Sound Alternatives: Tuning out Columbia's Culture of Violence

Article excerpt

Alberto Avendano has never thought of himself as a catalyst for change, let alone a soldier on the front lines of an epochal struggle with the future of his country in the balance. After all, he's a humble person from a small town that's virtually indistinguishable from dozens of other hamlets that dot the mountainous landscape of his homeland. And it's a saxophone, not a machine gun, that he likes to cradle in his arms. But many see the 48-year-old musician and bandleader, and dozens of similarly motivated maestros in villages throughout the rugged interior of Colombia's province (called Department) of Antioquia, as key figures in the country's struggle to curb its notoriously violent tendencies and establish the foundation for a more civil society.

As an adolescent growing up in the civil war-wracked Colombia of the 1950s, Avendano witnessed firsthand the virulent consequences of widespread and unrelenting acts of violence: the disruption of a peaceful rural lifestyle that had changed little in centuries, the dismemberment of self-sufficient communities and family structures, and the triumph of intolerance over reason and accommodation.

Today, while many regions of his country are experiencing the same kind of violence-fueled anarchy that vexed rural Antioquia decades ago, Avendano's hometown of San Pedro, a dairy-farming community of twelve thousand inhabitants located on a high mesa in the Cordillera Central just thirty-five kilometers from the department's capital of Medellin, is largely at peace with itself Anti when hundreds of campesinos gather Sundays just before noon in the town's parque principal, it's not to hear the pronouncements of a military strongman, drug lord, or guerrilla leader but to revel in the reassuring tones of Avendano's 36-member youth orchestra. The staccato burst of snare drums and the low rumble of trombones and tubas are a welcome respite from the thunderous blasts of car bombs and the ricochet of assassins' bullets flint have frequently terrorized the region. Although Avendano may not be a soldier, he's playing a significant part in the critical battle against violence, one sweet, comforting note at a time.

Toward a more civil society

"If we develop a society with an appreciation of culture, we will build a better civilization," states Alvaro Uribe Velez, the soft-spoken, popular former liberal governor of Antioquia, who is widely believed to have his eye on a presidential bid in the election scheduled for 2002. "We have many problems that are well known--drugs, violence, and paramilitary activity--but we will prove to the world that we can build a strong society that rejects those negative influences,"

If any region in Colombia is capable of turning the corner on its violent past, it is certainly this mountainous department of five million inhabitants. Long before its name became synonymous with the illicit drug trade, the capital city of Medellin was noted for its well-educated, industrious citizens and a long tradition of prosperity and self-sufficiency. The Spanish colonists who settled the area in the seventeenth century--many were Jewish refugees fleeing the Inquisition--were to become known for their work, ethic and honesty. Today, Medellin is Colombia's second most important industrial center, with modern medical centers, up-to-date urban transportation, computer-coordinated public services, sophisticated communications, and specialized education facilities that are the envy of much of Latin America. Only the scourge of violence, exacerbated in recent years by the Mafia-like tactics of the region's drug lords, has kept Medellin and the rest of Antioquia from living up to its considerable potential.

With that objective in mind, Uribe Velez's administration aggressively carried out a number of innovative programs that recognized the fundamental importance of developing a cultural counterpart. to Antioquia's impressive economic-infrastructure planning. …