In the early 1980s, when I first visited Buenos Aires, Argentina was still under control of a vicious military dictatorship that kidnapped and killed tens of thousands of its political opponents. I had visited Argentine Patagonia in early 1979, and had some unpleasant encounters there, but in the capital the tension was still palpable. I recall, for instance, seeing city buses stopped and riders searched on the ride into town from the international airport at Ezeiza.
That said, Buenos Aires still had a vigorous street life and nightlife – unlike Chile’s Pinochet regime, the Argentine military never imposed a curfew on the public. In Santiago, you couldn’t be on the street after 11 p.m., so parties would start early and go until daylight, but there were no such restrictions east of the Andes.
In Buenos Aires, one of my most memorable experiences was seeing a performance by the musical comedy group Les Luthiers, which came to mind recently when I read the obituary of founding member José Rabinovich (the Creative Commons photo at top advertises a performance in Montevideo). At a time when repression was the norm, Les Luthiers dared to speak out satirically – when I saw them, they spoofed the introduction of a series of general and admirals occupying the country’s highest posts, with one exception: the minister for education was a virtually illiterate corporal. In the clip above, with Rabinovich in the middle, they bemoan Argentina's border problems with Norway - obviously an oblique reference to nationalistic manipulation of the dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands.
In the English-speaking world, I might compare Les Luthiers with the Bonzo Dog Band, who also created their own instruments and satirized British society, though they were rarely so openly political. In one instance, though, the threat of a libel suit obliged them to remove a reference to Conservative politician Quintin Hogg – in “The Intro and the Outro” (see above), a modified version of Duke Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues” (see below), they had credited Hogg with contributing a “piggy grunt” to the song. In cases like this, British defamation laws are far more rigorous than their North American counterparts, but the Bonzos were never in danger of being jailed or anything more serious.
I never saw the Bonzos live and, when I saw Les Luthiers, my Spanish wasn’t good enough to understand everything that was going on, but their act was visual enough for me to get the gist. Even without Rabinovich, the surviving members will continue to perform and, if you’re in Buenos Aires, elsewhere in Argentina, Uruguay or even Spain with the opportunity to see them – well, don’t miss it!