The town of Puerto Wilches in northern Colombia may not be known for much at the moment. But some people in the town are using music to help the town recover from decades of brutal armed violence.
A radio station opened Puerto Wilches' door to rock and roll
The shuttered rail station, the crumbling portside bodega - Puerto Wilches is a place covered with reminders of a more prosperous past when loads of merchants passed through here via train or boat along the mighty Magdalena River. It's a traditional town where residents while away hours listening to traditional kinds of music like Vallenato and Cumbia.
Rock music is the last thing that springs to most people's minds. But something unusual and surprising is developing in this slow-moving place: the birth of several rock bands that are opening up Puerto Wilches in new ways.
"Our stories have been about war. We think we can change this," said Olimpo Pineres, a 45-year-old rock music fan who came up with the idea of creating rock bands here and has been a principal driving force behind their creation.
He said he believes rock music can play a positive role in the lives of youth here and in the town's recovery from decades of brutal armed conflict.
The birth of rock
Thirteen years ago, Pineres successfully pushed to get a spot on the local radio station to host a program about rock music. The reception among Wilcheros (as inhabitants of the town are known) and radio station members wasn't always positive.
"We were used to something else, we listened to Vallenato, like always, but to bring rock... there was resistance from some members," remembered Omaira Arrieta Santiz, the radio station's director.
Rock fans had to fight an image as lazy drug addicts
Pineres was persistent in trying to bring rock to the town. He started bringing a stereo and speakers to the local park every Friday, playing rock music and explaining to anyone who was interested the history of the music and its musicians.
Pineres and a few teens started talking about forming a rock band. In 2008, Puerto Wilches held its first rock concert featuring a homegrown band. Interest among other teens grew, and Pineres helped form other bands. He managed to get them instruments, mostly through donations, that he stores in his house that he opens every evening to anyone who wants to play.
The music blasting out of Pineres' house has not only pushed Puerto Wilcheros to listen to non-traditional music, but to break the stereotypes held by many who associate rock music with violent behavior.
"They think of lazy people and drug addicts," said Gabriel Barbosa Rios, 17, about the impressions Wilcheros have of rock musicians. "In us, they don't see that. They see youth who are normal, who go to school and work."
Barbosa joined the band Palabra Andante half a year ago.
Today, Puerto Wilches remains a sleepy town of 17,000 residents, but it boasts six rocks bands that have branded themselves under the collective name of Wilcherocks.
"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 the bands with logistics and publicity. "It's incredible because of the socio-cultural context of this region, and particularly Puerto Wilches."
Rock replaces violence
Puerto Wilches has carried one of the heaviest burdens of violence following decades of brutal armed conflict in Colombia. Up until a few years ago, the town was always under the control of one armed group or another. Occupations by left-wing guerrillas were followed during the 1990s and early 2000s by years of terror unleashed by right-wing paramilitary groups who controlled the town. Threats, targeted assassinations and murders were common.
Town residents don't always love the noise but are happy with rock's results
Violence became the Puerto Wilches' defining characteristic. Residents didn’t have much of a chance, in addition to trying to survive the violence, to contemplate cultivating rock music.
"The conflict won space over these types of processes," said Jairo Toquica, a candidate for the town council and a rock music fan. "But fortunately, through this process that Olimpo [Pineres] and the youth have been consistently building, these spaces that were won over by conflict are now again being recuperated."
New roles for youth
Pineres said the emergence of 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," said Pineres. "With rock, I wanted to make sure they are the ones who are the actors."
For Puerto Wilcheros who aren't necessarily keen on the new beats pumping through the town's street at times, the role the rock bands are taking on in the lives of youth here are gradually changing attitudes.
"Even if they didn't like [the rock music], they saw these guys are doing something good - they're not into drugs, or stealing, or in a paramilitary group," said Ramiro Caicedo, a member of several rock bands. "People see this, and they support us."
Interest among youth to learn how to play rock music keeps growing, and some of the more established bands are eager to showcase their talent beyond Puerto Wilches.
Pineres said he wants Wilcherocks not only to play across Colombia, but internationally as well. He added that rock music can help bring a different story of Puerto Wilches to the rest of the world.
"The image outsiders have of us is that we are a village with a lot of violence," said Pineres. "I think that through rock, we are creating a new story for our town."
Author: Nadja Drost, Puerto Wilches, Colombia
Editor: Sean Sinico