Quintana, Colombia's forbidden music, and the safety required to enjoy anti-heroes

Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter Morgan. American television audiences have come to adore anti-heroes as of late, though they always existed in film and literature. Characters like these, which are morally flawed (sometimes amazingly so) allow law abiding members of the audience to live vicariously through their adventures and undertakings. Those watching will likely never encounter a real-life Tony Soprano, or have to endure his actions. The appeal of these characters speaks volumes about a society that creates them, and the relative safety in which most of its population lives

It's perhaps for this reason that anti-heroes have seldom been created by Colombian media. Drug lords, killers, paramilitary groups, common thugs, paid assassins and guerrilla groups are very real to Colombians. The thought of portraying them in a positive or endearing light is far less appealing when they are not nebulous concepts, or caricatures, but actual human beings that could harm you, or shape your everyday reality.

Interestingly, however, one popular musical style is changing this dynamic, at least for some in Colombia's rural communities who encounter these characters far more often than those in metropolitan areas. To them, these are merely portrayals of people and situations they may actually encounter. Descriptions of situations that surround them.

The musical provenance of Colombia's corridos prohibidos (roughly translated to "forbidden ballads"), can be traced to Mexico, where corridos were originally used to tell stories of peasant life and social unrest before the arrival of electronic mass-media to the Mexican countryside in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, as early as 1954, music scholar Vicente Mendoza proclaimed the musical style to be dead in his book El Corrido Mexicano.

But while mass-media nearly killed off Mexican corridos in the last century, the internet age, (and the ease with which it allows ideas and concepts to spread and be borrowed) has helped create a new type of corridos, both in Mexico and Colombia. Borrowing from other popular forms of Mexican music (themselves based on European waltz time signatures, and featuring the accordion, which German immigrants brought to southern Texas in the 1830s), Colombia's corridos prohibidos tell the stories of drug lords, guerrilla members, paramilitaries and their lives (often from the point of view of those people), but also of heartache. One song even tells the story of a truck driver who was paid to transport two tons of pure cocaine in a silver Kenworth truck through the Colombian countryside, only to be set up by one of his companions (a nervous American) that was working with Colombian authorities.

Within America's musical milieu, corridos are perhaps closest to very extreme versions of what country music used to be, at least in lyrical terms. Stories of crime, violence and loss. But corridos are set in an almost comedic, upbeat 3/4 time signature (much like German polka), which stands in direct opposition to their often brutal lyrical content. The songs are accompanied by music videos that depict violent encounters, with musicians wearing garish attire borrowed from their Mexican counterparts in the corrido and norteño music scene. Album covers depict money, guns and drugs, often resembling the visual vocabulary established by design companies like Pen and Pixel, which came to define hip-hop album covers in the mid 90s. The lyrics are usually so direct, and perhaps flattering to criminals, that most TV and radio stations in Colombia have banned the songs. It's because of this that the musical style's name now includes the word "banned" or "forbidden" in it. 

And while most of the songs in this genre are about drug lords, violent encounters, and mass killings, there are exceptions. For example, Colombia's most popular corridos singer recently wrote and released a song about Nairo Quintana, himself a folk hero of a different kind than those he normally portrays. But a folk hero from the countryside nevertheless. Uriel Henao's "An Homage To Nairo Quintana" is an interesting departure for the popular artist, who the New York times did a feature on back in 2010. The song praises Quintana for his triumphs, and speaks about his upbringing in a straight forward manner in keeping with the musical style's roots in Mexico. It speaks about Quintana's place of birth, where he grew up and went to school, while also talking about Boyaca, Nairo's home department. Have a listen.

Other examples of the genre are interesting. The song below, for example, is also credited to Uriel Henao, but is sung by a young boy. The lyrics are heartbreaking, and tell the story of a kid who is abandoned by his parents. He lives in the streets, stealing to feed himself, and eventually ends up working in a cocaine processing operation. The name of the song is "The Son of Coca", with one line stating "I know I'm not the only child who lives this way in Colombia"

A Mexican corrido by Tigres Del Norte about Pablo Escobar:

A video feature by the New York Times about Uriel Henao and this musical style in Colombia (if the video is not playing, or is not visible, you can see it here)


Marginalia

1. Other Colombian artists have written songs about cycling in the past. You can read about them here and here

2. I wanted to remind you that pretty much everything in the Alps & Andes store is on sale. Go get some stuff!

Photo: La Patria

Photo: La Patria

3. Here's an interview about Diana Peñuela from United Healthcare, who (I believe) will be the first female Colombian rider in the new women's World Tour.