Editor’s note: Robert Rose is the author of Peru…The Birthplace of Punk?, Rockabilly & Latinos: A Remixing Case, Cuba…Land of Los Freakies, Viva La Rockabilly & Psychobilly! among other articles for music.remezcla.com.
I remember it clearly, or as clearly as any one of us can remember anything. I was at an outdoor café in Parque Lleras in the upscale neighborhood of Poblado in Medellín, Colombia. This was my first visit to Medellín and I had been there just long enough to realize how ridiculous my irrational fears of being kidnapped or killed in a drug war shootout were.
Lleras was an appropriate spot for a semi-nervous turista to grab some food and people watch. It felt muy tranquilo. Most of the people looked as if they had been lifted out of a scene from a hot nightclub in Miami or Los Angeles. The girls were dressed sexy and the guys were unabashedly sizing them up while drinking beer or shooting aguardiente; a Colombian liqueur sometimes called firewater.
Suddenly, I saw something I’d never seen in my travels to Latin America heretofore: a trio of hardcore looking young punks, two guys and a girl, walking around plying their handmade leather wristbands and jewelry to the visitors and upscale denizens of Medellín.
I don’t remember specifically what they were wearing but there was no doubt they were punks. They were of the mohawk, tattoo, and piercing variety, the kind you might see at an Exploited or Casualties show moshing it up and stagediving, not posers.
“There are punks in Latin America?” My naïve first thoughts would later be cause for much amusement. I would find that “por supuesto” (of course) there are punks in Latin America, with a rich history at that.
WHERE AM I & HOW DID I GET HERE?
At this point in my life, I was a fairly new observer of the punk lifestyle, not realizing that even though I was not of the mohawk, tattoo, and piercing variety, I confidently stated that I was pure punk. Always slightly rebellious and suspicious of authority, even in my native Tennessee, my theory is that, although my “punkness” lays dormant for a time, I’ve been a punk since birth. I was a punk but didn’t realize it until I’d lived in New York City for a few years and against some pretty heavy odds, tried my hand at becoming an entrepreneur and changing a small but ugly part of the media business.
“A punk-rock businessman,” you ask? Yes. They, like Colombian punks, also exist. When I began my entrepreneurial pursuit — producing English-language TV for young, American born Latinos — it seemed it was only me (a white farm boy), my friends (almost all Latino), and our cause (representing Latinos in mainstream media), were against a largely ignorant and biased media run by large corporations and their hefty corporate sponsors.
In the beginning, my small, bootstrapped, and grossly underfunded company was often on the verge of extinction, but we found strength in our commitment to fight the status quo of corporate media giants and their sometimes-willful ignorance. They represented an intellectually lazy culture that was largely intent on keeping things the same. We represented a new, open-minded culture that demanded change.
Money didn’t motivate me, (I viewed it as a tool for staying alive and fighting the good fight), as much as the cause, which felt more and more like the right thing as many people ignored us at first, then laughed at us, and finally attacked us (the three stages of success).
It was at this time in my life that I thought I would fail, but I had pledged to go down swinging, blacking out a few eyes along the way. Also, around the same time I mistakenly bought Social Distortion’s White Light, White Heat, White Trash CD. This happy accident was the bridge to a genre and lifestyle that would take me on a journey to points the world over and forever change my life.
At the time of the Colombian punk sighting, I was not an entirely seasoned, independent traveler. Most of my travels had thus far consisted of staying in chain hotels confined to the safety of tourist zones in places like the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica. I had a lot to learn about both the punk lifestyle and independent travel.
MY ACCIDENTAL JOURNEY
Watching these punked out Colombian teens, my curiosity was peaked. I wanted to speak to them, and although my Spanish was rudimentary, I wanted more than visual information. I wanted information like, “How did they become punks?,” “Was there a big scene in Colombia?,” and “What bands influenced them most?”
I followed at a distance trying to catch up. The sight of a running gringo is rarely a sign of anything good in these parts, so I walked briskly to the corner of the main road where a bus was making its stop.
Bus routes or collectivos in Colombia and most of Latin America are run by private drivers and though they are subject to some government oversight, it feels a bit like the Wild West at times. Each bus is often “hooked up” with chrome trimmings while brightly painted designs and nicknames on the front or side reflect the personality of the driver and even its destination.
The rides can sometimes be rough. Years later, when I lived in Colombia for a few months, I regularly took the bus and once witnessed a lady get bounced literally out of her shoes. Had we not grabbed her, she may have bounced right out of the open back door of the bus!
