Colombia Embraces Fierce, New Musical Genre

Colombia is known worldwide for its music — sultry salsa, coastal cumbia, and the accordion-laced vallenato. But in cantinas and neighborhood concert halls, a new music is rising: hard-driving ballads about Colombia's violence. Radio stations won't play it, but that has done little to stop its spread.

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The pop star Shakira is likely the only singer from Columbia most Americans are familiar with, but her home country has a strong musical tradition and there is a new style sweeping its concert halls and cantinas.

From Bogotá, NPR's Juan Forero has an introduction.

(Soundbite of music)

JUAN FORERO: The night is young and the Tiendacina Loa(ph) is already crowded. Men wear cowboy boots, black hats and big belt buckles. The women are all high heels and thick make up. The darken cantina smells like beer and the local Colombia hot water, agua diente. It is just the right setting for corillos prohibillos(ph), loosely translated to mean forbidden ballads.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: A bandleader gets the crowd worked up. With an accordion's wail, the corillos begin. They're inspired by Mexico Nortenyo, the wildly popular music depicting the adventures of drug traffickers along the United States border. But Columbia has, shall we say, so much more material to offer a budding balladeer. There's drug trafficking, of course, but also death squads, political murders and Marxist guerillas. Aletio Castillo(ph) is the best known producer of the genre.

Mr. ALETIO CASTILLO (Music producer): (Through Translator) We try to tell the world with songs what's happening in our country. We sing a lot about narco traffickers, but it's a theme that gets old quick. I'm passionate about politics, and so corillos gets into that to be controversial, which is what we want.

FORERO: Controversy like that surrounding Carlos Castano(ph). Castano was the most notorious paramilitary commander. He admitted killing presidential candidates and leftist activists. Then other paramilitaries killed him. A gold mine of a story for Javier Suarez and his Armanos Suarez Band. Sitting in Castillo's apartment, crowed with recording equipment and CD's, Suarez sings me the lyrics.

Mr. JAVIER SUAREZ (Armanos Suarez Band): (Singing foreign language)

FORERO: It's a Shakespearian drama of how Castano met his end at the hands of his brother, Vicente. Castillo says corillo lyrics may be highly political, but singers try to remain neutral.

Mr. CASTILLO: (Through Translator) They're not right or left. They are Columbian. It's what we Columbians live and feel.

FORERO: Still, the big radio networks ban the songs. Too controversial, says Francisco Restrapo(ph). He runs RCN's La Conenyoso(ph) Program.

Mr. FRANCISCO RESTRAPO (Radio host): (Through Translator) An important medium like RCN cannot be an apologist for crimes of narco traffic, of paramilitaries and guerillas. They don't deserve that reverence.

FORERO: Don't tell that to the people in Simon Boliva, a poor working class neighborhood in Bogota's far south. For them corillos offer an escape. At a down and out bar, three men slurp beers and argue about the best bands. And they wait for the corillos to start up at the cantina across the street. One of the drinkers is 60-year-old Jorge Casto.

Mr. JORGE CASTO: (Through Translator) Corillos are very elegant. It's very special music. It's music close to your heart. Corillos are very beautiful, very pretty.

FORERO: It's dusk and narrow streets are filled with people. Shish-kabobs sizzle on sidewalk grills. Vendors hawk tropical fruits. Smoke belching buses pass by. Then the music starts. The local cantina, Mika Banya, is gearing up. Once more the outlaws will come alive.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogata, Columbia.

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