Victor Recording Expeditions in Latin America

The record business was transnational from its inception. The early companies, based mainly in the U.S. and Europe, recognized that people in different parts of the world created and enjoyed different forms of music and that consumers in foreign counties – as well as immigrants – would likely buy recordings of these familiar sounds. 

To satisfy that demand, the companies recorded foreign musicians on tour in the U.S. or Europe, but they also sent recording technicians abroad. 

Between 1903 and 1926, the Victor Talking Machine Company sent its “scouts" on more than 25 fieldtrips to Latin America, where they recorded nearly 7,000 musical performances, almost all of which were released as commercial records. Although Victor was not the only company to record in Latin America – Edison, Odeon, Pathé, and Columbia did so as well – Victor was the most active in the region during these years.

The map below, based on Sergio Ospina Romero’s meticulous research in the SONY archives and elsewhere, depicts these recording expeditions. 


As the map reveals, only about a dozen men served as recording scouts for Victor in Latin America. They had all been employed as technicians at Victor’s Camden, New Jersey headquarters and were selected to lead international recording expeditions because they knew how to operate the machines, not because they knew anything about music or about Latin America.

They were white men from working-class families, mostly from the New Jersey area. Interestingly, at least two were the children of immigrants: Henry Hagen, whose parents were German, and William Linderman, whose mother was Irish. In a sense, then, they had a transnational perspective.

Nevertheless, only some of the scouts could speak Spanish or Portuguese, and all of them needed help navigating foreign musical worlds. The recording technology they traveled with was cumbersome, so they were limited to recording in urban settings (and primarily, port cities). Typically, they consulted with local musicians, publishers, and music store owners for guidance about which artists and genres might sell the most records. For example, on their visit to Bogotá in 1913, Frank Rambo and Charles Althouse relied on a music store owner named Manuel Gaitán to recommend performers.

Although Americans guided this process and benefited economically from it, these recordings do not reveal a deliberate strategy to shape the international market. On the contrary, where the scouts went and what music they recorded reflected the accidents of international travel, the whims of the local intermediaries they happened to meet, and their own poorly informed judgments. Global capitalism was more scattershot than systematic.

Victor’s recording expeditions did not produce anything like a complete inventory of Latin American music. Limited to the big cities and pursuing commercial opportunities, the scouts sought out professional, trained musicians whose performances might appeal to well-to-do, urban consumers who could afford to purchase phonographs and records. 

Nevertheless, these recordings did capture a broad range of musical genres. The selection of songs included on the map above features rural genres such as the Colombian bambuco and the Venezuelan pasaje, as well as urban ones, such as the Argentine tango, the Cuban danzón, the Brazilian modinha, and the Peruvian polka.

Although the scouts may have thought they were encountering indigenous sounds with no connection to the music they knew, all these genres were the result of transnational movement and cultural mixing. They combined European influences – especially, but not only, from nineteenth-century dances like the waltz, mazurka, polka, and schottische – with indigenous and African musical elements. 

Many of these genres also crossed national borders: the tango was Uruguayan music as much as Argentine; the pasillo was Colombian as well as Ecuadoran; the pasacalle was danced throughout the Andes, not just in Bolivia, where Victor scouts recorded it in 1917. Nevertheless, many of these musical forms came to symbolize specific nations, a process that Victor and other record companies may have inadvertently encouraged. Commercial recordings helped forge national music markets and thereby made musical nationalism more viable.

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