Guerrillas of Peace

In one Miami International Film Festival documentary, The Supreme Uneasiness: Incessant Portrait of Fernando Vallejo, the titular Colombian polemic urged his young compatriots to refrain from the cruel act of reproducing in a nation infested with guerrillas, paramilitaries, soldiers, and drug traffickers.

But born out of that cruelty are some resilient young Colombian artists such as those in the punk-infused ska and reggae band Skampida, who don't blast their public with bombs, but with energetic chants calling for social change. True to its name, the nine-member ensemble arrived in Miami Beach last month, arranging showcases at various clubs such as Purdy Lounge and Tobacco Road, determined to showcase Colombia's cultural talents without glossing over the nation's vicious cycle of poverty and war.

"We've got guerrilla inspiration but we're against violence," says 24-year-old saxophonist Pedro "Pita" Vega during an interview at the band's new SoBe residence. "Everyone has lost a loved one to the war."

Exotic body painting and a tightly woven sound earned Skampida's "Círculo Vicioso" ("Vicious Circle"), which was directed by 26-year-old drummer Nacho Segura, a mention by the Colombian magazine Shock as one of the best videos of the year. The song, a release from Skampida's 2004 debut album Stereo-blaster, has also received airplay on MTV Latin America. In Miami, Skampida's multicultural, urban-dread style is already appealing to fans of the local Latin Funk Festival crowd. But in Colombia, they are winning fans for their lyrics, which voice the frustrations of the poor masses. "Go to work to make money to buy food to go back to work to make money to eat in order to have the strength to go back to work," they sing together in "Círculo Vicioso."

The nine university-educated musicians gave one of their first live performances eight years ago for a teachers' strike in Bogotá's Bolívar Plaza. In between regular gigs at punk clubs and annual performances at Bogota's massive Rock el Parque festival, they piled into the back of a truck with their backpacks and hammocks to tour Colombia's coastal villages. "Art has to reach everyone. Why should it be elite? What would life be like without art? I learned to do beatbox by playing with [the ghetto youth]," 23-year-old guitarist Juan Pablo Tobón said as he pulled a plastic bottle cap out of his pocket, held it to his lips, and began rapping.

The band also peppers its songs with sound bites inspired by Manu Chao and incorporates Latin and African rhythms to propel the earth-shaking ska. "Colombia has all that," seconded Tobón, contradicting Vallejo's national pessimism by adding, "It nourishes so much. We're a miracle of nature."

"We're mestizos, we're a syncretism," Vega said. Then he gazed out across the yard toward Lincoln Road. "It's really strange being here: the environment, the buildings, the attitude people have when they walk down the street. They're governed by the goal of beauty," he said, thinking out loud. "We're inspired by the night and by bars for rebels. It's heavy but it has its flavor."

Skampida's relocation to Miami Beach was sponsored by newly formed local label Soula Records. It was bittersweet. They have a chance to learn to compete in a broader market and seek out a major record deal, but they're concerned that their uncomfortable talk of politics and poverty might be muffled by the commercial-minded Latin music market.

For example, at a recent Tobacco Road concert, Skampida shouted for peace and economic justice as one drunken low-carb teenybopper mindlessly shook her booty to the rhythm in a miniskirt with an image of Che Guevara stamped on the rear pocket.

"Ska is anti-fascist," Vega later said. "If nobody's killed us in Colombia, who's going to kill us here?" Skampida's survival in Miami isn't so much a matter of life and death as it is a question of how to keep the industry from killing their mission of peace.

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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage

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