Renowned Colombian songwriter and Another Word for Beauty composer Héctor Buitrago has made a career by tearing down walls. His Grammy Award-winning works with Aterciopelados, the groundbreaking band he led with singer Andrea Echeverri through the 1990s and 2000s, melded varying styles of music (from the punk rock and heavy metal that inspired him as a teen to the indigenous folk genres of his homeland). As a public figure, he has presented himself as not only a musician, but also a passionate activist crusading for a range of political causes. When he launched a solo project, he named the initiative “ConEctor,” playing on both the Spanish words “con Héctor” (“with Héctor”) and the English “connector.” So, despite his lack of experience in the theater, it seemed natural that he was eager to bring his talents to the Goodman’s production of Another Word for Beauty, collaborating with playwright José Rivera, director Steve Cosson and the many others involved on stage and behind the scenes, for the most ambitious joint project yet by US and Colombian artists.
“It was very different for me to work with so many different pieces of the puzzle,” Buitrago said from his home in Colombia. “I had to imagine things that were going to happen in the future with the actors, with the design, and that was difficult.” Indeed, Buitrago was still composing new songs in November, finishing a process that began more than three years earlier. “I’m so excited to see how it all comes together. The music was prepared with a lot of anticipation, but the music is just one part of the play—though an important part, I hope!”
Writing lyrics in Spanish based on his reading of Rivera’s script, Buitrago composed songs intended to capture an ambiance he described as “surreal, like if you’re having a dream.” He prepared by visiting Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, the national women’s prison in Bogotá where the play is set and home to an annual beauty pageant for its inmates. “I tried to capture the feelings I had when I visited the jail. I was there for the pageant, and there are a lot of strong feelings when you stand there. The pageant is a really happy moment for the women, but when everything ends, and it’s time to go back to reality, the feeling is so strong. When I started to compose the music, I spoke with Steve and José about that, and I tried to incorporate their feelings and comments, too.”
Although the event takes on new meaning behind bars, beauty pageants are a major facet of Colombian culture, and one that Buitrago knows well. “In Colombia there is a pageant for everything—a pageant for coffee, a pageant for the forest, every city and every little village has a pageant,” he said, laughing. “In the jail, it’s the same. All the women are representing the places where they were born, and they are so proud of that. In that pageant, they find a very happy moment. It’s a moment of happiness, of freedom, of beauty—a very strong moment for the women.”
Buitrago is a self-taught musician. “I didn’t know how to play an instrument, but with punk music and its attitude of ‘do it yourself,’ I started to learn bass and formed a band.” That group, Aterciopelados or “the Velvety Ones,” was wildly ambitious. “We really liked punk and new wave, electronic music also, and of course the music from Colombia and Latin America. We wanted to put all the ingredients together to sound fresh and organic, but in an authentic, Colombian way—to build a new genre, a new music called Colombian rock.” With the band, his solo work with ConEctor and in the music for Another Word for Beauty, the artist has succeeded, though commercial accomplishments always seemed less important to him than social activism.
“When we became a famous band, when we started touring and all of that, we listened to the voices that told us that we must use that power to communicate things that were important to the community, to the country and to the people who listen to our music,” Buitrago recalled. “Andrea and I chose different ways of being active with the music—Andrea with women’s issues and activism, and myself with ecological and indigenous issues. I was also very interested in female empowerment. Patriarchal societies are the cause of many of the problems of humanity. The masculine powers that are in charge of everything—it would be a better world if women were in charge!”
Given his passion for connecting art and activism, one can’t help but ask about the message that Buitrago hopes theatergoers will take away from Another Word for Beauty, and whether the play might be a catalyst for change. “I don’t know about change,” he said after a long pause. “But it’s a cause for reflection on many issues—about women, and about men, because a lot the women are in jail because of men. The reality of our country is that those women are in jail because of the war on drugs, and a lot of people have died because of the war on drugs. The US has a lot to do with that war. Colombia receives money from the US for the war on drugs, but it’s not as simple as the US needing to stop meddling. Nothing is simple. In the end, I hope people will think about women, think about countries like Colombia, think about the situation between the US and Latin America and think about the music and the people.”
Jim DeRogatis is a veteran Chicago music journalist and critic. He is the author of nine books about popular music, a full-time lecturer in the English department at Columbia College Chicago, and the co-host of Sound Opinions, the weekly music talk show that originates at WBEZ and which is broadcast on some 120 public radio stations nationally as well as podcast globally via SoundOpinions.org.