Sui Generis’ Pequeñas Anécdotas sobre las Instituciones: Art and youth culture under censorship

Agustin De Julio Reviews

Charly Garcia, Argentinean musician and larger-than-life figure, was arrested for indecent exposure after a concert in the province of Mendoza. Minutes before, an agent knocked on the door of his dressing room, announcing himself: ‘Open up, I’m a policeman’. Garcia, silver tongued as ever, responded: ‘It’s not my fault you didn’t study enough.’

Though there is disagreement about if this anecdote happened during the bloody Argentinean dictatorship of 1976-1983 or after, it still paints an eloquent picture of Sui Generis’ songwriter and the general disrespect for authority of a great part of an Argentinean generation, a tradition lovingly passed on to younger generations.

The record was initially conceptualised as an oeuvre with one track dedicated to each pertinent institution of Argentina under the several dictatorships of the ‘70s and the María Estela de Peron government. Las Increíbles Aventuras del Señor Tijeras (The incredible adventures of Mr Scissors), targeted directly the government censorship body, depicted the censor as a tormented, perverted bureaucrat taking disproportionate pleasure in cutting and discarding sections of film rolls. Música de Fondo para Cualquier Fiesta Animada (Background music for any given lively party) charges fiercely at the judiciary for their defective moral compass and general inaction in the face of injustice. Botas Locas (Crazy Boots), mocks the army, through Garcia’s own experience of being drafted: ‘If they are the Fatherland, then I’m a foreigner.’ Unsurprisingly, this track did not make the final cut, under political pressure to drop it from the final pressing. Censorship is the factor that ended up giving the record its identity and form. From the initial idea, a loose concept album developed, with lyrics carefully adjusted to bypass censorship. The euphemisms and lively images painted by the duo ended up marking a whole generation of Argentines: the message, censored as it was, was universal enough to be understood by whoever was willing to listen.

Argentina, during the times of Sui Generis, was in a state of extreme political turbulence. After the democratically elected General Peron’s death in 1974, his last wife and running mate, Maria Estela, took the role of acting president. De Peron struggled to profile herself as legitimate, and faced relentless pressure from both left-wing armed insurrection and right-wing factions of the military opposed to her rule. Her political alliance with the Argentinean Anti-Communist Alliance, a military backed, right-wing death squad which persecuted political opponents and established an intricate censorship apparatus, meant that the press, artists, and intellectuals were constantly under scrutiny.

Instituciones marked the end of the road for Sui Generis. The duo, once famous for their beautifully crafted folk ballads, left their niche to embrace modern instruments and venture into political satire, a move not particularly valued by the public or the press. Both went on to become successful solo artists, with Garcia penning several generational anthems about the dark times of the Argentinian military dictatorship.

Why should you not listen to this album?

Instituciones, a conceptual work recorded under strict surveillance and state censorship, does not explicitly give away details of the inner workings of the late María Estela de Perón government, nor directly comments on the impending coup d’etat. Instead, it delivers social commentary under extreme external pressure. It does not lend itself for zingers or direct quotations ready to include in the classroom. Musically, the duo’s incursion into progressive rock and synthesisers might be alienating for the casual listener.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Instituciones is a paramount showcase of popular culture intersecting with momentous historical trends. It is a reminder to educators to look beyond the classics, and not to forget the importance of popular movements throughout history. This example also encourages history educators to employ multidisciplinary approaches in the classroom that go beyond the textbook.

Baez will always feature in Vietnam War lessons. Dylan is central to the Civil Rights Movement. In the same fashion, Sui Generis is paramount to Argentine youth culture under authoritarianism. Such responses to authoritarianism and censorship can be found in most cases throughout the past century and are worthy of attention in the classroom, given the enormous potential for resonance among students of the topic of youth resistance. EUROCLIO’s project Silencing Citizens through Censorship developed educational resources on a number of European cases of state censorship, such as Vichy France, Franco’s Spain and post-1945 Hungary, which are excellent to treat this sensitive topic. This review is, ultimately, also a reminder of the importance of inculcating students with a deep respect for free speech, especially in times when it cannot be taken for granted.

Author Sui Generis
Original title Pequeñas Anécdotas sobre las Instituciones
Original language Spanish
Available in Spanish
Publication year 1974
Length 40'26''
Genre Folk rock, progressive rock