Now this is the part I have replayed in my head many times since. As the punks attempted to gain entry, the bus driver, who had the look and posture of a decent hardworking man who had run the route six days a week, 12-15 hours a day for years, shook his head vehemently “no,” refusing to open his doors and drove away trailing a toxic, cloudy diesel exhaust to a chorus of “puta madres” and “hijo de puta” protestations from the trio of young punks.
After witnessing this discouraging scene, alas, I lost my nerve to approach the visibly irritated punks. I hadwandered off the tourists’ reservation and felt the sudden need to head back to familiar territory.
But that single incident in Medellín was firmly tattooed on my brain and inspired me to bring a video camera on what would become many subsequent trips. I would attempt to document the punk scene not only in Colombia but in all of Latin America and the rest of the world! I now had a host of other questions: “Are punks regularly discriminated against?;” “Do police harass them?;” “What do their families think?;” “What is it like being a punk in the developing world?”
Since then, my travels have taken me on several journeys throughout Latin America, including Guatemala, Argentina, Uruguay, Honduras, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and even Cuba, with plans to hit the meccas of Mexico and Brazil. I’ve also traveled to Trinidad and Tobago, Spain, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Hungary, and Serbia. My goal is to visit every continent, even Antarctica.
So far I’ve conducted scores of interviews and watched dozens of punk bands perform. I’ve posted some of them on my video blog PunkOutlawBlog.com, which serves as a rough outline for the bigger project, a documentary film titled Punktology with the ever-evolving tagline The Power of a Punk Planet. I founded a digital record label called Punk Outlaw Records to bring some of this punk and underground music to audiences in North America and Europe.
So much about punk has been documented from a U.S. and U.K. perspective, but what about the rest of the world? I also attempt to cover not just punk but related underground genres like rockabilly, psychobilly, ska, reggae, etc., in an attempt to find out what makes the scenes tick and what ties them together.
These bands and scenes aren’t merely extensions of the U.S. or U.K. versions, but are separate and divergent scenes with their own uniqueness set in a larger global ecosystem that while unorganized somehow has a natural order, almost like a collective consciousness in a punk parallel universe.
It’s the same but different at the same time. Similar enough to have a love of punk in common yet diverse enough, each with their own cultural idiosyncrasies, to prove interesting.
That punk/bus incident in Colombia inspired me to look further and to see what untold stories remained about the music I love from the rest of our planet.
COLOMBIA – A PUNK SORPRESA
I like surprises, like the Social Distortion CD or punks in Colombia where I had done no prior research and had no idea what to make of it. Maybe that’s why, even after years of travel, I still find myself fascinated by the depth and passion of the punk movement in Colombia.
From Bogota’s rough and tumble scene (which often features an element of danger or a riot ending with the police firing tear gas) to the “usually” more peaceful but equally “fuerte” scenes in Medellín and surrounding coffee-country lands of Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira to the coastal areas of Cali and Cartagena and even the Amazon, Colombia’s punk scene is as diverse as Colombia itself.
BOGOTA FOR THE BRAVE – ROCKIN ROLOS!
Many begin their journey to Colombia in the big, bustling, high altitude capital of Bogota. If you hit a punk show here, it will probably start off calmly enough but stick around and it is almost guaranteed to get crazy. At a Casualties show I covered in 2009, the police and the punks in the street who were partying outside the venue had a showdown complete with tanks and teargas. Thankfully the concert went on inside and was an utter blast.
Then of course, there is Rock al Parque, a huge, free outdoor music festival organized by the government that extends for days, attracts hundreds of thousands of attendees, and features acts from all over the world. It is a showcase for diverse styles of music including rock, metal, reggae, ska, world and some punk.
While punk is somewhat represented at Rock al Parque, the artist selection process has been politicized and is therefore rife with controversy, so much so that many punk bands say “fuck it” and play instead at simultaneous, smaller underground shows.
In 2010, while covering Rock al Parque, I left my press credentials behind and attended one such event. For a brief moment, I thought I might not make it out with my life, much less my camera. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there had been a stabbing outside. The police arrived and too many people rushed inside, resulting in serious overcrowding for a venue with only one rear entrance also serving as the exit. I thought of the tragic Great White concert fire in Rhode Island. I found myself trapped in the midst of very drunk and rowdy punks and was unable to reach the lone exit.
When I finally made it out of the too small venue, it was around 2 a.m. and the big crowd outside had almost completely dispersed. It was just me, in a lonely and decidedly non-touristy part of Bogota toting around a fairly expensive camera with a few desperate souls lurking in the shadows. I never felt more like a target in my life. Eventually, I made it home safely and with incredible footage but it was unclear if I’d truly been lucky or if I was just another jittery Gringo.
