Shared from the 2017-05-02 Chattanooga eEdition

Colombia’s famous guerrilla singer searches for new tune

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ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Former rebel Julian Conrado, known as “The FARC singer,” the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, talks last month at the National University in Bogota, Colombia.

BOGOTA, Colombia — In a dimly lit university auditorium in the Colombian capital, not far from where the country’s largest rebel group once launched bomb attacks, Julian Conrado sings to eager-eyed students about the pain of war.

“Instead of a rifle in my hands I’d like to carry a flower,” he croons, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and an olive green fedora that make him look more like a geeky dad than someone who spent more than three decades as a guerrilla fighter in Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict.

“Call me the singer of unity,” Conrado told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I like that.”

The setting is a new one for the man known as the “singer of the FARC,” the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which last year reached a landmark peace agreement with the government to end a half century of fighting.

Rather than singing battle hymns to fellow rebels in the mountains, Conrado is now living in a demobilization camp and gradually venturing out for shows that have not only enthralled idealistic college kids but also drawn the ire of opponents who say he shouldn’t be performing at all.

“It’s unacceptable that FARC terrorists are giving concerts in Bogota without even having confessed their crimes or made reparations to their victims,” conservative lawmaker Daniel Palacios said.

Conrado said such criticisms are a temporary distraction from a larger mission of transforming himself into a messenger of peace and forgiveness.

The ballad he performs most these days is one he wrote in 1984 during a previous, failed peace attempt. He has been struggling to compose new material in the early, still-factious days of the post-conflict era, wary that his frank, socially critical lyrics might cause more discord than his performances already have.

“I wrote a song but I don’t want to sing it,” Conrado said while driving through Bogota in an SUV with tinted windows. “I see the looks in people’s faces and there is like a glow of peace.”

“But then I see other people.” he continued, his voice trailing off. “Hopefully I am wrong.”

Born in a small city near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Conrado, whose birth name is Guillermo Torres, learned to read by reading the lyrics to ballads known as “corridos.” From an early age he found himself drawn toward leftist causes, and he began organizing neighbors to improve access to water and electricity and incorporating politics into his music, drawing rebukes from officials and also death threats.

After narrowly escaping gunfire he believes was aimed at him while exiting a building, Conrado decided to join the rebels in the mountains. Just shy of 30 years old, he had never fired a weapon.

His acoustic guitar was among the few belongings he took with him.

In rebel encampments and later in jail, he wrote folksy tunes in the “vallenato” style paired with cheerful accordions, flutes and acoustic guitar. His songs vary from light-hearted professions of love to darker themes decrying social inequality and paramilitary violence or paying homage to fallen guerrilla comrades.

“For our dead, not a minute of silence,” one goes. “A whole life of combat.”

Conrado’s songs were played at rebel parties and shared through videos and CDs — the cheerful, seemingly out-of-place rebel playing guitar while his AK-47 leaned against a wall.

“If there is anyone who made music in the middle of the conflict, it’s him,” said spokesman Fabian Ramirez of the Bogota artist collective Independencia Records, which recently invited Conrado to perform. “And if there is a cultural reference of the FARC, it is him.”

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