The death of Marciano Cantero, on September 8, was a surprise. The vocalist of the Enanitos Verdes was still young – two weeks earlier he had turned 62 – and it had not transpired that he suffered from any illness. But many were also surprised by the fact that Cantero was in his native Mendoza, in Argentina, and not in Mexico, a country that he had almost adopted as his own.
And it is that, for the majority of Argentines, the Green Dwarfs represent the 80s and early 90s. Later, their trail was lost, in a kind of mandela effect. If a survey had been carried out in Argentina a month earlier about whether the band was still in existence or had broken up many years ago, it is likely that the latter option would have prevailed by quite a bit.
From the successful television program that he hosts in Buenos Aires on Sundays at noon, fellow musician Jey Mammón He asked for a posthumous “pardon” to Cantero, for the fact that in his own country he has not had such great recognition as the one he obtained outside borders. As Mammón stated, “the Green Dwarfs are the soundtrack for many Argentines.” But non-Argentines for whom the songs of that band constitute the soundtrack of his life are many more.
Los Enanitos Verdes are perhaps the most paradigmatic example of a particular phenomenon: Argentine “export” bands, those that are as successful or more successful abroad than in their country of origin. Musical ambassadors whose creations found their place in the world in other latitudes, especially in the rest of Latin America, taking advantage of the language shared in almost the entire subcontinent, from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Bravo (and even beyond).
To find the origins of this “legion”, we have to go back to the 1980s. While Argentina was licking the wounds caused by the last civic-military dictatorship, a large number of new bands and young artists from National rock appeared on the scene: Los Abuelos de la Nada, Virus, Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota, Los Twist, Fito Páez, Andrés Calamaro, Juan Carlos Baglietto and others joined those who already had a career, such as Charly García, Luis Alberto Spinetta and Pappo, to name just a few.
When talking about the projection of Argentine rock in other countries, however, there is no doubt which was the key band: Soda Stereo. The trio made up of Gustavo Cerati, Charly Alberti and Zeta Bosio released the album in November 1986 signs, and throughout the following fourteen months he presented it on a marathon tour that included a hundred concerts in eleven countries (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Mexico). The Signos tour was the beginning of the conquest of America by Soda Stereo in general and Cerati in particular; and also paved the way and set the course for countless other bands to follow.
But the Signos tour was not the only thing. Also in 1986, “Rock in your language” was born, a campaign promoted by the record company BMG Ariola (today Sony Music) to promote bands and artists from Argentina, Spain and Mexico. It was in the latter country where its effects were most noticeable: the compilation albums and the Rock 101 radio signal meant that, during the second half of the 1980s, a whole wave of new music reached the Mexican public.
One of the most emblematic figures of “Rock in your language” was Miguel Mateos. After selling in Argentina –with his band ZAS– more than 500,000 copies of his album live rock, from 1985, its success spread throughout the rest of the continent. But he was also one of the first in this genre to experience that of not being a prophet in his land. Or at least, let to be. Before the end of that decade he decided to settle in the United States, in search of new professional challenges, but that absence led him to lose a space in the Argentine scene that he never managed to recover.
And it was then that the Green Dwarfs, among many others, took advantage of the momentum. During the second half of those same eighties, the band – whose name arose from the alleged appearance of an alien in a family photo and MartianCantero’s nickname – launched hits like “The Green Wall”, “For the rest of your days” and “I saw you on a train”. Others followed in the nineties: “Like yesterday”, “Friends” and, of course, “Bolivian lament”.
“Bolivian Lament” became a true anthem, one of those stainless classics that reappear every so often and are reversed and penetrate deeply into the new generations. A not so well-known fact is that it is not an original song by the Enanitos, but by another band from Mendoza, called Ethyl Alcohol, which included it on their album Packed at originfrom 1986. It is the most played Argentine song on Spotify: users have given the play more of 360 million times.
Other events contributed not only to the success of Argentine rock outside its country, but also to the arrival of many Latin American artists in countries that were not their own. One of them was the Viña del Mar Festival, which had its golden age in the 1980s and early 1990s. In that last decade of the last century, MTV Latin America also arrived, the regional signal of the largest television music network from the United States.
This channel ended up strengthening the so-called Latin rock and the circulation of music throughout the subcontinent. One of the hallmarks of MTV in those days were the recitals unplugged, “unplugged”, many of which were released as records with great commercial success. In the original version –in English– of those acoustic concerts, bands such as The Cure, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Oasis stood out. In its Latin version, the first show was that of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, in 1994. Soda Stereo and Charly García also performed there.
From then on, many bands took advantage of the path opened by their predecessors to go far with their music and, many times, paraphrasing the Martin Fierro, be bulls in their rodeo and torazos in someone else’s rodeo. Some examples: Los Pericos, Illya Kuryaki & The Valderramas, GIT, Babasónicos, Rata Blanca, Vilma Palma e Vampiros, Los Auténticos Decadentes, La Mosca, Bersuit Vergarabat, Catupecu Machu, Miranda, Attaque 77, Los Caligaris, Kapanga, 2 Minutos and signatures follow…
How do you compose a super hit, one of those songs that later sound so loud that they end up being part –sometimes even though we don’t like them so much– of the soundtrack of our lives? Can you predict that a theme will be liked, and not only in your own environment but also in many other countries, in places where you have never been, of which you do not even know their names?
Although machines and algorithms are getting closer to finding the answer to these questions, the question remains a mystery. Without a doubt, the Green Dwarfs could not have imagined the scope that their version of “Bolivian Lament” would have. Much less its composers, Raúl Federico Gómez and Natalio Faingold, would have suspected that, almost four decades later, that apparently simple and unpretentious song would be the most listened to in Argentine music.
The time has changed. Now physical records hardly exist anymore and music circulates along very different paths than in the 1980s and 1990s, when Argentine and Latin rock forged their greatest creations. Even more so: rock (that enormous amalgamation of rhythms that range from classic rock and roll to the most sweetened pop, going through various categorizations such as punk, metal, alternative, progressive, grunge, psychedelic or neighborhood and its approaches and fusions with blues, funk, jazz, ska and who knows how many other genres) seems to have ceased –or is ceasing– to be what it was for decades: the main form of musical expression for youth. It remains to be seen if this transition is confirmed and, if so, how the new genres make their own way.
But the songs continue to go their own way, whether we like it or not. It can always happen to us that, while we walk around any corner of the continent or the world, some chords, a melody or a voice that are part of the soundtrack of our life come our way and surprise us. We can find many reasons and explanations about how that music got there. However, in a sense, those episodes will always hold something of a mystery.