Donned in an olive green fedora and sporting wire-rimmed glasses, Julian Conrado, a former guerrilla rebel with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, is using music to promote social justice. “Call me a singer of unity. I like that,” he told the Associated Press during a recent interview.
These humble words are from the man known as “singer of the FARC.” Last year, the Marxist-Leninist militant group, with help from Cuban negotiators, agreed upon a landmark peace deal with the Colombian government.
Conrado now lives in a demobilization camp with other ex-guerrillas. Occasionally, he ventures from the safe zone to perform in Bogota and elsewhere where hundreds of enthusiastic college students attend his shows and sing along to songs that were considered taboo for years.
His concerts, however, have also garnered indignation from conservative politicians. Daniel Palacios, a councilman in Bogota, said it’s “unacceptable that FARC terrorists are giving concerts in Bogota without even having confessed their crimes or made reparations to their victims.”
Rebutting such criticisms, Conrado insists that his new mission is one that carries a message of peace. Nevertheless, his most popular song to date is one that he composed in 1984 when a former peace accord with rebels failed. After giving up their arms and forming the Patriotic Union political party, some 5,000 ex-FARC members and their supporters were killed.
“I wrote the song but I don't want to sing it,” Conrado said, adding, “I see the looks in people's faces and there's a glow of peace. But then I see other people. Hopefully I'm wrong.”
Born to humble origins in a small town on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Conrado was attracted to both music and leftist causes from an early age. Just short of turning 30, he joined the FARC rebels in the mountains after experiencing threats from anti-communist groups.
Over the years, Conrado would perform folk “vallenato” songs at rebel parties accompanied by cheerful acoustic guitars, flutes and accordions.
According to Fabian Ramirez, a spokesman for the Bogota artist collective Independencia Records, “If there is anyone who made music in the midst of the conflict, it’s him. And if there is a cultural reference of the FARC, it is him.”
During his time as a genuine rebel musician, Conrado was sought by the U.S. State Department, which offered a US$2.5 million reward for his arrest. He's also been investigated by Colombian authorities on allegations of “terrorism,” “forced displacement of civilians,” and “recruiting minors.”
Nowadays, Conrado is focused on his music. Of the two guitars he uses today, one was presented to him by guerrillas. The second was given to him while he was jailed in Venezuela, sharing a cell with several bankers during his detention.
Whereas his first guitar is named “the guerrilla,” the second is called “the oligarch.”
“But ‘the oligarch’ sings revolutionary songs, too,” he assured the Associated Press.
His detainment in Venezuela abruptly came to an end in 2013 when he was released in order to participate in the peace negotiations in Cuba.
Now, at 62 years of age, Conrado resides beneath a plastic tarp. His address is a demobilization camp near the northern coast of Colombia. He, along with two other guerrillas, have been invited by Independencia Records to perform a peace concert in a major city. According to Ramirez, “the other side” of the half century civil war must be heard throughout the nation.