The Hit Song That Infuriated Drug Lord Pablo Escobar

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Aug 15, 2015 in Culture, Disjecta Membra, Music | 0 comments

The Twitter person @Arturo_Ulises (interesting name) who splits his time between between Tlön, Uqbar, and Brooklyn (interesting choice of domiciles) twitterated a link to a Radio Ambulante story about a run-in between the infamous Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and a well-known salsa musician. It’s a wonderful story, and so I’ve done a quick and very loose translation. Here it is:

Musicians always have peculiar stories. For example it is said that the Puerto Rican salsa musician Héctor Lavoe had an altercation with the Colombian narcotraficante Pablo Escobar during a musical performance at a party organized by Escobar.

According to the story, Escobar wanted the musicians to keep playing the same song, the hit, El cantate, again and again. The musicians refused, were locked in a room, and only managed to escape barefooted and without their instruments through the Colombian jungle. Finally arriving at a highway, they were able to hail a taxi for their hotel. But based on how the musicians looked, the taxi driver worried they wouldn’t be able to pay him. Lavoe assured him that he was indeed the famous Héctor Lavoe. The taxi driver asked suspiciously: “To confirm that you are who you say you are, you’re going to have to sing El cantate for me if you want me to take you to your hotel.”

“Listen dude,” Lavoe responded, “it’s because of crap like this that we have this problem. Somebody wanted me to repeat this song ten times, threatening me with a pistol. I was a little drunk and said to the orchestra no more songs. Pack up your instruments.”


What I really like about this story is the formal repetition of the demand to sing the song, as though the musician (representing all artists one might suggest) is hounded by a fate that specifically arises out of his artistry.

But also the story says a great deal about power, and especially about the peculiar power music exercises over us. It’s like one of those tales from antiquity about a despot (Dionysius of Syracuse, anyone?) that teaches the futility of the dictator’s way of life. Here is Pablo Escobar, who at the time was one of the most powerful, wealthy, and feared criminals in the world, powerless before art. Just like all of us, who when we like a certain song, a certain melody (or Vinteuil’s Sonata, for that matter) want to hear it again and again, so too the great Pablo Escobar. Most of us however do not pull out pistols to hear the song repeated, no matter how much we might want to. But perhaps that is just our timidity.


Original text from Radio Ambulante is found here.

This story apparently was first told by the journalist and writer Juan José Hoyos in the pages of the newspaper El Colombiano de Medellín.

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