Coriún Aharonián

Technology for the Resistance

A Latin American case


This paper deals with ethics and society. Can musicians and musicologists do something to improve the challenges they face as musicians or the problems they study and denounce as musicologists?

Ediciones Tacuabé, a non-commercial record publishing house, began its activities in March 1971. It was not the first publishing enterprise for independent records in Uruguay. There were commercial companies acting as local representatives of transnational labels, which had their own national catalogue. Some of them experienced a boom of Uruguayan socially engaged composer-singers starting in 1968 [1]. An independent publisher initiated during this period, Hemisferio, became a commercially oriented company, while another, De la Planta, although founded on very interesting criteria, had a strong commercial standpoint. In the past, there were some non-commercial initiatives linked with the strategies of the Communist Party (the labels Anteo and Carumbé), though their existence was very short. Even the State had its project for a non-commercial label, but it was limited to the period when the musicologist Lauro Ayestarán (1913-1966) was the artistic director of the national radio broadcasting system (SODRE).

The country had the memory of a buried experience, that of a Uruguayan company, Antar, built up in the mid 1950s in association with Telefunken. Antar demonstrated the possibility of a commercial venture not only with cultural concerns, but also with a quality catalogue of regional products recorded and manufactured at the highest technical level. But the company dissolved by the end of the 1960s, because of a disloyal war launched by the other commercial companies.

The country also benefited from the long experience of a rich cultural life based on commitment and activism [2], the praised cultural life of decades. Uruguay was having the renewed experience of the infinite possibilities of a politically rooted everyday socio-cultural activism, responsible and anonymous. The late 1960s and the very early 1970s were, in the middle of a dictatorship which was to become more and more savage, the moment of affirmation of the Uruguayan guerrilla movement, the Tupamaros.

The very idea of Ediciones Tacuabé had then a multiple basis:

  • The concept of activism in the cultural field, and the conviction that culture means politics, especially in the Third World.
  • The Latin American experience of cultural dependence and of the manipulation of the musical market carried on for decades by the transnational companies.
  • The experience of the daily traps that emerged from the imperialistic networks.
  • The idea that an activist witness group was necessary as a way to maintain a more constructive attitude in the commercial milieu, in view of the fact that the establishment was there, and it was not so easy to solve the market behaviour, even once the revolution, as in Cuba, was victorious.
  • And the very central idea that, in the present day society, it is not enough to publish a record, but it becomes necessary to assure its presence in the record stores, that is, the places where the normal citizen becomes the owner of a record and receives information on other phonographic materials.
  • The challenge on behalf of a quality record industry with a non-colonial attitude, created by the antecedents set up by Ayestarán and by the defunct Antar company.
  • The many independent initiatives in the world, with their different points of view.
  • The experience of the practice of permanent swindle in the royalties of composers and performers, done by commercial companies [3].
  • The indignation about the low quality in the local manufacture of records, as a common practice of lack of respect for the community.

There was no money. Four friends [4], all musicians, decided to ask for a bank loan (to be repaid in the coming years) and thus created a very small amount of initial capital, which was conceived as a non-recoverable committed contribution. Four other friends [5] joined the initial group and pooled their non-recoverable pennies and their work. The new company was a non-company, and had neither owner or proprietor, nor did it belong to any political party [6]. Since then, the thirty years of its history have been a surreal and continuous fight for survival, acting as a "normal" enterprise in a capitalistic milieu, without asking for financial help, in a country with no foundations law [7].

The rest was the invention of practical issues to be non-capitalistic in the middle of hard capitalistic rules, to be politically free in the middle of a very strong ultra-fascist dictatorship, and to deal with the new rules of the globalizing neoliberalism that followed that period. From the initial group of eight, four members were obliged to go into exile and two others died some years later. But several young musicians (and people from other fields, such as theatre, or teaching, or even economics) joined the effort through the years, and new working teams were established repeatedly [8], while a central coordination was assured successively by two persons, until 1984 and since then [9]. After the dictatorship, special training courses allowed the new administrators to learn the market's changing rules and to adjust the policies of the nonprofit publishing house to the renewed conditions of a very small country [10]. That is how this particular Uruguayan experience of independent record publishing has lasted thirty years.

