Music, Guns, and Peace

| 7/21/2014 8:08:00 AM


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). 

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