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Colombia's Narco-Ballads

To the crowd's cheers, the group launches into its first song of the night — a musical eulogy to Colombia's most infamous right-wing warlord.

The audience sings along as the crooner merrily recounts Carlos Castano's rise to head the far-right paramilitaries, responsible for exporting hundreds of tons of cocaine and for dozens of massacres. As the song goes, Castano even beheaded the man who helped kidnap his father.

Britney Spears it ain't.

This is a concert of narco-ballads, the soundtrack to Colombia's underworld. Songs pay lyrical homage to the lifestyles of the rich and dangerous: drug-lords, assassins, leftist rebels and far-right warlords.

"These songs are about what's happening in our country, we sing about the paramilitaries, the rebels and the drug-traffickers and they all love it," said Uriel Hennao, the king of the genre, responsible for such anthems as "Child of the Coca," "I Prefer a Tomb in Colombia (to a jail cell in the U.S)" and "The Mafia Keeps Going."

The music, which typically has a quick rhythm and is heavy on the guitars, is gaining new fans across Colombia and abroad. Still, it remains shunned by polite society here. Major radio stations refuse to play the songs, considering them coarse glamorizations of all that has kept this country synonymous with cocaine and violence.

It's an understandable reaction — the artwork of the CDs shows bikini-clad women, piles of cocaine and guns superimposed on images of drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was killed by authorities in 1993 but continues to inspire music.

"In wealthy parts of Bogota, many people do feel that this music is bad taste," said Tuto Carmargo, a disk jockey for one of Colombia's most popular radio stations, La Tropicana. "How are we going to say that it's a good thing people are killing other people? How are we going to say that people using drugs is a good thing that we should encourage?"

But even though the issue has special resonance to Carmargo — his father was killed in an plane crash caused by one of Escobar's bombs — he still understands that people listen to the music because they feel it directly relates to their lives.

Step away from chic bars and clubs to Colombia's slums or coca-growing zones, and narco-tunes are everywhere, a reminder of how central the drugs industry and violence are to the daily lives of millions of Colombians.

While the mainstream media pays the music little heed, the discs have performed extremely well. Of the "Forbidden Rhythms" CD series, eight of the ten have become golden discs, an award given when an album sells more than 5,000 copies. The first volume has sold more than 200,000 copies and the second has surpassed the 100,000 mark. And the records have sold countless more in the slums and poor communities where pirated discs are more common than legal ones.

Music producers say the songs fill a cultural void in Colombia, where pop songs rarely stray from conventional themes of love.

And much like rap in the United States, the songs echo the dreams and frustrations of many in the country's impoverished underclass, said Alirio Castillo, producer of the "Forbidden Rhythms" albums.

"This music is biggest in the most marginalized regions, those places where the people have to live the daily misery of our country's problems," he said.

A song called "Thanks to the Coca" by the Brothers Pabon pays homage to the bush from which cocaine is made.

"I changed my crops from corn to poppies, and all the coffee I changed to coca. ... All I have is thanks to the coca," goes the song, which lists the money, luxuries, respect and beautiful women that come with cocaine trade.

This music was inspired by groups in Mexico, another nation plagued by drug violence. Those acts adapted traditional Mexican ballads into folk songs that chronicle the exploits of drug gangs. Pioneered in the 1970s and 1980s by singers like Chalino Sanchez, "narcocorridos" were distributed last year to school libraries in a music-history book and CD — sparking an uproar.

In Colombia, home to a four-decade-old civil war, drug ballads can sound like serenades to violence.

"I am out looking for a bastard to make good a debt he owes me, and when I kill him, the same ground he walks on today will be covered in blood," sing the Brothers Pabon.

At this concert, the largest ever organized in Bogota, the parking lot is dotted with the SUVs favored by the country's drug-traffickers.

Inside, waiters dart between tables, answering cries for rum from overweight men in cowboy hats and ponchos — accompanied by stunningly beautiful women.

With time, the music has evolved beyond drug trafficking to speak on the country's other problems — rampant political corruption and the droves of Colombians forced from home by violence.

There's even a song about the kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who just marked her fourth year in captivity by the leftist rebels.

In a case of life imitating art, one man left the far-right paramilitaries to become a composer, Castillo said. The young man has refused to publicly acknowledge his past as a paramilitary for fear former comrades or leftist rebels would kill him.

"He's now one of my best songwriters," said Castillo.