10 History Lessons We Learned From Latin Songs

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“Why do we have to memorize those stupid dates?” must be amongst the most repeated student complains ever. I don’t know about most of you but I was always a bit of a history nerd, and knowing the exact dates that events took place in history never really bothered me.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my last name means “date” in Italian. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is compartmentalized; whenever somebody mentions a year, the names of the albums that were released and the most popular songs of that specific year come to mind.

So, just because I’m an insufferable geek, the other day I was wondering if it’d be possible to do the exercise the other way around and try to pull historically relevant (or not) data from songs that had dates as titles. There are plenty of these in the Anglo songbook, from New Order‘s “1963” to Smashing Pumpkins‘ “1979,” and who could forget about the prophecies Prince had for “1999”? But, what about Latin songs?

Here are Top 10 Latin “historical” tracks for you, plus a futuristic bonus!

Shakira - 1968

Yes, Shakira did a song about one of the most historically significant years for youth rebellion, world-wide. You probably never heard of it because this is pre-Pies Descalzos, 16-year-old Shakira, and she kinda denies that part of her discography.

In 1968, students were taking over the streets of Paris, and Prague was experiencing its Spring. Same year, Mexico wasn’t just hosting the Olympics, it was also sending down the army to repress the student rally in Tlatelolco. The bloody event left the Mexican youth scarred forever, inspiring songs like Maldita Vecindad’s “2 De Octubre,” Panteón Rococó‘s “Nada Pasó“, Banda Bostik‘s “Tlatelolco 1968” and countless others. Shakira’s early song however focuses on the hippies’ flower power and Vietnam — it doesn’t mention the incidents in Mexico.

The Colombian superstar didn’t know it when she co-wrote her song. However, fifteen years earlier, Joaquín Sabina had already penned a song with that same exact title, retelling the many important events of that year, including, yes, a mention to Mexico’s massacre.

Ana Tijoux - 1977

One day of June 1977 (the 12th to be precise) Ana María Tijoux was born to Chilean exiles in Lille, France while escaping the repression of Pinochet’s regime.

Around that time, in New York, disenfranchised kids thought rock was getting too corporate and in response they created punk rock, hip-hop and disco. Most of Latin America, however was oblivious to this. They were submitted to ultra-conservative backwards policies and military dictatorships that slowed down the birth and expansion of rock en español.

Still, some counterculture expressions managed to gain certain exposure. Both in Chile and neighbor Argentina, folk and progressive rock were the favorite music of the long-haired rebel youth. The most popular in Chile was Los Jaivas, who released Canción Del Sur in 1977.

Fun People - 1978

Many in Argentina remember 1978 as a glorious year: the national soccer team won the world cup for the first time, playing at home. No doubt that was a historically relevant event, but others, like hardcore punk legends Fun People (now known as Boom Boom Kid‘s former band), remember the other story, the one that the newspapers weren’t covering then.

The systematic extermination of thousands of left-leaning kids in college age was taking place pretty much unnoticed, and many of them died in the hands of the infamous general Ramón Camps, to whom this song (included in Fun People’s debut) is dedicated.

That year, rock en español pioneer Charly García formed his third band, Serú Girán and released a self-titled album containing the anthemic “Seminare,” an immortal genre classic. Also in 1978, über-producer Gustavo Santaolalla, back then still a hippie rocker, abandoned his second band Soluna and moved to Los Angeles, California.

Campo & Jorge Drexler - 1987

We don’t know what motivated Jorge Drexler to want to set his time-machine arrival date to 1987, but we can speculate it must have some personal nostalgic value for the Uruguayan singer-songwriter. Why would he want to relive that year? What was going on?

Internationally, it was a pretty significant year for Latin music crossovers. The year’s biggest hit single was Los Lobos‘ “La Bamba” off the soundtrack of the Ritchie Valens bio-pic. Meanwhile, Madonna was asking everybody “quién es esa chica?” trying to score a second bi-lingual hit after “La Isla Bonita” propelled her to Latin American stardom the year before.

In 1987, Spain gave birth to Héroes Del Silencio first self-titled EP. Across the ocean (and light-years away in rocker cred), Maná also had their self-titled debut that year. In Argentina, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs scored their first massive hit with “Yo Te Avisé,” while Buenos Aires’ underground mourned the death of its most influential figure, Sumo‘s Luca Prodan.

What was going on in Uruguay that was so memorable? We have no idea. We only know that a festival with six local rock bands resulted in Rock En El Palacio, the first live rock album in Uruguayan history. Maybe Drexler was there in the crowd scoring first base with his teen girlfriend. Who knows?

Sumo - 1989

Before dying in December 1987, the Italian-born singer of Argentina’s underground legendary band Sumo recorded one last genius album, After Chabón that included this reggae hit. The non-explanatory lyrics in English, paired with a vague title in Spanish don’t give us much of a clue for what exactly was supposed to happen in 1989 that he was so eagerly expecting. Did he actually predict the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Block? Could he foresee the start of Menem’s era in Argentinian politics?

Thing is, 1989 was a remarkably significant year in many ways, some even claim it was a world-wide paradigm shift with the beginning of the globalization era. This was reflected in the music that came out that year, but also, as you’ll see, in the many songs that evoke it as a historical landmark.

To this day “No Tan Distintos” (most popularly known as “1989”) remains one of the biggest reggae anthems in Argentina. It has been covered by pretty much every aspiring dreadlocked-porteño… and this guy.

