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Chucho Merchán: Rock Activist

This is the story of a real Colombian rock star living in the cold mountains above Bogotá. This rock legend is responsible for social actions that help people believe in a better and more just world. He has acted as musical director for The Who and played bass with The Pretenders, Mike Oldfield, David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), and the Eurythmics.

By:  Jacobo Celnik
Photos:  Cristian Pinzón

 

Few Latin American musicians can boast such admirable and enviable accomplishments as Colombia’s Chucho Merchán. Pedro Aznar —the talented bass player who worked with Charly García and David Lebón to get Serú Girán off the ground during Argentina’s dictatorship— can perhaps claim to have played with Sting and Pat Metheny. And yet Bogotá-born Merchán, despite being Colombia’s most successful rock session musician, has received very little attention or gratitude from the media, who remain for the most part unaware of the bassist’s work with the likes of George Harrison, Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), and Pete Townshend (The Who), to name only a few.

But beyond the rock-and-roll and flashy stars that twinkle on his resume, Chucho Merchán is a great social activist who, thanks to his lack of interest in publicity, has garnered little attention in Colombia. In 1986, he achieved something very few managers have ever accomplished by convincing some of Britain’s finest musicians to perform in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London to raise funds for the survivors of the tragic Nevado del Ruiz volcano eruption. Those who know him attribute his anonymity to the fact that he was never featured in any media scandals and never engaged in payola, but surely the last thing a musician of Merchán’s stature needs are ploys of this sort to get ahead; his actions speak for themselves.

He currently heads a foundation in Colombia that fights to ensure proper respect and treatment for animals; this work has earned him fame and respect. In fact, Paul McCartney has supported Chucho’s cause worldwide, as seen during the former Beatle’s visit to Colombia. Merchán has just released an album called Revolución de conciencia, very much in keeping with his philanthropic work, a niche recording produced in the comfort of his own home, without the pressure of promotions aimed at million-dollar sales; Chucho creates art for art’s sake. Chucho Merchán bares his soul to Panorama of the Americas and gives us a lesson in life from an idealist whose actions have taught him that a better world is indeed possible.

Why compose an album dedicated entirely to respect for animals?

I wanted to devote an entire album to songs focusing on the issue of animal rights and also create songs that were worthwhile for their musical content. I’ve become aware in recent years of the immense suffering of animals. Millions die everyday in slaughterhouses, fur factories, and laboratory experiments and we continue to sit with our arms crossed as if nothing was happening. My most important project right now is spreading the vegan lifestyle, because it could put a stop to animal mistreatment and help save the planet. It’s that simple.

A somewhat risky proposition in a music market totally uninterested in this kind of project. What difficulties have you experienced in promoting your art in Colombia?

People and record companies want nothing to do with the subject because the meat and fur industries, and other industries that abuse animals, are in the hands of very powerful people. Music companies and radio stations and news programs aren’t interested in saving the planet and ending the cruelty; they just want to sell records and get good ratings. So, sadly, I feel I’m outside the music industry, alone with my music, but I have the satisfaction of having never sold out, even if it means I have to give my CDs away.

There are two songs on the album with lyrics that transcend all borders. You’ve created an album with a universal message. Tell us about “Vivir sin crueldad” and “Gandhi.”

Gandhi is the perfect role model for any human being: a person who brought a message of peace and freedom from suffering. I traveled to India twice and visited the Gandhi museums. He was an exemplary person, humane, humble, and he understood perfectly that animals must be respected and not considered property. He was responsible for the phrase: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” “Vivir sin crueldad” is a reflection on the sadness of a life with so much suffering in it, and on how beautiful and great we might be if we could just stop cruelty to animals.

Through your foundation, you and other activists worked to get bullfighting banned in Bogotá. You made financial contributions, provided logistical support, and printed brochures. You went after a very powerful sector of society and won the battle. What does this mean for Bogotá and what message are we sending to the world?

The fact that Bogotá’s mayor has banned bullfighting in the Plaza Santamaría is a huge step for the animal rights movement. We’ve fought long and hard and I think the days of public support for bullfighting are numbered. Only 15% of the population say they are in favor of the sport. It’s one of the horrible legacies left us by the Spanish and we have to stop it. We have to fight for a more humane Colombia. It’s about acknowledging the other beings that inhabit the planet with us. This is why we’re working hard on the issue of animal circuses and we are very close to getting them outlawed. We have to put an end to the suffering in the sale of animals, and animal experimentation in laboratories and universities. But we have a very long, sad road ahead of us.

