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Music, Guns, and Peace

by Robert Neustadt, special to Utne Reader

Tags: activism, world music,


Colombian musician/peace activist César López and his guitar built from a machine gun.

Can an instrument that is shaped like, and built on, the structure of a machine gun operate as a peace symbol? Colombian musician César López plays his unique instrumental invention, la escopetarra, a guitar that has been grafted onto the base of a decommissioned AK-47, as an activist for peace. López employs music, text, performance, and instrumental symbolism to advocate for non-violence. He also conducts community service—traveling to remote areas of Colombia that have suffered repression and violence. During these trips, López talks with victims and offers free concerts in an effort to understand the history of violence and also to contribute in some way towards healing the wounds. In 2006, he was named “Envoy for Peace” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia. He is an unusual and curious case. A peace activist who plays an instrument that looks like—and was—a weapon, seems at first glance to be inherently paradoxical. In spite of, and in many ways because of this curious paradox, López’s gesture—of acquiring a surrendered weapon and transforming it into a guitar—represents and actualizes the transformative power of art and music. 

Whereas López’s 2010 album Toda Bala es Perdida (Every Bullet is Lost), engages thematically with the concepts of violence and war, his overall project, of the same name, constitutes a call for reparations and a future of non-violence. The album is comprised of 16 songs—rock songs inspired by specific historical tragedies in Colombia. These tragedies exemplify different forms of aggression including violence against women and children, gang violence, prison conflict, and violence against communities at different moments during Colombia’s long-lasting armed conflict. 

Many of the songs feature guest vocalists and musicians, a detail that underscores the album’s heterogeneous polyvocality. Although the individual songs tell discrete stories through diverse musical styles, the songs engage with each other both musically and thematically.  The lead singer of, “¿Qué vendrá?” (What will come?), Maricarmen Rosillo, accentuates her vocals with the characteristic inflection of a flamenco singer. The song, “Efraín”—a piece that gives voice to a mother who became mute on learning the details of her son’s horrific torture and death—incorporates recordings from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.  The following song, “Plegaria,” recalls the massacre of 119 Afro-Colombians who were killed while trying to take refuge in a church. Musically and thematically Toda Bala es Perdida constructs a narrative that laments the catastrophic effects of armed conflict and violence in Colombia and elsewhere. As I finalize writing this piece, the United States is again reeling from another in our seemingly endless series of tragic mass shootings. We might learn something from Colombia and César López. López’s work originated from Colombia’s armed conflict, but gun-related violence in the United States and elsewhere proves that gun violence is by no means restricted to a theaterof war. 

López performs his music, and gathers material for new songs, while travelling throughout Colombia and giving concerts in communities that have suffered the consequences of armed conflict and violence. Engaging with victims in these communities he attempts to understand their experiences and then subsequently gives voice to them. “The songs that I play,” says López, “are songs that come from rural people and their communities. They tell me their stories and I turn them into songs. When I am playing I feel, in some ways, like I am the voice of those who are not speaking, those who told me their stories ... I feel like I am representing a lot of people who were touched by war, and that I am the vehicle that transmits their history to the audience.” (Author’s note: All of López’s quotes in this article are my translations from Spanish). 

López sees himself as a vehicle who transforms the victim’s pain into music.  He gives voice—and represents—the voiceless. 

The most noteworthy element of López’s project is his instrumental innovation, la escopetarra.  In interviews, López recounts that the idea of transforming a gun into a guitar occurred to him after a bomb, attributed to the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), exploded on Feb 7, 2003 in a Bogotá social club (Club El Nogal: killing 36 and injuring 170). Previously, López had founded a group, el Batallón Artístico de Reacción Inmediata (The Battalion of Immediate Artistic Reaction), a collective of musicians that gathered at sites of violent incidents to play music and show their support for victims and survivors. On this occasion, a soldier ordered López to evacuate the area and struck his guitar with the butt of his machine gun. López looked up at the soldier and became aware of the fact that the soldier held his machine gun in a position similar the way in which he held his guitar. Subsequently, López obtained a Winchester rifle from the city of Bogotá (the mayor’s office promotes campaigns during which citizens turn in their guns), and a luthier helped López transform this rifle into the first escopetarra. The name of the instrument, escopetarra, fuses the Spanish word for shotgun (escopeta) with the last two syllables of the word guitarra (guitar). 

