An Instrument for Peace, Literally

Copyright © Piers Calvert

 (Copyright © Piers Calvert)

BOGOTA – As Colombia’s civil war continues to displace hundreds of thousands of people and leaves many victims in its path, César López is using music to raise awareness and understanding of a conflict that has gone on for far too long.

López is most known for his role as the former drummer of the 90s Colombia rock group Poligamia, but he’s quickly becoming more and more recognized for making music with a social message.

Following a 2003 bombing by the FARC rebel group, López came up with a controversial invention that would immediately give a visual and deep reminder of the war to his fans: the Escopetarra. Once AK-47 assault rifles, they were supposedly recovered from the paramilitaries and found in the hands of FARC guerillas after a weapons airdrop from former disgraced Peruvian intelligence director Vladimiro Montesinos.

“It was thought that Montesinos was working for the CIA and installed a special tracking chip in them,” López said. “So the commandants were given the order to get rid of the weapons and throw them in the river or bury them.”

Upon receiving the guns, López decommissioned the AK-47s and used their fuselages as the bodies for electric guitars.

But there’s a bit of philosophy involved in which guns he uses. All of them come from a reintegration process, which is the most meaningful part of the instrument.

“One of things that I have achieved is to get the guns of the people who have laid down their weapons and then transformed themselves,” he says. “It’s not the same as if the person was killed and the weapon was taken away.”

That’s why he has turned down offers in the past to convert weapons by some deceased FARC commanders, such as former FARC Commander Raúl Reyes.

Shortly after his invention, López turned to the international community to bring Colombia’s conflict to the forefront of social awareness.

He’s brought Escopetarras to former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York City, the UNESCO in Paris and the House of Cultures in Berlin. He has also delivered the guitars to fellow musician Juanes, Live-Aid founder Bob Geldoff and singers Manu Chau and Fito Páez.

Choosing who receives an Escopetarra is also a well-thought-out process. If social change is not a part of an artist’s message, then they’ll be denied.

“Many artists contact me and tell me that they want one,” López said. “But there is a special council who decides whether or not they deserve it. It depends on the merits that the artist has (earned) in the social field.”

It’s somewhat of a “touchy” subject to work with these instruments. That’s why the musician, who just released a new album about the country’s armed conflict, chooses not to commercialize it.

Many people have offered to buy the guitar from him. But he respects the families of conflict victims and won’t look for financial benefit, he said.

But his mission will not go on forever, he said.

César plans to track down the original Russian designer of the AK-47 rifle, Mikhail Kalashnikov, and give him the last Escopetarra. It will bring the story to an end, he said.

“I think it’s going to be a very symbolic act where his creation returns to him transformed,” López declares. “I’m still going to play, but just with my guitar. But I won’t continue delivering them to other artists.”

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