Shakers And Mockers: Uruguay's Place In Latin Rock History
by ERIC ZOLOV
Squeezed in between mighty Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has historically served as a geopolitical buffer zone, a nation whose own political and cultural identity has been overshadowed by its powerful neighbors. Yet during the 1960s this small country generated some of the most original rock found anywhere in the hemisphere. Foreign influences abounded, from the Anglo-rock invasion by the U.K. and the U.S., to the commercialized pop of Argentina and the cultural remixings of the Brazilian tropicalistas. Uruguayan rockers chewed on these influences and spat them back, mockingly at first and more somberly as the night of political repression fell.
Uruguay was long known as the Switzerland of South America. It had a stable, two-party political system with a large middle class. The military had stayed out of politics and wasn't expected to come back. When Beatlemania hit the Western Hemisphere, Uruguayan youth were especially ready to join in the revelry. "Discódromo," a freewheeling radio program (and, later, TV show) started by Rubén Castillo in 1960, had already exposed the youth of Montevideo, Uruguay's capital, to the teen culture emerging abroad. In the years to come, Discódromo would play a key role in supporting and disseminating the nation's homegrown rock talents.
In 1964 a Uruguayan quartet, led by the talented Fattoruso brothers, decided to recreate the Beatles at home. They did so in the form of Los Shakers, a pop-rock sensation who established a high bar for miming metropolitan rock. Uruguay's era of English-language música beat had begun. Other groups soon followed, notably Los Mockers, whose artful impersonation of The Rolling Stones was the counterpart to Los Shakers. Here's Los Shakers doing "Let Me Go":
Although the lead singer, Polo Pereira, could not speak English, his ability to channel the persona of Mick Jagger was truly mind-blowing. Even their name (a combination of mods and rockers) conveyed the coy, tongue-in-cheek defiance that characterized the spirit of many of these bands: defiance toward one's elders, certainly, but also toward the geographical fate of Uruguay itself, tucked away at the bottom of the South American continent.
Here are Los Mockers doing their version of "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones, protruding lips and guttural sneer wholly intact:
The legends of Los Mockers and, especially, Los Shakers quickly spread not only to Argentina, where they both recorded and were carefully managed by their handlers, but beyond.
By the mid 1960s, scores of so-called "beat bands" were performing across Uruguay. They did so in spaces ranging from the semi-underground cuevas (caves), as they were known, to the ritzy hotels and private clubs that dotted the country's beach resorts. Except for Los Shakers, whose subsequent recordings were mostly originals, these bands essentially performed covers of foreign hits. Moreover, they all sang in English. They did so not sheepishly but with unabashed exuberance (even when their diction was less than perfect). As Esteban Hirschfield, organist for Los Mockers, later remarked in an interview, there was "no shame" in imitating the Stones "as closely as possible." "On the contrary," he reflected, "we were proud of it."
Singing in English seemed the obvious ticket for staking a claim to a world beyond Uruguay. It was, as cultural theorist Abril Trigo has suggested, a logical way to be taken seriously for a "Europeanized but peripheral youth who desperately wanted to be modern." It also led to some exceptionally fine original rock in a language that was not one's own, such as Los Shakers, at the peak of their commercial success, performing their 1966 bossa nova-influenced hit, "Never, Never":
By 1968, the cultural climate for making music was undergoing a radical shift. A self-confidence established over the previous years had laid the foundations for greater experimentation. The political situation had shifted as well. Los Tupamaros, an urban guerrilla group, captured the headlines with a spate of kidnappings in the name of revolutionary justice. Che Guevara was dead, but his spirit was more alive than ever. In June 1968, the president declared a state of emergency, suspending numerous constitutional protections. Uruguay was now on a slippery slope that lead to direct military rule in 1973.
That year, the country's two most important bands, Los Shakers and Los Mockers, both broke up. Their dissolution marked the end of an era in which, for a brief period, English-language Uruguayan rock dominated the South American pop charts. As Osvaldo Fattoruso of Los Shakers later noted, the band was "tired of playing at being the Beatles." The band's last swipe was the masterful La Conferencia Secreta Del Toto's Bar, an album clearly influenced by The Beatles' recent release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. La Conferencia Secreta serves as a kind of time capsule of a pivotal moment in 1960s Uruguay: a moment when rock was becoming politicized and a new, far more organic musical sensibility began to take hold.
The bite was still there, as bold as ever, but the subject matter had become more serious. Such was reflected in the album's title cut, a sardonic retelling of the 1962 meeting that led to the expulsion of Cuba from the Organization of American States. "Maybe I read it in a storybook/Maybe in a picture/beneath the author's desk/There were three generals with little boots/Each one with a pocketful of medals/. . ./From London, Paris, Berlin, they went on holidays/They billed the kids from Uruguay/And stopped Sir Rafael":
The era of a unique, Uruguayan commercialized rock had largely ended. But a new era, one spearheaded by the experimental "candombe-rock" of El Kinto, on one hand, and the progressive rock of bands such as Psiglo was about to begin.