Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

Hector Buitrago

By Catalina Maria Johnson

Colombia is well-known for its lavish and popular beauty pageants, but perhaps one of the most passionately-lived of such contests is held every year in the women’s prison called Buen Pastor, which houses over 2,000 female inmates in Bogotá, the capital. It has been held every year for the past eighteen in September, on the day of our Virgin of Mercy.

The story of this brief and beautiful respite from prison life is brought to life in Another Word for Beauty, a play written by José Rivera which will be presented at the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival as a staged reading on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and as part of this year’s festival celebrating Latino playwrights.

Another Word for Beauty, directed by Steve Cosson, also  features original music by Colombian musician Héctor Buitrago of the Grammy Award–winning and pioneering Colombian indie band Aterciopelados.

We had a chance to visit with Buitrago at the Fine Arts Building while he was in town for the play’s rehearsals. Writing the music, he explains, began with experiencing the beauty pageant and investigating the circumstances of the incarcerated women, and learning about the events and circumstances which led to their imprisonment.

For the staged reading, the music will be performed by two Colombian musicians from Chicago’s psychedelic Latin-tinged indie band Divino Niño. Buitrago says that he wanted it to give a sense of the surreal qualities of the experience, because “it’s like being in a dream”.

The music will also take inspiration in Colombian folk music to some degree, due to the fact that Buitrago wanted to reflect all the different parts of the country from where the women hail. It will also incorporate a variety of urban, contemporary and reggaeton beats, but within the framework, he explains, of …“entering another dimension, which is  fantasy-like. It’s a month of preparations, rehearsals and costumes, and then the beauty contest ends and the women go back to daily prison life”.

Buitrago comments that he is also interested in reflecting the painful circumstances of the women’s incarceration in his lyrics, “ …many of them are in jail because of circumstances that have to do with their husbands and their boyfriends who have taken them down this path, and they have made mistakes in wanting to support these men”.

It’s all part of the social and ecological activism that Buitrago is well-known for as an artist, reflected both in the work with Aterciopelados as well as his Conector albums, an activism that is intimately tied to his art, “Music”, he muses, “is a very effective tool to communicate a message spiritually, because music touches people, and can change consciences and create awakening really quickly”.


Photo by Volker Neumann

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