The stock materials that López currently uses to make escopetarras come from decommissioned machine guns that guerillas and/or right-wing paramilitary fighters have surrendered to authorities. Each instrument’s history is unique, and in some cases cyclical. The escopetarra that López plays, for example, began as an AK-47 in the German Democratic Republic, and was later dropped from an airplane to leftist guerillas hiding in the Colombian jungle. The gun was subsequently captured and used by right-wing paramilitaries before being turned over to government authorities, and, ultimately, transformed into a guitar for peace. 

As new musical instruments, escopetarras occupy the shape, place, and history of their former existence as assault rifles. With the firing mechanisms removed and guitar fingerboards laminated onto the barrel, the escopetarras envelop the shell of the former machine guns. Rarely does the military root of the artistic term “avant-garde” resonate so loudly within a gesture to transform the conditions of reality through art. The violent shape of a machine gun remains visible in the musical instrument’s structural image: The instrument retains the trigger, the magazine, the stock and the overall shape of a machine gun. Some escopetarras, furthermore, are inscribed with notches that the former owners carved to represent each individual they had killed with the gun. These notches are literal, physical, and historical traces of the armed conflict. Engraved lines scratched into hollow grooves in the metal allude to the empty spaces left behind by the dead—people taken out by the armed conflict. When originally inscribed, these notches celebrated these deaths with pride. Now, reinterpreted on the body of an escopetarra, they signify the emptiness left behind by violence. 

Organologically, the instrumental form of the escopetarra is a conventional chordophone—physically and sonically, the escopetarra is a steel-stringed electric guitar. 

They are, in fact, fine guitars, constructed by one of Colombia’s best-known luthiers, Alberto Paredes. Analyzing an escopetarra visually reveals the instrument’s inherent contradictions. An AK-47 is a cheap, though durable, machine gun that can withstand—and has withstood—prolonged periods of guerilla warfare and exposure to the elements in jungle, desert and alpine environments. The frame of López’s escopetarra combines rusted, scratched gun-metal, patched with duct tape, now cut open—mutilated—with the fine craftsmanship of a highly skilled luthier. The ugly shell of a gun contrasts visually with the shiny plug-in, tone and volume knobs, high-end tuning mechanisms, and especially with the smooth wood of the meticulously placed rosewood bridge, fingerboard and headstock. The finely worked wood—an organic substance—juxtaposed with the beat-up, yet sturdy, frame of the gun, combine and coexist as two inseparable elements. The metal and wood manifest physical and temporal opposites—the machine gun and the guitar, the past and the present—together they constitute the escopetarra.  

López further extends the reach of his project by gifting escopetarras to popular musicians and promoters of peace around the world.  People to whom he has presented escopetarras include fellow Colombians Juanes and Andrea Echeverría (Aterciopelados); Argentines Fito Páez and Miguel Botafugo; Spanish/French guitarist, Manu Chau; Irish musician/activist, Bob Geldof; Kenyan singer/activist Eric Wainaina; as well as prominent public figures such as the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. In 2011, López presented an escopetarra to the Ghandi Museum in New Delhi at the site where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. In  2012, López presented an escopetarra to Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina. 

Some people question the concept of gun-guitar-as-peace symbol. The Dalai Lama, or his representatives, have twice turned down López’s offer of an escopetarra on the grounds that a weapon is an inappropriate gift. Obviously, any symbol can be read in many different ways. López acknowledges the hermeneutic difficulty of controlling his message:  

“It [the escopetarra] can be read in many ways. Some think that it is a call to arms, and others might think that it is simply a design, or a curious innovation to get publicity. It is very delicate. It’s not only an instrument, because with the instrument come a lot of messages. If I use this instrument inappropriately, I’ll destroy it’s message. Or, I’ll destroy my message.”

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives seems to take symbolism more seriously than lethal potential.  López was told if he entered the U.S. with an escopetarra (which is completely inoperable as a weapon), he would risk 10 years in prison. Ironically, one can legally purchase an operational machine gun (an NFA or Class 3 weapon) in many U.S. states. 

López plays the escopetarra—it is both a musical instrument as well as a powerful, and complex, symbolic instrument. Already embedded in a semiotic/military history, the escopetarra represents not peace, but rather a process of transformation and movement towards peace.  This transformation and movement is part of the history of each individual instrument. 