The Ediciones Tacuabé project had many missions. Good distribution became a permanent difficulty, but it was solved for the Uruguayan territory and, in the compact disc era, also in Argentina. Financial and technological limitations were overcome with wit and perseverance. Most of the recordings were done in local studios led by equally committed people, or even with the Revoxes of the members of the team. The masterings were done at the only Uruguayan mastering plant (a rather bad one), but a solution was found with the participation of members from the team of Ediciones Tacuabé, allowing to give back the wrong mothers and stampers as many times as necessary: a practice that was uncommon in Uruguay. In some cases voluntary "ambassadors" were sent to make the masterings at superior plants in Argentina or Brazil. The manufacturing was done in the best of the two pressing plants of Uruguay, with the same procedure of creating the concept of demanding high quality (which, in the facts, only meant the highest level possible, never the desired one). Cassette quality was also a problem, but it was partially solved by buying, with great effort, a copying machine.

The compact disc period has a particularity; in the beginning, it was necessary to have the discs mastered and manufactured in the Northern hemisphere, while the only plant in South America was based in Brazil and was not interested in the small quantities suitable for such a market as Uruguay's. At present, the pressing is done in Argentina, and this still means an extra effort since the discs must be imported, increasing costs. The digital era has in part been less difficult than imagined for a Uruguayan non-profit venture, since latter years have favored cheaper editing and processing made possible by personal computer software. Nonetheless, a large amount of work must still be done honorarily.

The criticism about the lack of transparency in the declarations of sold phonograms was channeled by making numbered editions, which could be controlled by the performers and by the authors. The market's low level of demand for quality was attacked by including instructions inside the covers about the care of the vinyl microgroove disks and by printing in-depth technical data on each volume. The covers were designed by local artists and solved some of the problems caused by financial and printing technical limitations [11], thus obliging the commercial companies to face the challenge.

The central concerns during Tacuabé's thirty years of history were the affirmation of regional cultural values and the conformation of a renewed culture in front of the colonial reality: all this within the frame of a sense of a large homeland, not restricted to the Uruguayan borders, but that of Latin America as a whole, open to all genres and aesthetic positions. The years of the dictatorship (until March 1985) were especially hard, and Ediciones Tacuabé helped to establish a counter-culture. Cultural resistance was in the Uruguayan case the principal political weapon against Fascism, torture and death [12]. The task was risky, but the risks were accepted as an unavoidable condition.

Since the beginning, links were established with particular artists or labels in other countries [13], some of which produced curious experiences. The Spaniard Paco Ibáñez, published as a symbol of cultural fight against Fascism, sold in Uruguay more than in Argentina, a country ten times bigger, and much more than in other Latin American countries. From the point of view of Ediciones Tacuabé, a record that sold well permitted the existence of two or three which sold poorly, since the company was not supposed to make money but to re-invest every penny in something new that needed support. The principle of solidarity was also put into practice in this field.

The principle of remaining disassociated with political parties became very important through the years, although it produced uncomfortable situations at several times. In the beginning, the difficulties came from the Uruguayan Communist Party, some of whose members preferred, during the hard dictatorship years, to support commercial companies. In 1985, at least three leftist political groups tried to establish competitive activities [14].

The criteria of Ediciones Tacuabé were partially adopted by the Argentinean label La Cornamusa [15]. And they served as a model for a Brazilian label, Tacape, founded in 1979 on similar principles to those of Ediciones Tacuabé, also by a socially committed group of musicians [16]. La Cornamusa, which had begun with records for children, enlarged its scope since 1975 and published several important titles. Tacape included colonial music in its catalogue, as well as avant-garde music, documentation of popular traditional musics, and also a pioneering phonogram of indigenous music produced by Anthony Seeger. Its activities ended some years later (1992) because of very difficult Brazilian market conditions.

The Uruguayan publishing house worked through two main labels, Tacuabé and Ayuí, using some others for special series, Palma and Ombú. The label Tacuabé was the vehicle for art music, while the label Ayuí was devoted to popular music. For some years, the production was divided between vinyl records of 17 cm (singles and doubles) and 30 cm (long-playing records). Cassettes did not arrive until 1981, and compact discs arrived only in 1993.

The aesthetic criteria were the result of a permanent dialogue and in this sense the existence of a working team (which was at the same time a board of real musicians doing creative work at the highest possible level and constantly discussing the different theoretical aspects of cultural reality) became a very important mechanism. What, from the cultural production, was missing in the cultural market, and what should be supported for the benefit of the community? From the very first issues, the scope was large. The label Tacuabé became the vehicle for avant-garde art music usually silenced by the de facto governments. Uruguayan composers were recorded from the very first year [17]. Among other things, a unique collection of new music from Latin America was published between 1976 and 1982 [18]. There were also records by several Uruguayan virtuoso players [19], Brazilian colonial music [20], several volumes of European ancient music [21], and even Armenian choral music. Later, in the compact disc era, the rescue of important Uruguayan composers of the past was added to the tasks of this label.

