Revolting With Style


new internationalist
issue 167 - January 1987

Revolting with style
'If I can't dance to it, it isn't my revolution' said the revolutionary
writer Emma Goldman. She was pointing out that politics should be fun;
but whether the children of a revolution should dance to the music of
their oppressor is another question. Wendy Slack, who visited Nicaragua
recently, looks to see whether we should jibe at the vibes.

As I sat at Managua airport waiting to go through customs I realised I was humming along to the music coming over the loud speaker. Madonna was coming loud and clear over the airwaves.

During my two-week stay in Nicaragua I was to hear the same Madonna hit over and over again on the radio. Pop music is heard everywhere in Nicaragua. There is not much variety and the same songs get repeated endlessly.

Political art: a mural in Nicaragua.
Photo: Peter Stalker

Nicaraguan pop records are nearly always imports from the US. The radio plays US music endlessly when it broadcasts pop. Anything from Tina Turner to the Beach Boys to Jim Reeves is played on it. But everyone's favourite is Michael Jackson. Ask any young Nicaraguan who their favourite pop star is and they will reply 'Michael'.

Why is it that US music is so popular in a Third World country like Nicaragua. and is there a cultural imperialism which corrupts the independent spirit as effectively as the Contra invasions? It seems as if pop in Nicaragua plays a very similar role in the lives of the young as it does in the West. The teenagers I spoke to all felt a need to have their own youth culture. They liked pop because it helped them to establish their own identity: to know about something their parents had no part in.

Most parents didn't object. For example, seven-year-old Duavel Volonos who lives with his parents at Fundeci is a great Michael Jackson fan and has several of his tapes. His family could not afford to buy them. But he has uncles who live in the US and send them to him. Duavel' s mother, Carmen, told me 'The children must have an interest of their own. We have no objection to US music in our house. It's only the US government we are against'.

It is not surprising that the Nicaraguans do not mind their children enjoying Western pop, as music plays an important part in their lives. There is a big market for local music, and many community activities are centred around it Whilst I was visiting, I saw evidence of this. One evening a huge crowd of young people drew me to the town square in León. Loud salsa music was coming from a window on the second floor of a building and large crowds were gathered outside; some were dancing, others pushing at the door - trying to get in. Inside a talent contest was being judged. Just then a group of people appeared on the balcony and the crowd below went wild. They were the local hopefuls.

Salsa has long been apart of Nicaraguan culture. Salsa has been formed by the merging of African and Caribbean musical traditions until the two made a new artistic form. Nowadays pop music is going through the same process of becoming a part of the local culture. At Fundeci barrio, a community housing suburb on the outskirts of León, the community hall - which also doubles as the church - has an altar on one side. On a table at the head of the hall there is a ghetto blaster. Apart from church services and dances the hull is also used for barrio meetings. Through its use in the community, I felt that US pop could easily become as authentically Nicaraguan as salsa.

But the effects of the pop invasion are not limited to music. The Nicaraguans allow related fashions, patterns of consumerism and style into their country. The patterns of consumerism that belong with US pop cannot be so easily absorbed as the music. For the up-to-date Nicaraguan teenager, clothes are the biggest problem. Everyone wants to be seen in denims. Levis and Wrangler jeans and trainers are all the rage. But the price is prohibitive. A shoe store in León had a pair of the latest style trainers and the price was a staggering 270,000 cordobas ($192). The average monthly wage of a professional such as a teacher is 30,000 cordobas ($21). By providing a model for unattainable Western patterns of consumerism, US pop may be doing serious harm to Nicaraguan culture.

Teenagers covet US consumer goods whilst the most basic essentials are in short supply. Meat and bread have to be queued for, you never find soap and washing powder on the supermarket shelves. And shortages like this apply throughout the economy. In hospitals, medicines are in short supply; technical equipment frequently breaks down because of lack of spares and expertise to repair them. In schools, pens, pencils and paper are scarce; there are no text books and many school buildings need repair.

Does the desire for US luxury goods in the midst of scarcity make the young rebel against their own culture? To find out I visited San Filippe, a school in León. It was in a sorry state indeed. I arrived one evening to find the building in darkness. The electricity had failed: this, I discovered, was a regular occurrence. Several classes were therefore gathered together in one room where emergency lighting had been rigged up. The school had other problems too. Doors were hanging off their hinges, ceilings were falling down and windows were broken.

Pastora Granera, a teacher and our guide for the evening, apologised. She told us 'We are trying to find a way to build a wall around the school. We have problems here with vandals and adult education classes in particular are subject to frequent attacks. The police have helped us, but the vandals still come back and break in'. I was intrigued. I'd never seen any sign of vandalism elsewhere in the town. I asked who these vandals were. 'Break-dancing gangs. Teenagers who have music from the US - it's a bad influence and encourages them to behave badly.' She went on: 'North Americans are persuading these boys to cause damage to our country. They do not want to be educated, so they wreck our schools and prevent others from learning'.

I doubted Pastora's reasoning. Break-dancing wasn't the pastime of just this group of hooligans. In one class we visited almost everyone present admitted to being able to break-dance. They were pupils at that same school and were committed to learning. Pop is not undermining Nicaraguan socialism. Reagan's support for the Contras, and the subsequent dislocation of the Nicaraguan economy, is. The young people I spoke to loved pop and wanted to be part of the new Nicaragua. They wanted to help make Nicaragua their country: a nation to be proud of. And if Michael Jackson provides them with inspiration, then roll on Billy Jean.

Wendy Slack, a member of the NI Co-operative, type-set this magazine. She visited Nicaragua as member of a delegation from Oxford to León, its twin town.

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