Bitman & Roban - 1989

There are multiple possible reasons why this instrumental song by Chilean electronica duo Bitman & Roban (Latin Bitman’s pre-solo project) may have been titled “1989.”

The year 1989 is full of emotional significance for Chileans since it marks the return of democracy, after 17 years of military dictatorship (for more on this watch Gael Garcia Bernal in the Oscar nominated No). With the end of the tyranny, hundreds of exiled Chileans started to move back home and with them they brought their kids, born and/or raised abroad.

Some of these kids were coming back to Santiago with hip-hop tapes, a music style that was experiencing its golden age in the northern hemisphere, but was still virtually unknown in the extreme south of the continent. Ana Tijoux, a frequent collaborator on Bitman’s productions, was one of those kids (so were the other three members of her former group Makiza). Hence, many point out at 1989 as the birth of the Chilean hip-hop scene.

But maybe the track has nothing to do with that, and gets its name because of the main sample, the strong bass-line borrowed from the song “I Bleed” of Pixies’ Doolittle – a seminal album released in (you guessed it!) 1989.

Emicida - 1989

It wasn’t Pinochet’s the only military dictatorship that ended in 1989. That year Brazil celebrated its first free democratic elections in almost 30 years. In São Paulo, a new scene was starting to emerge from the underground –the year before that, the first two Brazilian rap compilations had been released marking the formalization of the local hip-hop movement.

Emicida, however, was barely four years old when all this was happening around him. He was way too young to rap and to understand the political shift his country was going through. But he does remember that particular year as the most important one in his formative years.

Mixing nostalgia with irony, Emicida’s “1989” is about progress, about seeing his poor neighborhood welcoming modernization with the arrival of pavement and other urban luxuries.

Soda Stereo - 1990

So far, most of the songs listed on this chronology talked about the past. Soda Stereo’s “1990” however was actually released the same year of the song’s title.

Gustavo Cerati was never one to look back and reminisce much, and at that point, he wasn’t yet interested in anticipating the future (he would do that two years later with Colores Santos, his collaboration with Daniel Melero). In 1990, his band, Soda Stereo, was experiencing the highest plateau in their career. With the album Canción Animal, they had positioned themselves comfortably at the very top of all Latin American rock en español, after extensively touring the continent. In Argentina they were second to none, no other local artist had ever summon bigger crowds than Soda at the beginning of that decade.

Hence, when he says in the chorus he’s “anchored in 1990” we can easily infer that he was very much enjoying his present and he was wishing things would remain like that forever.

Natalia Lafourcade - 2000

Even though the song was released in 2003, it talks about the year 2000 in the present (and at times future) tense, which could simply mean that Natalia Lafourcade actually wrote this song back then and it didn’t get released until three years later.

In 2000, she had to be around sixteen years old and that’s probably why she has the chorus girls dressed in quinceañera fashion, it was still a fresh memory.

This coming-of-age song doesn’t give us much of a glimpse of the historic moment Mexico (first non-PRI president ever elected) or the world (the whole Y2K hoax) went through in 2000, but she drops some anecdotal data about the period’s fashion (clear bra straps were the coolest new lingerie item), sociology (the persistent racism and classism in Mexico), and most important: a time when a closeted Ricky Martin was still considered a heartthrob and clueless girls would cut out his photos from teen magazines.

Cea and Bronko Yote - 2011

Like Soda Stereo did 21 years earlier, but totally unrelated, Chilean new school rapper Cea dropped his contagious “2011” single in 2011. Unlike Soda Stereo, he was still pretty new to the scene and most probably wasn’t enjoying the luxuries of international fame and fortune. Instead, he was just bragging about being current, being up to date with the newest trends, being the coolest new thing of the year—a recurring theme in the ever-evolving hip-hop realm.

If we need to remind you of what was going on in 2011 — because you already forgot and you’re too lazy to go back and check the Remezcla archives — well, let’s just say that Chilean hip-hop was at the highest point of international exposure in its history. Ana Tijoux was tirelessly touring the Northern Hemisphere — she first released her Elefant mixtape early in the year, and later in November, her third solo album, La Bala, came out in Chile. That same year, her label in the US, Nacional Records, also released two remarkable gems of Chilean hip-hop to the international market: DJ Raff’s US debut Latino & Proud and Latin Bitman’s collaboration with Eric Bobo under the name Ritmo Machine. So yeah, it was a good year for the Chilean rap harvest.

Sólo Los Solo - 2015

The future is almost here. 2015 was the year Marty McFly traveled with his Delorean on a futuristic voyage — it was 1989, the first sequel to the Back To The Future saga. For any ’80s kid, myself included, 2015 always seemed like the coolest future date to look forward to, and trust me, many of us are still hoping that in the next couple of years somebody will come out with the hoverboard.

My guess is that Barcelona’s top producer Giffi has also been waiting impatiently for this date for that same particular reason. Back in 2000, he had already dropped his then-futuristic solo masterpiece Akay Lama En El Funkarreo Del 2015, an album that included not one, but two songs referring to that future date. Later in 2001, with his duo Sólo Los Solo, he went over the theme again on this track about b-boys from the future.

While most other hip-hop producers in the Spanish scene wanted to be up-to date with the newest trends in the US, Griffi was trying to guess how hip-hop beats would sound like fifteen years in the future. His predictions might be as off as flying cars and hoverboards, but that’s not stopping us from wishing both to come true two years from now.