Crooning of the beauty of Honduras

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Singer-songwriter Polache got his start with a rousing anthem urging Hondurans to take pride in their nation, which is often stereotyped as a backward and unstable Banana Republic.

But just as Polache’s career was taking off, Honduras revealed its dark side. In June, the army, with the backing of many business leaders, overthrew Manuel Zelaya, the country’s left-wing president.

Polache suddenly found himself blacklisted by much of the pro-coup Honduran media. His sin? Polache once sang an impromptu duet with Zelaya that was broadcast on national television.

“This year has been a rollercoaster and I’m at a low point,” Polache said in an interview. “The situation is very difficult. The people behind the coup got away with it.”

Honduran singer Polache.
(Courtesy of the artist)

Polache is the stage name of 32-year-old Paul Hughes. The moniker combines his first name with the Spanish pronunciation of the initial letter of his last name.

Born to an English father and a Honduran mother, Polache began playing guitar when he was 9. But he didn’t think he could make a living as a musician so, after university, he took a job with an ad agency in the northern city of San Pedro Sula.

There, Polache was chosen to compose the music for an ad campaign promoting Honduras and the result, "Mira a Honduras" or “Look at Honduras,” became a surprise hit. In the song, Polache points out that besides political corruption, gang wars and poverty, Honduras is home to great natural beauty and honest, hardworking people.

“This is a country with low self-esteem,” Polache said. “I wanted to write a song that said: Even if we have thousands of problems, we have many good things that need to be recognized.”

The success of "Mira a Honduras" led to a television program in which Polache traveled the backroads, strumming his guitar and singing with the locals — like an old-fashioned troubadour.

Polache grew up listening to U.S. and British pop music. But he later came to believe that too many Honduran tastes — from fast food to popular music — were imported. “My music tries to promote all that’s catracho,” he said, using a slang term for Honduran.

Polache’s songs cover everything from Honduran migrants dodging U.S. border guards to the national soccer team’s qualification for next year’s World Cup, the first time the squad has reached the tournament in nearly three decades.

As he strums his beat-up acoustic guitar, Polache sometimes sounds like Ruben Blades unplugged. His lyrics connect with listeners because they are full of Honduran slang and vulgarities. For example, the Spanish verb for “angry” is enojado, but Polache uses the far more colorful expression encachimbado.

“He sings the way Hondurans talk and that’s what’s made him very popular,” said Miguel Calix, a political analyst in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

Polache hooked up with the ousted Honduran president by accident. He knew nothing about politics but Zelaya liked Polache’s music and invited the singer to accompany him on a trip to Honduras’ Mosquito Coast.

With the cameras rolling, Polache dedicated a song to the president. Zelaya joined in and the two men began singing in a call-and-response style.

Not everyone liked the results. One listener compared the performance to “two donkeys braying.” And in Honduras’ increasingly polarized political environment, the performance cemented Polache’s public image as a supporter of Zelaya.

Following the coup, some radio stations refused to play Polache’s songs while TV stations and newspapers that once fawned over the musician ignored him. There were even concerns that Polache had been arrested by the de facto government, a rumor he had to shoot down on his website.

“Now that Zelaya is out of power, Polache is finished,” said Gustavo Funez, who owns a Tegucigalpa CD shop.

Unlike many of its Latin American neighbors, Honduras in recent decades has managed to avoid revolution or a major civil war. Partly as a result, there’s no tradition of high-profile politically active singers, like Cuba’s Silvio Rodriguez or the Mejia Godoy brothers of Nicaragua.

Polache admits he’s never voted and he worries that he’ll alienate fans if he gets sucked too far into Honduran politics. Still, watching soldiers remove Zelaya from power in an illegal coup d’etat led to some soul searching.

“Nearly 80 percent of the country lives in poverty while 5 percent are extremely rich and the coup was a way to maintain the status quo,” Polache said. “Now, we’re all obliged to get involved in the politics of this country.”

For starters, Polache is writing a song called “La consulta en el cielo, or “Elections in Heaven.”

“It’s my way of looking at what happened” during the coup, he said. “It’s a way to tell people that whether you are left-wing or right-wing, pro-Zelaya or anti-Zelaya, you will be judged — either in this life or in the afterlife.”