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Music With a Message: Surfing the Wave of Nicaragua's Socially Conscious Rock Scene

Nicaraguan musicians with a social message simply can’t afford to stop playing.
October 8, 2015, 6:31pm

Alejandro Mejia / Phoot by Mauricio Rosales

The passion for music runs deep in a country where it was a key part of its indigenous culture and 20th century revolutionary movements. On any given weekend, you can find half a dozen concerts in dingy, beloved bars and cultural centers. Nicaraguan musicians aren’t in it to make a living, however; the cover charge for those concerts rarely exceeds $4, and most bands give away their mp3s for free on Soundcloud or on burned CDs.

The biggest bands might land a gig playing a sponsored festival on the roof of the mall’s parking garage or at the university soccer field. A few groups and artists land coveted sponsorships from major corporations, like the national beer companies, Pepsi Co or phone service companies—though the prize for those sponsorships is mostly publicity rather than cash, notes guitarist and songwriter Mario Ruiz.

“Society needs art to survive. That’s why we keep it up,” Ruiz said. He is one of the many Nicaraguan musicians who incorporate social messages into their lyrics. Their commitment to music as a community has flourished in the last 30 years, when contemporary sounds from around the world flowed into the country after a U.S.-imposed embargo instigated by Ronald Reagan after the Sandinistas succeeded in the revolution staged against a U.S.-backed dictator was finally lifted. Today, it’s not uncommon for bands to infuse classic Nicaraguan sounds, like cumbia and folkloric music, with rock, electronic and rap music.

“During the embargo, we worked together. Those who could get music fed other’s hunger,” said Alejandro Mejia, a metal king in Nicaragua and an heir of the legendary Mejia Godoy family, whose music helped craft the sound of the ’79 revolution. Their music inspired people to support social movements at the time, and patriarchs Carlos Mejia Godoy and salsa legend Luis Enrique continue to play. “The rockers of the 80s were very united, any time one of us got a record we shared it with everyone. When the embargo finally ended, it was like a flood. People were so hungry for new sounds.”

Mejia’s current group, Carga Cerrada, is one of the most active metal outfits in Nicaragua and plays at least once a month. For Mejia, who has played in metal bands in Nicaragua since 1987, music is a tool of personal and community transformation. He has Tourette’s syndrome, a nervous system disorder that almost no one in the country knows about, including doctors. Mejia uses his music and his public platform to talk about the syndrome and educate people. And there’s something else. “When I play music, my tics stop,” Mejia said. “I just want people to know that those of us with Tourette’s have a lot of capacity to do great things, as much as any person.”

Gaby Baca / Photo by Johanna Baca

Mejia has also used hard rock to talk about poverty, drug abuse and other social ills to get a positive message out to young people who may not otherwise hear it, collaborating with UNICEF to play concerts and support work against child trafficking. In fact, many contemporary artists are spreading social messages in the music they make. Singer-songwriter Gaby Baca points out that it can be hard to achieve commercial success doing so, but that doesn’t stop her from talking about feminism in her rock and rap music. Her music career has made her one of Nicaragua’s most visible lesbians, and she is proud to join a tradition of Latin American feminists making political music. “I want to sing fear to power,” Baca said.

Like most young people in Latin America, Baca grew up on a mix of American rock and pop—her first CD was Donna Summers’ Bad Girls—and Latin American revolutionary artists like Silvio Rodriguez. Diverse influences gave her a springboard to dabble in different genres. One of her most important efforts is a pop rock track called “Todas Juntas, Todas Libres” (all together, all free) that she created with fellow Nica artists Elsa Basil and Clara Grun. In collaboration with Central American and international feminist NGOs, they distributed the song and video throughout the world.

Mario Ruiz began studying music as a teen, and while at college, he met the musicians with whom he would form a group that eventually became Milly Majuc, a ska band that is currently one of Nicaragua’s most popular contemporary groups. Their concerts in Managua attract hundreds, sometimes thousands of fans, who dance their way through high-energy tracks about everything from lost love and great sex to world peace. Ruiz also fronts another rock band, Garcín, and helps promote bands and organize concerts throughout the country. Contemporary Nicaraguan music has its roots in the revolution, he said, when music was used to “reach people in the distant mountains and the poorest barrios.”

Of course, social change is slow work, and music isn’t a perfect tool. Ruiz said working with Baca as part of her backing band for five years awoke him to the reality of machismo and other social ills that he had participated in. “We are born machista. Growing up, it was normal to use anti-gay slurs, to treat women badly, these ideas are firmly planted in us,” Ruiz said. “Working with Gaby really woke us up, and now we try to do that for other people.”

Garcín collaborated with local feminist NGO Puntos de Encuentro to release the song and campaign “Asumir El Reto” (take on the challenge), which urges men to reject misogynistic behavior like catcalling. “This generation of musicians is different than the previous one, but we’re really the beginning of a shift,” Ruiz said. “I think the attitudes of the next generation is going to show the real impact of what a few of us are trying to do now.”

Garcin / photo by Julio Molina

That next generation is already speaking up. Ruiz and Baca both offered high praise for young rap dup Majo y Mafe, two university students who are making waves with a new style of political hip hop. The pair met when they were both practicing graffiti artists, and their friendship and partnership blossomed, said Maria Fernanda Carrero Loaisiga. “We’re the first female rappers in the country, and we approach it with the perspective of feminism and social protest,” Carrero said.

They are entering a music scene that hasn’t always been welcoming to women. Ruiz counts on one hand the number of prominent, active women musicians, most notably Katia Cardenal, who has toured internationally with her brother as Duo Guardabarranco and as a solo artist. The same machismo that some of Garcín’s songs speak out against make it even harder for young women to break into the scene.

Add that to other barriers like a lack of access to instruments — most music stores only sell beginner equipment, so serious musicians have to personally import from the U.S. — and a public with an eager spirit but very little disposable income and it can be hard to imagine how young musicians press forward to create and distribute their art, especially those who come from low-income backgrounds themselves. “I’m going to continue making music that matters,” Baca said. “We’re all micro producers, you know, and we have to help each other get our songs out there. We live in a society that is sick with machismo and war.

Audrey White is a Texan working and living in Nicaragua; follow her on Twitter.