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Andrea Echeverri has the Voice. Not the voice of the First World—neither suburban Gwen Stefani nor urban Madonna—but the voice of the urban Third World, an instrument of goodwill and terrible retribution: the voice of indigenous people, love and activism.
Echeverri is one half of Aterciopelados (the Velvety Ones), a group that casts its shadow over rock en español, both in terms of musical talent and political smarts. The band has just two permanent members: Echeverri on vocals and guitar and bassist/arranger Héctor Buitrago; they share songwriting duties between them. Based in narco-terrorism's heartland (Bogotá, Colombia), Aterciopelados formed in the early 1990s when Buitrago and Echeverri—who'd already gone through the school of hard rocks—opened one of Bogotá's few rock clubs. But the scope of their music is hemispheric, ranging from G-Funk bass lines to Arab-inflected singing to almost every musical genre of Latin America. Think of Beck splitting into his anima and animus, becoming Colombian, and doing something more substantial than a soundtrack for postmodern, First World living.
Echeverri's voice is what really distinguishes Aterciopelados. It's not cigarette-smoky; it's an Industrial Revolution-era bellows of refuse sound. Her voice does not belong in the rock en español scene; it's better-suited to the Mississippi delta circa 1930, coming out of the mouth of a woman intimate with the everyday evils of men. And though Echeverri can go abstract—singing about the agony of love and existence—Aterciopelados' lyrics deal primarily with the earthly struggle for human rights and the fight against the destruction of nature.
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Aterciopelados is committed to the Cause. They frequently appear at rallies and benefit concerts ranging from a performance in La Paz, Bolivia, celebrating the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights to a concert in a Mexican village where they helped raise money for jetties to protect a coral reef in the nearby harbor.
"If we are invited to a worthy cause, we are there," Echeverri said. "Only by respecting Mother Earth and the rights of everyone can the world truly live in harmony."
There's little harmony in Aterciopelados' patria of Colombia, of course. Ecological disasters caused by Al Gore's friends at Occidental Petroleum and the ongoing U.S.-sponsored war on drugs have ravaged Colombia and its citizens. The group's latest album, Caribe Atómico (Atomic Caribbean), an apocalyptic yet irresistibly grooving collection, is Aterciopelados' worst-case scenario for their native land. Echeverri said the inspiration for the album came when she and Buitrago went on a vacation to the Colombian shore only to find trash strewn across once-pristine beaches. As a tribute of sorts to this epiphany, the CD booklet includes photos of assorted beach trash.
But nothing irks Aterciopelados more than American imperialism. In one of their older songs, a hymn of praise to their homeland called "Colombia Conexión," the line "Gringo, go home!" is included in the lyrics, hinting not so subtly at Colombian resentment.
"There are many problems in Colombia due to U.S. repression," Echeverri says. "They deforest the Amazon to get rid of the cocaine growers, in the process relocating indigenous people and destroying our environment. If the U.S. is going to be in Colombia, they should be helping our society, not the military."
She thinks the American effort to rid Colombia of narcotraficantes is a failure that both ruins her homeland and absolves the United States of any blame for the drug trade. "If the United States would do a better job of controlling its citizens' consumption of drugs, there would be less problems in Colombia," she said. Is she for a drug-war crackdown in the U.S.? Oh, no: "Legalizing drugs could be a positive step for both countries."
Such pragmatic politics achieve sublimity through use of the Voice. And when Echeverri sings, she becomes the Voice—unconquerable, beautiful, smart. When she belts out a cry of warning—"Mayday, mayday"—in one of their songs, she does it with such urgency and beauty that you become hypnotized into doing anything Aterciopelados might want you to do. And that is not such a bad thing when you get down to their philosophy, which, according to Echeverri, is "Leave egoism behind, and let's all unite!"