Bogotá finally took an important step by prohibiting animal-drawn vehicles in the streets. What do you think of this change?

I worked hard on this and just adopted a mare that was part of the animal-drawn vehicle replacement process, which seems like a dream come true.

Let’s get back to the music, Chucho. There’s a version of The Smiths’ “Meat Is Murder” on the new album. Why do you think certain social consciousness issues take so long to reach us when in the UK they’ve been talking about this for more than twenty-five years?

People in England are very progressive on the issue of animal rights and there’s a lot of interest in the topic. And there are many activists fighting for the cause. Morrissey is one of the only artists to really stick up for animals and he doesn’t care if he stops selling records or booking concerts because of it. Animal issues are important to him. I wish there were more people like Morrissey in this world. Animal advocacy would move much faster, because the power of music is enormous, but everybody is afraid to talk about it and that makes me very sad. Everyone talks about education, children’s rights, ending poverty… all very respectable issues that I also work on, but nobody wants to talk about animal rights.

You’re one of the few Latin musicians to have played with rock stars. What do you miss about those years with Pete Townshend of The Who or David Gilmour of Pink Floyd? 

I get very nostalgic when I go to England and spend time with them. They were an essential part of my musical life and each of them was special, on an extraordinary musical and personal level. For me, playing with Pete Townshend and becoming The Who’s musical director was the height of my career; I’m a huge fan of the band and a real fan of Pete Townshend’s music too. Playing live with him was extraordinary. You know how powerful Pete is live.

Did you read Townshend’s autobiography?

I bought it and read a couple of chapters. Pete is an extraordinary writer and the book is full of humor and incredible anecdotes; I know Pete well. I’ll try to find time to finish reading it. The book was highly anticipated and Pete was writing it while we were working together.

What motivates you to remain in the music business?

It’s something I can’t stop doing, something that’s inside me; it is stronger than my will. I want to be the best musician possible, write better and better songs, leave a worthwhile musical legacy, keep learning and, of course, try to get the message in my songs heard.

What do you think about the current music industry?

The music industry has changed a lot. Now it’s more about playing live because album sales have really fallen off. This is why everyone comes to play South America now; it’s a new concert market. The world is going through a very difficult patch and we’re in big trouble. It’s time to stop writing little love songs and breakup songs and start singing about a new global awareness. This doesn’t mean we can’t dance to or enjoy that music, but we need a little more content. Long live John Lennon!

In 1992 you did something no South American entrepreneur had ever managed: you brought David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Roger Daltrey of The Who to Colombia for the Ecomundo festival in Cali. What do you remember about that episode? 

It’s one of the saddest moments in my life and it left a mark and made me feel terrible. I’d promised Gilmour so many things about Colombia, like showing him the friendly face of this extraordinary country which the world has never seen. I failed David terribly and Colombia failed me. I prefer to forget about the experience; I could write a book about it.

Later, life rewarded you and in 2001 you joined Gilmour’s band. What do you remember about the show recorded for the David Gilmour in Concert  DVD in 2001?

That show was my idea. I suggested to Dave that he put aside the flying pigs and all the lighting paraphernalia and technical displays that he was accustomed to with Pink Floyd and concentrate more on his incredible guitar playing and exquisite voice. At first he made fun of my idea, but then he said: “Ok, let’s do it” and it was a complete success, as you saw in that spectacular DVD.

Why hasn’t Colombia developed great rock bands and artists like Argentina?

I don’t think people have really ever taken rock music seriously here and we don’t have music schools, or studios, or a tradition. Anyway, I think Argentine rock, except for Soda Stereo, is pretty derivative.

What do you think of artists like Shakira and Juanes?

I love the humanitarian work they both do, and I think they’re both worthy ambassadors. It makes me happy to see them do well. Musically, I have another opinion. I think they’re both good songwriters, but I don’t like their music. The lyrics that Juanes writes are embarrassing.

What does your musical career have in store for the future?

More albums, more activism, traveling the world, trying to be happy, taking care of my animals, keeping the chuchomerchan.com website full of good stories every day, and leaving a legacy of the cool vegan.