Mon, Jul 24, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Colombians groove to narco ballads


To the crowd's cheers, the band launches into its first number of the night -- a musical eulogy to Colombia's most infamous right-wing warlord.

The audience sings along as the lead singer recounts Carlos Castano's rise to head the far-right paramilitaries, arranging dozens of massacres and smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine. As the lyric merrily explains, Castano even beheaded a man who helped kidnap his father.

It's a concert of "narco ballads," the soundtrack to Colombia's underworld. Songs pay homage to the lifestyles of the rich and dangerous: drug barons, assassins, leftist rebels, far-right warlords.

"These songs are about what's happening in our country. We sing about the paramilitaries, the rebels and the drug traffickers and they all love it," said Uriel Hennao, considered the king of the genre.

He is responsible for such anthems as Child of the Coca, I Prefer a Tomb in Colombia (to a jail cell in the US) and The Mafia Keeps Going.

While record producers say the music is gaining fans across Colombia and abroad, it remains shunned by polite society. Major radio stations refuse to play the songs, considering them coarse glamorization of all that has made Colombia synonymous with cocaine and violence.

It's an understandable reaction. The cover art of narco-music CDs show piles of cocaine, bikini-clad women and guns superimposed on images of drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was killed by authorities in 1993 but still inspires music.

"In wealthy parts of Bogota, many people do feel that this music is bad taste," said Tuto Carmargo, a disk jockey for the popular La Tropicana radio station, which does not play narco tunes. "How are we going to say that it's a good thing people are killing other people? How are we going to say that people using drugs is a good thing that we should encourage?"

But even though the issue has special resonance for Carmargo -- his father was killed in an airplane crash caused by one of Escobar's bombs -- he understands that people listen to the music because they feel it directly relates to their lives.

Music producers say the songs fill a cultural void in a nation where pop music rarely strays from conventional themes of love.

And the songs echo the dreams of many in the country's impoverished underclass, said Alirio Castillo, producer of the narco album series titled Forbidden Rhythms.

"This music is biggest in the most marginalized regions, those places where the people have to live the daily misery of our country's problems," he said.

After Colombia's four decades of civil war, the drug ballads sound like serenades to violence. In a tune performed at a recent concert by the Brothers Pabon, the lyrics threatened death to a man who refused to repay a debt -- "and when I kill him, the same ground he walks on today will be covered in blood."

At the concert, the largest ever organized in Bogota, the parking lot was dotted with the SUVs favored by the country's drug traffickers. Inside, waiters darted between tables, answering cries for rum from overweight men in cowboy hats and ponchos -- accompanied by beautiful women.

The music has evolved beyond the drug business to encompass the violence and corruption of Colombian politics. One song recounts how leftist rebels kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who is still missing four years later.

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