Disarming Chords

A Colombian peace activist brings his unusual instrument to Delhi

César López strums his escopetarra, made from a discarded AK-47 assault rifle. MADAN GEHLOT / DELHI PRESS IMAGES
01 December, 2011

“THIS DATES BACK TO 1947,” he tells the curious audience in soft, rapid Spanish while hoisting what resembles an AK-47 assault rifle, “and is originally from Jordan. It was given to me by a Colombian revolutionary who did not want to fight anymore.” Flanked by two musicians on stage and clad in a symbolic white kurta, César López tells the story of how the weapon he holds would never hurt a soul. It is a rare and oddly peaceful fate for a gun from Colombia—a country that continues to face one of the world’s longest internal armed conflicts, and where in 2009 alone there were 13,851 firearm homicides.

A closer inspection of the AK-47, however, reveals some unusual embellishments: the forestock and barrel of the rifle are hidden behind a fretboard, and volume controls decorate the firing chamber. Although it may share the contours of a weapon, its insides produce the rich sounds of a guitar. And César López, who is introduced to the audience as a “musician and peace activist”, is its inventor. The escopetarra, whose etymology stems from the Spanish words for guitar and shotgun—guitarra and escopeta—is fashioned by extracting the violent interiors of a discarded AK-47 and carefully adorning it with musical paraphernalia.

A few hours before he is scheduled to play at a Music for Peace concert at the Delhi International Arts Festival, I meet the soft-spoken Colombian musician backstage. López is in Delhi on a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime initiative to gift an escopetarra to the National Gandhi Museum, and shyly mentions Gandhi’s influence on him as a child. When the absolute value of nonviolence is questioned, though, he is diplomatic: “Violence has its uses: it’s fast, it’s concrete but we’re trying to make music more effective.”

The musician’s gentle insistence that “the artist can be in the centre”—that one need not choose between guerrilla forces and the government—is illusive. Aside from his support for the recently elected mayor of Bogotá, ex-guerrilla leader Gustavo Petro, music that encourages violence unsettles him. He is evasive when I bring up the politically charged repertoire of Julián Conrado, the Colombian guerrilla musician whose songs openly endorse guerrilla warfare. “In Colombia we have different points of view,” he says slowly. “Ten years ago, I came across some song teaching to build landmines—it’s terrible.”

His performance is lighthearted, but hardly one that can be described as apolitical. López asks how many in the crowd speak Spanish, and a considerable number of hands go up. He then narrates an incident about teachers in Colombia educating students that “Na se vende (nothing is sold [with money]).” Setting up for the song he’s about to perform, he asks the laughing audience to sing aloud that refrain as a response to “Qué se vende (What is sold [with money])?” As the song begins, a few people from the audience join in, but as it speeds up towards the end, nearly the whole audience—Spanish and non-Spanish-speaking folks alike—is chanting the four syllables.

López’s songs, while sympathetic to the plight of victims, employ disturbing sound effects to drive home the horror of the violence they engage with so intimately. His unwillingness to see his music degenerate into mere entertainment is startling: the song ‘Helicopter’ is accompanied by a loud, disconcerting recording of helicopters buzzing, while another opens with the hum of an ambulance.

Clearly, López enjoys disturbing the proverbial art-life distinction. While performing a song, he repeatedly presses the trigger of the escopetarra, creating patterns of clicks that are unmistakably identified as those of an empty gun. The real function of such a powerful metonym, though, is unclear. “Last month, we performed a very symbolic act called 24/0—24 hours with zero deaths. We played music for 24 hours in the street, asking people to take care of their lives,” he says. “Were there zero deaths?” I ask. “No,” he smiles ruefully. “There were fourteen.”