The picture of Colombia drawn from the news is of a country at war with itself. Here is a place where every aspect of everyday life appears poisoned by drug money, where old grievances have a way of turning into new tragedies and where the army, the guerrillas and the paramilitary bands have been fighting each other with breathtaking savagery.
So where is the music we are hearing coming from?
These days, Colombian pop music, a mix of American pop and rock and indigenous rhythms, is playing throughout the United States. Artists such as pop rocker Shakira (who achieved divadom in a recent MTV special), singer-songwriter Carlos Vives, pop singer Charlie Zaa, arranger and songwriter Kike Santander, alterna-loungers Aterciopelados, the rock group Bloque and rockers Juanes and Cabas, just to name a few, have been making inroads not only on the Latin music charts but also among mainstream listeners.
"You have to realize that the reality people outside the country see is a bit distorted," Andres Cabas says from his home in Bogota. "There is so much bad news coming out of Colombia," the singer and songwriter says, "that the media only see it as a place for bad news. Yes, there are safety issues, there is fear, but you live your day-to-day life as normally as possible. It can fill you with great sadness, but it can also inspire you to strive for something richer."
Bassist, songwriter and producer Hector Buitrago, half of Aterciopelados, agrees. Buitrago says he has received offers to live in the United States and in Spain, but he and his music partner, singer Andrea Echeverri, have decided to stay in Bogota. Part of the reason, he suggests, is that although the warlike environment can lead to nihilism, it can also put life in sharper relief.
"It's true, sometimes you do get that feeling that nothing matters," he concedes. "But also, life has a higher value here in Colombia. Every day you have to start from scratch and fight and face bad situations, and you really have to make the best of things to overcome that reality. Everything is more intense, and I think that's one of the things we like. It's that appetite for life Colombian people have."
It's an observation shared by Spanish-born Bruno del Granado, president of the Latin division of Madonna's label, Maverick.
He began visiting the country in the mid-'90s as an executive of MTV Latina and has seen the country change over the past decade, "for both good and bad."
"You feel it as soon as you get to El Dorado," Bogota's airport. "The threat of the guerrilla, the chaos," he says. "But luckily the people have not changed. The Colombian people are unbelievable. . . . They have such a sense for enjoying life.
"I just came back from Colombia and what really surprised me is that, at least in Bogota, there is a scene of rave and techno that's everything you might find in Miami, Ibiza, Frankfurt or London," del Granado says. "And they even have what they call el ravecriollo" -- creole rave -- "where they mix in traditional vallenato [accordion music from Colombia's Atlantic coast], drums and techno."
For some in the United States, this might be hard to understand. But for Buitrago, some of this attitude has to do with the fact that "we've been living with this forever. Perhaps we are used to it by now.
"I remember hearing about problems with the narcos, with the guerrillas since I was a kid, but in Bogota one is a bit protected from the worst of that violence. I say a bit because there was the time of the bombs by narco-terrorists or recently bombs by guerrillas, but those are peaks and then things settle down again." (As it turns out, about the time of the interview, a car bomb exploded in Bogota, injuring several police officers.)
Buitrago's point about growing up with violence is worth considering. For most of its modern history, Colombia has been in turmoil, and by now, as Buitrago suggests, generations of Colombians have been born and raised in it.
For many, the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan on April 9, 1948, marked a turning point in the country's history. It sparked a popular uprising known as El Bogotazo. It was the beginning of a period that came to be known as La Violencia, the Violence, which theoretically ended in 1958, when the Liberal and Conservative parties came to an agreement for power sharing. But far from Bogota, the violence continued, and in 1964, a peasant leader named Pedro Antonio Marin founded FARC, the largest guerrilla group in Colombia. In the 1980s, the emergence of several drug cartels added more violence to an already complicated picture.
FARC is one of several armed groups that have been vying for control of the countryside, and despite the recent elections, there is no end in sight.
During this time, despite the violence, the country has produced great art and literature, as well as remarkable films, music and even telenovelas -- soap operas. The situation brings to mind the 1949 film "The Third Man," in which the character Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, says: "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love -- they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Still, rocker Juan Esteban Aristizabal, better known as Juanes, warns against thinking that it's the violence and bloodshed that produces art.
"Remember that while there is a country going through difficult times, there is another Colombia that continues to grow, continues to dream, continues to create," he says. "There are many stories to tell and a great desire to tell them, to do things. That's why there is so much music, so much art. It's not a product of violence but a bit of a reaction to what is going on."
"They have been dealing with the political problem, the violence, the economic conditions, for many years and there has been a loss of innocence, and music reflects much of this not only in the lyrics but in the sound," says del Granado. "Now it's a bit more edgy -- and that is part of what makes contemporary Colombian pop so interesting." Perhaps, but more often than not, young artists seem to have chosen to address the social and political issues obliquely, and then gently.
"I believe that because violence is something we have all around us in the news, in the newspapers, to then sing about it feels like piling on, and so lately we have decided to go away from this," says Cabas, the son of a famous composer. "We'd like to believe that if you are peaceful, loving inside perhaps that will get reflected in the outside."
In "A Veces Soy Feliz" ("Sometimes I'm Happy"), Cabas sings:
Tired of watching
Into the sadness in your eyes
Tired of swimming in this storm of anger
Tired of hearing you between complaints and sobs
Life is not lost
Stop saying it to others
I don't care what everybody else says
Sometimes I'm happy.
In Colombia, today, that's a call to very different arms.