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Medellin In The 80s: Cartels, Car Bombs And... Punk Rock?

At a time when crime and violence peaked in Colombia's second city, some young people sought refuge in the rough, head-banging vibe of punk music.

A more recent punk pit in Medellin, Colombia
A more recent punk pit in Medellin, Colombia
Leonardo Botero Fernández

MEDELLIN — Things were different then. It was the 1980s. The war was in full swing, the violence more obvious. And in Medellin, there were also the cartels and paramilitaries, fighting for control of the streets. People displaced by the violence moved to the city's outlying neighborhoods, seeking stability but only finding more hostility. It was the Medellin of bullets, murders, bombs, abductions, drugs, joblessness — and Pablo Escobar.

But it was also the scene of a small, home-grown punk scene. Because while many young people saw no other option but to join the frenzy of crime and violence, others — influenced by musical sounds from Britain and the United States — sought refuge from the social desolation around them in the vibrant, angry sounds of punk rock.

The plucky punk scene was all the more surprising given that Medellin, as chaotic as things had become, was also a notoriously conservative, old-fashioned town. Diego Londoño, author of the book Medellín en Canciones (Medellín in Songs), says that until the early 1980s, the dominant music here was salsa and tango, with a bit of rock. And yet, some young people began emulating U.S. or British punk music, forming bands without any musical training, and dressing in ways never seen before in Medellin.

The first groups revealed a little about the state of mind of their founders. There was IRA, for example, a Spanish acronym for "acute respiratory infection" or possibly "adolescent revolutionary ideas." Other groups included P-Ne — pronounced the same as "penis' in Spanish, but also short for "paranoiacs, neurotics and schizophrenics' — Pestes (pests), Desadaptadoz (maladjusted) and Fértil Miseria (fertile misery).

The chief concern was not to become famous, but resist, says Londoño. In this way, punk music became an escape valve from violence. "It meant the start of a movement toward radical changes in a traditionalist and very conservative city," he explains. "Punk erupted to show Medellin and its residents there were other ways of thinking."

Choosing a different path

Punk music didn't come to Medellin via television or music festivals. And it was always underground. People traveling to New York or London would bring back LPs that were then recorded onto cassettes and distributed. These inspired small groups — usually just two or three people, all amateurs — to form their own bands. There were no musical instrument shops, so people began making their own. In the absence of microphones, they would use public phone handles, or cement mixers instead of drums.

IRA was one of these groups, formed in 1984 and still performing. "We were much more united because there were so few of us punks," David Viola, the group's lead singer and guitarist, recalls. "The whole scene developed with a couple of guitars, a couple of drums and a couple of basses."

Like so many other Colombians at the time, punk musicians could also fall victim to violence perpetrated by big criminal gangs like the Medellin cartel. The aggravating factor was that their way of seeing and understanding the world attracted unwanted attention.

"Punk music had to flee drug trafficking, violence, easy money, Pablo Escobar," Londoño explains. "And not because they informed the police. I don't think Escobar sat and listened to punk rock. But when something's different, an intolerant person rejects and destroys it."

Telling stories

Nevertheless, punk musicians became narrators of their city. Youngsters from poor districts faced "very strong stigmatization," says Carlos Alberto David Bravo, a member of Desadaptadoz. "The guns, motorbikes, pretty women and money were accessible, but music saved us. It created a political mentality that distanced us from the most provocative stuff. Music," he adds, offered them a chance to "move forward."

Bravo says being a punk rocker was "risky and dangerous," and recalls how young people, in general, were easy targets for policemen and gangsters. He says that as paramilitaries and gangs were fueling spiraling violence nationwide, young people asked themselves: "How can I live today if might die tomorrow?"

But the hostile city also became a source of inspiration. "There wasn't a better city to make punk music in than Medellin in the 1980s, the 1990s and even now," says Londoño. "Punk rockers need real stories. Punk is the street. And Medellin's asphalt has all the stories."

IRA's Atentado terrorista (terrorist attack) is a prime example. Viola wrote the song after a car bomb destroyed his house. "Someone activated a very strong explosive device in front of my house," he says. Punk rockers may have turned their backs to the violence, but they couldn't always escape it.

The film Rodrigo D: No Futuro(1990), by Victor Gaviria, turned popular attention to Medellin's punk scene, and allowed some of the songs from that era to be recorded for the first time. But the film has also been criticized for associating punk rockers with violence. Londoño is among those who say the depiction was unfair and inaccurate, but says the movie was important, nevertheless, for giving Colombian punk rock a place in the collective imagination. "It is the only visual reference we have of that historical moment as it really was," the author notes.

Decades later, the genre still has a place in Medellin. And it's still about resistance. "It's a way of opposing this exclusive system," Bravo explains. "Until the country is transformed socially, punk will have things to say, show and propose."

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