If psychobilly is your thing, there is an emerging scene with bands such as Los Chiclosos Desmembrados and Salidos de la Cripta doing their part, but it’s clear that for most underground Rolos (nickname for Bogotanos), punk rules.
MEDELLÍN IS A MECCA – PUNK PAISAS
Maybe it was my emotional connection to the trio trying to catch that bus, but I think it goes deeper. Whatever the reason, I was immediately drawn to the punk scene in Medellín.
On subsequent trips, hanging out in Parque Poblado (a working class alternative to the nearby Parque Lleras), I got to know punks in Medellín first hand. I discovered, through interviews and websites like ColombianPunk.com and Punk-Medallo that Medellín was a mecca and had been since the 1980s and 1990s when the FARC, narcotráfficos, and the Colombian government were in a bloody war that ripped the country apart. Each had demanded that the punks take their side. Most didn’t and thus became targets on all sides. In the U.S., it was cool to wear a mohawk, in Colombia, it could be deadly.
Maybe it is the fact that the Paisas (a nickname for Medellín’s residents) survived a devastating war (this was after all Pablo Escobar’s home turf) but you’d be hard pressed to find a friendlier, more hospitable bunch than the Paisa punks of Medellín. More notably, I don’t think I’ve ever come across the depth of punk musicianship that I’ve encountered in Medellín anywhere else in the world, including modern day Los Angeles or New York City.
In Medellín you have famous, legendary veterans like I.R.A., a co-ed trio of punks who over a nearly 30-year career are still putting out music and touring the U.S., even playing CBGBs in 2004.
Then there are I.R.A.’s hardcore peers, Fértil Miseria fronted by Viki, her tattooed bald head instantly recognizable to fans throughout the country. Viki, her band mates, and other friends in the tight-knit scene, also run Rock N Roll Tienda, a store that carries punk and metal gear, patches, and pins.
Bands like Los Sornos (garage punk) and Neus (industrial punk), Estoy Puto, GP, Desadaptados, Disastre Capital, Infección Sikosis, Lokekeda, and many, many more have been performing excellent punk music in Medellín and surrounding areas for years. International acts like the Casualties, the Addicts, and Konflict roll through town on a semi-regular basis. And while psychobilly is more of a Bogota thing, there is an emerging rockabilly scene with the excellent Dorados Rockabilly Trio spreading their rockabilly rhythms with shows at tattoo conventions, motorcycle shops, etc.
Perhaps the headquarters for punk music in Colombia is Medellín’s northernmost neighborhood of Bello, a rough and tumble barrio 45 minutes by car from the comfy confines of Poblado. Bello is where the leader of Los Suziox (The Dirty Ones), Andres Ocampo lives, works, and produces at his DIY recording studio, and where on the streets of this working class barrio, he is a bonafide celebrity.
In Bello, punk feels almost mainstream, as if it is a part of the natural scenery, and no one waves the Bello moniker more proudly than Los Suziox, who have performed their infectious melodic punk for thousands of frenetic fans all over Colombia, except never, strangely, at Rock al Parque.
Why is punk so big in Colombia? David and Monica from I.R.A. say it is because of the suffering Colombians have experienced over the years and add that punk music’s popularity comes from “the hearts of the youth who are living with unemployment, violence, and intolerance” on a daily basis.
Based on my travels, I would have to agree. Misery is great fodder for a punk scene, but it doesn’t explain the full story. Places like Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, and Ecuador have experienced their own share of misery, yet have comparatively smaller scenes. Indeed the misery index is high in many Latin American cities where the punk scene is a fraction of the size and depth of Colombia’s (in Argentina, punk was outlawed during the military dictatorship, Peru was ripped apart by terrorism and war in the 1980s, and don’t get me started on Cuba).
Andres of Los Suziox doesn’t shy away from heavy subjects like global politics in his lyrics. He says that Colombia’s casual, good time culture has a lot to do with it, matching up favorably with punks’ DIY and democratic method of delivering a diverse message.
“Every punk in Medellín has a band. Even if two drunks are in a park strumming a guitar, they can be a [punk] band. This is real music, music from the gut. There are no rules. You don’t have to be a virtuoso. You don’t have to be pretty,” he says.
Colombia is known for many things — a brutal war that once made inter-country travel almost impossible, thuggish drug cartels, government corruption, and crippling poverty in a capitalistic economic system that still too often leaves the weak to fend for themselves.
It’s also known for its incredibly diverse ecology, cultures and geography, delicious food, cheap beer, and emerging middle class and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. And one more thing, it can now be known as a place with some of the best punk music you’ve ever heard.
I can hear the Colombian tourism bureau’s tagline now, “Colombia … the only risk is that you’ll get a mohawk.”