Fizzy pop and music

Gruff Rhys, lead singer and guitarist for the Super Furry Animals, writes a diary from Colombia

July 1, 2006
4 min read

Day 1: Bogota

In the late morning, Guto (our bassist) and I visit the rundown offices of Colombian food workers’ union Sinaltrainal. A downbeat meeting of Coca Cola workers is taking place downstairs. We are taken to an upstairs office to wait.

A knock on the door and Limberto Carranza, a union rep in his fifties, is ushered in. His quiet testimony moves us like no other. He has worked for Coca Cola for over 25 years, and as conditions worsened he joined the Sinaltrainal trade union. From that day onwards he and his family were targeted by paramilitaries employed by the bottling plant manager. His 15-year-old son was beaten close to death and thrown in a river. He was forced to send his psychologically scarred children to live with relatives far away from home and now barely sees them. At this point Limberto bursts into tears, much to his own embarrassment. He couldn’t apologise enough afterwards in this most macho of countries.

Last year the Super Furry Animals turned down a seven-figure offer by an advertising agency for the use of our song ‘Hello Sunshine’ in a Coca Cola commercial. We thought long and hard. We have never been a big selling band, but when it came to the crunch, we felt we couldn’t justify endorsing a product that may have had a part in violently suppressing some of its workers. For a moment, sitting in the Sinaltrainal office, I thought that we could have done the advert and donated the money for their campaign for justice. Yet the thought of having to hear our song used to sell anything that exploits anyone for the worse turns my stomach.

Day 3: Cali

We’re backstage at Concierto Por La Vida (‘Concert For Life’), a music festival in a barren looking park, waiting for a sound check. Hanging from a nearby tree is a banner in memory of Jonhy Silva, a crippled 21-year-old student shot and killed by ESMAD, the Colombian riot police, in September 2005. This festival is dedicated to his memory.

After the heavy, high-altitude atmosphere of Bogota, Cali, lying lower down at a thousand metres, is surprisingly relaxed. Its reputation as a cocaine capital seems the least of its worries. When we flew in on Wednesday night, the Vaca Loca (Mad Cow) Carnival was in full flow – every 50 yards a different sound system was blaring out loud salsa music and people were dancing in the street.

In the throng of the crowd we meet Sintraemcali representative Berenice. She is dancing watchfully in a doorway. She needs to be careful: she is on the leaked hit list of Operation Dragon, an assassination campaign run by active and retired Colombian army personnel. Last year she was sent an invitation to her own funeral. Defiantly, she dances to the music.

Day 4: Buena Ventura

Twenty-seven hours later I’m sitting in a deserted thatch-roofed bar. The air is heavy with tropical dark clouds and the hum and racket of giant US-built military helicopters. Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart implausibly spins on the video jukebox. A few ill-looking palm trees punctuate the mist occasionally to remind you of the potentially exotic location.

The Colombian Army’s ‘Plan Colombia’, sponsored by the US, aims to clear all the coca plantations in this region. This has fed into Colombia’s decades-long and brutal civil war as the state tries to claw back territory from the left-wing guerrilla fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The ton upon ton of poison dropped on to Colombian soil to kill the coca weed has failed to reduce the volume of narco-trafficking, and has led to severe pollution of the water table.

Villages in these areas are targeted by both sides of the war. They are targeted by the FARC, who fear informers, and their food is often rationed by government forces who are worried that they are feeding the guerrillas or hiding them. This has led to a series of massacres and clearances in the region. And it has left around three million people displaced throughout Colombia.

These are the observations of a light entertainer, displaced for a week in a country that is, in all except name, engulfed in a brutal civil war. I’m not an expert on Colombia, but it is clear from this visit that international corporations, and military schemes funded by the US (and UK) government, are contributing to this mess – supported in part by my taxes and supermarket spending power, in my name.

(Adopting a Lee Hazelwood-style singing voice) – Call me Shame!

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