In Colombia, Songs Too Hot for the Mainstream Sizzle Underground

Cartel del Norte, playing in Bogota in September, is one of many Colombian bands pumping out
Cartel del Norte, playing in Bogota in September, is one of many Colombian bands pumping out "prohibited ballads." (By Scott Dalton For The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 4, 2006

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Beto Pinzon is brawny and wears a crew cut. He served in combat with Colombia's army, and in his travels he's met guerrilla commanders and death squad leaders. He also hangs out in dank, beer-soaked cantinas, the sort of places that attract men with dark pasts.

That kind of experience has helped make him a legend on the underground circuit of folk singers specializing in "corridos prohibidos," or prohibited ballads. The accordion-laced, hard-driving songs about Colombia's underworld are so ribald, so frank in their glorification of drugs and war, that established radio networks ban them from the air -- hence the genre's name.

But that hasn't stopped the songs from becoming wildly popular in the honky-tonks in the poor south end of this city, Colombia's capital, and in the dusty, forgotten towns where the story lines that inspire the music play out. In a country now arguably producing the greatest variety of music in Latin America, with performers such as Shakira and Juanes established as international superstars, it makes sense that corridos would flourish.

"The prohibited ballad is a tool for artists," said Pinzon, 32, whose Cartel del Norte band shares its name with a real-life cocaine cartel. "We don't all see things the same. Some of us are more from the left. Some of us are more to the right. But we're all here -- prohibited."

The songs are loved for their sharp, even comic lyrics.

With names such as the Northern Rangers or the Mercenaries, the bands croon about the plight of poor farmers who harvest coca, the crop used to make cocaine. Or about how a sharecropper became a drug lord. "All who knew me say I'm not the same," sings Rey Fonseca, "it's that they knew me before I was a narco-trafficker."

Corrido troubadours love scandals, whether it's the execution-style killing of 10 anti-narcotics police officers by a rogue army unit in May -- an incident that damaged President Álvaro Uribe's tough-on-crime reputation -- or the sappy story of Virginia Vallejo, a television starlet who became the lover of Pablo Escobar, Colombia's slain cocaine kingpin.

In "A Story of a Mother and her Two Sons," Uriel Henao sings of a young man who joined the Marxist guerrillas and another who joined right-wing paramilitary fighters, leaving their mother in tears. "These stories happen in Colombia," Henao sings. "Listen carefully to my song because this is real life."

No figure is too big to tackle. When rumors began spreading that Carlos Castaño, the country's most infamous death squad commander, had been killed by his own men, Javier Suarez, 30, quickly penned a song about the death that turned out to be dead-on accurate. He wrote how, as gunmen invaded his ranch, Castaño saw his brother and knew that he, too, had turned against him.

"Corridos prohibidos are designed to denounce a bit, to be a protest against the corrupt, the way politics are handled in this country," said Suarez, whose band is called the Suarez Brothers. "We try to reflect what's happening in the country, the unconformity of people with the country, the complex social issues. There are so many things going on."

In a country with Marxist rebels, death squads, cocaine traffickers and all manner of corrupt politicians, balladeers have a vast and fertile trove of material to draw on for their lyrics. Inspired by Mexican Norteño music, which glorifies the outlaw life of traffickers along the U.S.-Mexico border, balladeers here also sport Mexican props such as cowboy hats and boots, big belt buckles and Western-style long coats.

But Alirio Castillo, the best-known producer of corridos here, said Colombia generates so much more inspiration because of its complex, 42-year conflict -- the only war in the Americas -- and the long, bloody history of the cocaine trade here.


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