Trans National Aural Identity

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By 2017-04-09

By Indeewara Thilakarathne

This week we explore the evolution of the Latin American cinema and how it preserves its trans national aural identity in the process, particularly through the effective use of technology.

In "Aural Identity, Genealogies of Sound Technologies, and Hispanic Trans nationality on Screen", Marvin D'lugo observes these seminal developments as, "The 1940s marked a curious and contradictory new chapter in the ongoing competition between Hollywood and Latin American film industries". Just as the Mexican ranchera musical was flourishing throughout the region, Hollywood revived its own Hispanic musical vogue of the early 1930s (Flying Down to Rio, etc.) as a 'pan-American' genre, in a series of films that coincided with and exploited the Roosevelt administration's 'Good Neighbor' policy. Exotic yet inviting Latin American settings and music were highlighted in such films as Down Argentine Way (Irving Cummings, 1940), Weekend in Havana (Walter Lang, 1941) and The Gang's All Here (Busby Berkeley, 1943).

In Hollywood's version of Latin American ethnography, the Portuguese-speaking Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda, served as a stand-in for the prototypical Latin American, reviving the argument that Hollywood was insensitive to regional cultural difference. Hollywood's Latin American vogue found very little enthusiasm among Latin America audiences since home-grown productions boasted stars, who could really speak and sing in Spanish. The decade of the 1940s, in fact, witnessed the broader diffusion of the transnational Hispanic musical as a 'native' genre, mirroring and yet competing with Hollywood's musical forms.

While Hollywood's formula was largely built on a touristy depiction of colorful Latin American stereotypes, the Latin American mode of address to its film audiences was through the nostalgic and sentimental appeal of the Latin 'difference.' We may see this, for instance in the movie career of Pedro Infante, who had been performing on Mexican radio since the mid- 1930s. Infante made his screen debut as a singing cowboy in Juan José Segura's Cuando habla en corazón (When the Heart Speaks, 1943), a blatant imitation of Rancho Grande. By the decade's end, he would be the most internationally acclaimed of ranchera singers, in many ways a Hispanic superstar of the trans national appeal of Gardel. Part of the cultural stereotype employed by Infante and the other major singing cowboy of Mexican cinema of the period, Jorge Negrete, was that, besides riding and singing, as did Gene Autry and other Hollywood cowboys, they both cultivated an off-screen persona as womanizers and often mirrored that role in the characters they played.

Interestingly, in these film plots, their seductive powers were often linked to their singing performance. Affirming Latin masculine traits and the force of patriarchal culture, these figures embodied the ranchera tradition's ideological investment in a nostalgia mode that repudiated the modernity of urban and particularly US culture.

By the 1940s, the Mexican film industry had become the Mecca of this trans national Latin American film industry. The country was a cultural and political 'buffer' between the United States and Latin America. With the US efforts to destabilize the film industry of the Nazi-sympathizing Argentine regime, Mexican cinema enjoyed a major infusion of US industrial capital for its own technological modernization, thus converting it during World

War II into a crucial 'space in between.' That is, Mexican films translated North American modernity into a Hispanic idiom, while enacting the Good Neighbor policy through varied film plots.

An interesting development that took place in the 1940s was the emergence of Mexican film industry as the Mecca of trans national Latin American film industry and its innate ability to translate North American modernity into an Hispanic idiom, thereby preserving the trans national aural identity of the industry.

Marvin D'lugo further observes, "Given the appeal of Mexican films for hemispheric export, and the collapse of competition from Europe, most notably Spain, which had just gone through a devastating civil war that destroyed earlier efforts at a transnational film industry, Mexican cinema was able to maintain a strong industrial and financial base. Geopolitics and industrial power thereby helped encourage a symbolic migration of Latin American music to Mexico through a form of talent transfer hitherto unseen in the Hispanic world".

As Ana López notes, 'Mexican cinema became the great musical equalizer, regularly featuring and absorbing popular Latin American rhythms and performers, Argentine tangos (via Libertad Lamarque), Cuban rumbas (Ninón Sevilla, María Antonia Pons, Blanquita Amaro), sones (Rita Montaner), and later mambos, cha cha chas, and even sambas.' As a result, according to López, 'Mexican cinema outside the ranchera genre posited Latin American music and dance as general markers of a 'Latin-ness' increasingly dissociated from any national specific.' Again, it was radio that first picked up this cinematic trope and recirculated it across borders. Monsiváis sees radio, cinema, and sound recordings becoming complementary expressions of the same trans national aural identity during this period, 'Technology is fundamental to this process. The film and radio industries provide songs with landscapes that last. And radio, that most persuasive of media, chooses the voices and styles to be privileged, especially from 1930 onwards, after the establishment of the XEW radio station Empire.'

It was not the ranchera song, however, so deeply rooted in a Mexican cultural imaginary, but the hybridized bolero, that facilitated the development of the decade's transnational musical sound. As Monsiváis argues, before it became an industry, the bolero 'was a matter of collective creation.' Ethno-musicologists trace the diverse genealogy of the genre from its Spanish origins to its transformation into a Cuban musical and dance form, finally to its appropriation within Mexican cinema and radio.

The rise of the bolero coincided historically with the emergence of sound-based technologies of mass media. The 'golden age' of bolero music, 1930–60, nearly perfectly coincides with the época de oro of Mexico's export film industry. As well, that epoch is marked by the emergence of Agustín Lara and concludes with the international careers of El trio Los Panchos, whose formulation of the Mexican bolero style was inherited from Lara and who, like Lara, first came to prominence in Mexico through their performances on XEW. Los Panchos appeared in sixteen films during the 1940s and 1950s."

In conclusion, the aural identity established through music has played a prominent role in Latin American film industry, paving the way for its actors to establish successful international careers.

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