing Latin American audience.

This diversity allows the author to argue that when it comes to popular music, globalization cannot be reduced to a simple story of homogenization or cultural imperialism, even if the cultural playing field was admittedly never level.

Indeed, those transnational interactions have provided real opportunities for musicians by allowing them to inhabit markets and shape audiences that would otherwise have been denied to them – with unexpected and highly creative results.

One outcome of this process was to take Argentine and Latin identity far beyond its roots, but also to reshape it in new ways. This, in turn, deepened the process of Latin identification in an era in which the recording industry divided the music of the world into just two categories: North American, and the rest.

What this means is that music can offer an example of how cultural globalization, far from erasing local culture, can provide it with new resources to extend and deepen the quest for recognition.

This phenomenon can loosely be explained in terms of markets: prior to the 1940s, the shape of the recording industry promoted North American influence while preserving in aspic local genres such as tango; from the 1940s onwards, record companies slowly began to recognise the potential for a common Latin American music market.

Something of an international division of labour emerged, in which Latin America began to source exciting, exotic rhythms, while North America remained the origin of melodic or harmonic ideas and sophisticated arrangements.

When the advent of rock n’roll flooded the industry with new opportunities, the major labels hit upon finding Latin American products that could sell throughout the region and also appeal to US Latinos.

Karush argues that a breakthrough came with Sandro – Roberto Sánchez, aka the Argentine Elvis – and the invention of balada in the late 1960s, when a distinctive Latin preference became clearly discernible.

Perhaps more than any other genre, balada – the Latin romantic ballad – exemplifies how globalization can in fact work against cultural imperialism, in this case spearheading the Latin Americanization of the US itself and providing the motive force for the creation of several multinational record labels.

The author points out that the Cold War also played a role in this process, especially after the Cuban Revolution when a massive new market developed for the likes of Sosa’s revolutionary Latin Americanism. But this was a market that music executives had neither created nor expected, and offers another good example of the simplicity of such notions as cultural imperialism.

Karush writes: “Over the course of the twentieth century, then, the globalization of popular music contributed substantially to processes of identity formation throughout Latin America. The deepening of transnational economic and cultural connections, controlled as it was by a small number of multinational corporations, had multiple and contradictory effects: it substantially increased the volume of North American and European popular music consumed in Latin America, and it promoted the marketing of exotic representations of Latin America in the United States and Europe. But it also gave rise to new musical expressions of Latin identity, including a homogenous form of Latin pop music, an anti-imperialist folk genre that hailed a politicized Latin American audience, and a style of rock built on a pastiche of Latin American and global genres.” [p 219]

Taking Argentina as its case study, Musicians in Transit provides an original and fascinating insight into a phenomenon at the very heart of contemporary culture, musical globalization, and should be recommended reading for students of the social and popular history of Latin America.

To guide readers to online recordings of the music discussed, the author has created a very helpful website [] that should be an essential first port of call for those interested in exploring this further.