We find under the label Ayuí in the first three years (1971/1973):

  • Risky political songs [22], and, for the time, a very risky volume of what was to become the Nueva Trova Cubana [23].
  • Popular musicians from the anti-Franco Spain, revolutionary Cuba, pre-dictatorship Chile and also Uruguay [24].
  • Tango from Argentina and Uruguay [25].
  • Indigenous music [26].
  • Spoken records as stories for children on subjects of the country, poems read by their authors [27], stories by Uruguayan writers [28].
  • And also local rock in Spanish, Sephardic songs, a Uruguayan ensemble of balalaikas, and Argentinean jazz. And, with the ad hoc label Palma, Cuban new danceable music [29], evading censorship.

Since 1974 Ayuí's catalogue has tried to rescue some popular musicians isolated by the dictatorship [30], launching a new generation of creators and performers [31] who would have a fundamental role once the previous generation was silenced in 1973 by the second period of the dictatorship. The catalogue contains quality records for children [32], some foreign popular musicians [33] including Latin American monuments like Bola de Nieve [34] or Violeta Parra [35], as well as musicological documentation on the payador tradition [36]. Ayuí becomes in this way a kind of fulcrum for the musical resistance against the dictatorship and a key to understanding how this important movement led by a very courageous young generation could go through the walls of strong control exerted by the military regime. Since 1984, the catalogue of Ayuí has grown with names from a forbidden past [37] and names not forbidden [38], as well as with many new and important young musicians [39].

It seems, however, that the most meaningful task - and the most difficult one - has been the support given to the new generation of creators and performers born during the 1950s which, apart from having become the main phenomenon in the civil resistance against the dictatorship, has re-established the basis for the choice of genre references. This point needs a short explanation. The creative movement of the late 1950s and the 1960s had firmly established in Uruguay a taste for a popular music based on local traditions interacting freely with different influences, but resisting the imposition of colonial models through the imperialistic weapons. There is a rescue of some materials from the Montevideo carnival tradition and from the Afro-Uruguayan traditions, but this approach is still timid; rural forms being preferred. The new generation that was launched as an unexpected popular phenomenon since 1977, dares to deal more frankly with rhythmic structures and ways of singing developed in the carnival murgas and brings about the affirmation of a new genre based on the candombe of the Afro-Uruguayan culture, which had had different steps of approach during the second half of the twentieth century, becoming a new phenomenon during the 1980s and 1990s.

These two trends have totally changed the face of the Uruguayan popular music at the turn of the century, and they have strongly influenced the face of Argentinean popular music in recent years, which easily absorbs the influence. Curiously, the explosion of the new candombe has its echoes in the metropolitan North, and the word has begun to be used and misused in Europe and the United States.

During the past five years the five transnationals of the record industry seem to have changed their strategy in Latin America of using native companies as intermediaries [40] by dealing directly with the local market. In this context, Ediciones Tacuabé still thrives [41] although the situation is once again very critical. Yet thirty years have passed since the first records were issued, and these thirty years show that it is possible for this "nonsense" venture to survive, as long as its activist spirit is oriented towards the benefit of the large community [42].

The interesting aspect of this experience of three decades is that Ediciones Tacuabé becomes concrete proof that alternatives to capitalist models are possible for more than a brief period, that paths other than those of bureaucratic party-owned models are also possible, and that a culturally progressive nonprofit organization can survive not only in the capitalistic milieu of the 1970s, or the new one of these recent years, but also in the middle of one of the worst dictatorships.

With these references, we can perhaps reinitiate an indispensable discussion on dialectics between market forces and creative issues in "small countries" [43] and also in "big" countries. The work for the safegard of cultural freedom is possible. Theory and practice can coincide - at least for thirty years.

Coriún Aharonián, 2001


This text is a revised version of a paper presented at the 36th ICTM (International Council for Traditional Music) World Conference held in Rio de Janeiro, July 2001.
Published as "Technology for the Resistance: A Latin American Case" by Coriún Aharonián, from Latin American Music Review 23:2, PP. 195-205. Copyright © 2002 by the University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.