Conflict & Justice

Colombian town rocks out


Members of the band Palabra Andante at band practice in Puerto Wilches, Colombia.


Nadja Drost




PUERTO WILCHES, Colombia — Puerto Wilches is one of the last places you would expect to hear rock music. It’s a traditional kind of town that listens to traditional kinds of music.

Donkey-drawn carts share the streets with cars and motorcycles. Wilcheros, as inhabitants are called, while away hours playing cards on their patios, listening to traditional songs of vallenato and cumbia.

But blasting out of the dark and damp concrete-block house of Olimpo Pineres is a radically different sound: rock music.

Pineres, 45, thinks rock music — associated by many here with diabolical and violent behavior — can be a positive force. He believes it can help not only the youth of Puerto Wilches, but also a town recovering from decades of brutal armed conflict.

“Our stories have been about war. We think we can change this,” Pineres said.

Thirteen years ago, Pineres successfully pushed to host a program about rock music on the local radio station. The reception wasn’t always positive. “We were used to something else, we listened to vallenato, like always, but to bring rock … ” remembered Omaira Arrieta Santiz, the director of radio station.

Pineres kept trying to pass on his love for rock to his fellow Wilcheros. On Fridays, he would bring a stereo and speakers to the local park, play rock music and invite anyone to sit down and hear about the musicians behind the music.

In 2008, a band Pineres held the first-ever rock concert in Puerto Wilches.

Pineres got others interested and helped form more bands. He managed to get them instruments, mostly through donations. Every evening he opens his house to anyone wanting to play.

Today, Puerto Wilches, a sleepy town of 17,000, boasts six rocks bands who have branded themselves under the collective name of Wilcherockeros. They play concerts and have recorded some of their songs.

“It’s very unusual that in our region, our culture, that there’s the development of rock music,” said Jairo Toquicia Aguilar, a 28-year-old candidate for city council who helps out with logistics and publicity for the bands. “It’s incredible … because of the socio-cultural context of this region, and particularly Puerto Wilches.”

Few places have suffered more from Colombia’s armed conflict than Puerto Wilches. Up until a few years ago, it was under the control of armed groups — first by left-wing guerrillas, followed by right-wing paramilitary groups.

Disappearances, terror and massacres became the narrative for this town. It is one that touches every street corner here. All over residents can point out sites that evoke painful memories — the house from which people were snatched, left for disappeared until their headless corpses washed up in the river; the field where dozens of bodies were dumped; or the patch of pavement where a body was left to putrefy because everyone was too afraid of the repercussions of picking it up.

Residents were busy trying to navigate survival amid the violence — not figuring out how teens could start playing rock music.

Pineres became a huge fan of rock music while he lived for a decade in Bogota. But during years of intense armed conflict, the dream to start rock bands struck him as a far-flung impossibility.

But, he says, cultivating rock music in Puerto Wilches gives youth the chance to take on new roles. “Youth have always been used here, for example, to serve in the military, or the guerrilla, or in the paramilitary,” Pineres said. “With rock, I wanted to make sure they are the ones who are the actors.”

It’s that idea that Ramiro Caicedo, a band member, believes pushes his town to overcome the negative stereotypes of rock music.

Caicedo thinks his town is willing to look beyond musical tradition because they like what they see.

“When we started to play, we thought people here wouldn’t like it. But people really supported it. Even if they didn’t like it, they saw these guys are doing something good," he said. "They’re not into drugs, or stealing, or in a paramilitary group. People see this, and they support us."

Now, the municipality and schools invite Wilcherockeros to play at events. Local businesses donate money to buy more instruments. The bands continue to grow — its members are teaching about 10 newcomers how to play so that they too will be able to join a band.

Pineres has big plans for Wilcherockeros. He wants them to start playing nationally, and one day, internationally — and to bring a new Puerto Wilches to the world.

“The image outsiders have of us is that we are a village with a lot of violence. I think that through rock, we are creating a new story for our town,” said Pineres.
“Because we’re tired of hearing the same stories. But we’ve come with the attitude to stop just talking, and to create a new story, and we’re the ones who are constructing it.”