The machine guns used as source materials to build escopetarras were surrendered to government authorities (by FARC guerillas or right-wing paramilitaries) in voluntary demobilizations. Though the armed conflict in Colombia continues, these specific machine guns represent a conscious decision by their former owners to desist from warfare.  According to López, ex-combatants have reflected that their personal transformations run parallel that of the escopetarra. “The young demobilized ex-combatants who were in the war say ‘I am an escopetarra. I am a person who served for war, who served to shoot, and now I have a life project,’ just like the one reflected in the instrument.” In this regard, the demobilizations can be viewed as performances of peace. Those who surrender themselves and their arms have taken a significant step—they have renounced the concept of armed conflict as a solution. 

My use of the word “performance” to describe the demobilizations is consciously polyvalent. On the one hand, a demobilization of guerillas, and/or paramilitaries, constitutes a performative act, a public announcement/commitment of their decision to abandon violence. This performative ceremony performs, it does something, it accomplishes a significant step towards peace. And yet, on the other hand, there have also been cases of faked demobilizations where the Colombian military and/or government, arranged for simulated demobilization ceremonies during which marginal individuals (homeless people) performed the role of former FARC members or paramilitaries, when in reality they never fought with these groups. For these political simulations, members of the military and Colombian government colluded with drug traffickers to provide the “actors” with uniforms and arms that they subsequently turned over to the government. The actors even received a salary—essentially they mounted theatrical performances. These performances intended to justify specific political policies and decisions.  

A recent performance with the escopetarra simultaneously reiterates both sides of the instrument’s paradoxical image. In 2012, at an event called Jóvenes por la Paz” (Young People for Peace)—a ceremony attended by 20,000 people in Guatemala City—López presented Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, with an escopetarra. The public celebration of nonviolence included the on-site destruction of more than 16,000 arms. President Pérez Molina even played the escopetarra on stage, calling for “more music and less violence.”  

On the surface this sounds like a wonderful celebration of peace. And yet this president’s personal history is problematic. President Otto Pérez Molina served as Director of Military Intelligence and Inspector General of the Guatemalan army (and served in the notoriously brutal special forces, los Kaibiles) during a civil war that resulted in over 200,000 deaths, the vast majority of whom were indigenous people killed by the military. Pérez Molina specifically commanded troops in the Ixil region during the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt who was convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in association with the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayans in May 2013. During the trial, one witness specifically implicated Pérez Molina as the coordinator of burnings, lootings and executions. (Pérez Molina denies the accusations).  

Can we really take President Pérez Molina at face value when he announces from a stage, with an escopetarra hanging from his shoulders, “we want more music and less violence”? Is this performance of peace legitimate, or is President Pérez Molina playing the escopetarra as a political prop, performing yet another act of governmental theatre? It is also significant to note that Pérez Molina recently replaced Guatemala’s Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, who prosecuted Ríos Montt with a former Supreme Court judge, Thelma Esperanza Aldana Hernández, with ties to Ríos Montt. Is López enabling hypocritical political theatre? Why present an escopetarra to a man who played a central role in Guatemala’s dirty war?  

I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions. We certainly cannot change the past and we cannot undo the history of death and destruction. We can and should aspire to justice and political responsibility to be carried out in the courts. Perhaps López is hoping that Pérez Molina, too, will think, “I am an escopetarra. I am a person who served for war, who served to shoot, and now I have a life project, just like the one reflected in the escopetarra.” Might the transformative power of art and music someday convert this theatrical performance into a true performance of peace? It is certainly laudable to take 16,000 arms off of the street and to destroy them. Is it better for leaders to perform a discourse of peace no matter what dark crimes they committed in their past? 

The escopetarra, like all symbols, is open to multiple interpretations. Its hybrid composition, a former machine gun transformed into a guitar, paradoxically evokes both the memory of war, and the decision to abandon violence. We cannot know Pérez Molina’s motivations (though his story and history are highly suspect). Regardless of where this particular man falls on the still unrealized transformation from war to peace and justice in Guatemala, his performance on and with an escopetarra—an instrument that simultaneously embodies violence and points towards peace—calls for the Guatemalan people—people who have suffered, and are suffering, from incommensurate violence—to at least imagine the transformation necessary to move away from violence. César López’s escopetarra, then, is a powerful symbolic instrument, an instrument that provides an image with which to imagine a transformation from the quagmire of violence to a future of peace.

Robert Neustadt is Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American Studies at Northern Arizona University where he conducts research on music and politics in Latin America. He co-produced, and performs a song on Border Songs, a 31-track double album, that features music and spoken word in English and Spanish about the border and immigration. All proceeds go to No More Deaths (No Más Muertes), a group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants and recently deported people.