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Heavy Metal Music as Decolonial Activism: A Latin American Case Study

Nelson Varas-Díaz, Daniel Nevárez Araújo, Eric Morales, Juan Rosales, and David Rosales

No hace falta ir a matar,
mejor palabras vas a disparar.
(Todos tus Muertos)

As the study of metal music gains ground throughout the world, researchers continue to highlight how the music is used and transformed by consumers and creators in order to reflect their geographical and symbolic positionality in the world. In the case of metal music generated in the Global South, it has become clearly evident how its sounds, lyrics, and imagery are used to reflect on one important characteristic that enjoins the region’s varied experiences: its colonial past. There is an undeniable increase in the number of metal artists in the Global South that are engaging in critical reflections on the ever-present legacy of colonialism. More importantly, many of them have used metal music to engage in social activism to challenge colonialism’s ongoing effects. Although there is an emerging number of metal scholars addressing the topic of colonialism in their work1, the use of this musical genre as a form of social activism capable of challenging this experience remains an important gap in need of exploration. Latin America and the metal music generated there present metal music researches and thinkers in other fields with invaluable examples of the ways in which music, and particularly metal music, can serve as modes of social activism in the region’s challenge against the long-lasting effects of colonialism.

We have argued that metal music in Latin America has engaged in critical reflections pertaining to the colonial history of the region2. Furthermore, it explicitly recognizes that the colonial process is not over, and that its consequences remain an ongoing concern, representing a process that Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano has termed coloniality3. We have posited that metal confronts coloniality through extreme decolonial dialogues4. We define these as “invitations, ones particularly interested in promoting transformation, made through metal music to engage in critical reflections about oppressive practices faced by Latin American communities in light of coloniality.”5. We label these experiences dialogues in order to highlight the interaction between those who are informed about coloniality and those who have yet to, or sometimes refuse to, comprehend it. These dialogues are an exchange of information between equals, as proposed by Paulo Freire6, posited in opposition of a didactic top-down approach, in which some allege to possesses unequivocally correct information at all times. They are decidedly decolonial precisely because “metal bands engage in dialogues that are concerned with the historical process of oppression faced by the region, stemming from XV century colonialism and its lingering effects into the present day.”7 Finally, these dialogues are extreme primarily because they are perceived as threatening to “those unfamiliar to metal aesthetics and sounds” and because they address issues related to “death, violence, and oppression” which tend to “worry unfamiliar listeners in the region; this includes politicians and the media.”8 They address issues of extremity (e.g. violence, murder, political repression) that some people in the region would rather soon forget. 

Although these extreme decolonial dialogues are an important mechanism to transmit metal music’s critique of coloniality, multiple questions arise from their existence. For example, do individuals and communities turn these dialogues into direct actions capable of fostering social change? How is that process actually manifested? Can these extreme decolonial dialogues foster social activism amongst listeners? Echoing Freire9 and his work on the role of education and oppression in the region, can these dialogues actually become a form of praxis, the meeting of reflection and action, which people then use to work towards a transformation of the consequences of coloniality? These are all important question to address in order to understand if and how critical reflections on coloniality made through music achieve the task of motivating people to intervene with the problems found in their context in more concrete ways. These questions shed light on the potential role of metal music as a form of social activism, an area of study that, as we have stated, is still in its infancy within metal music studies.

The relation between music and social activism has been explored in the existing academic literature. For example, music has been explored as a catalyst for politicized identity-formation amongst musicians10. The relation between the consumption of particular genres of music and civic participation has also been explored11. In this last study, metal music was included in the analysis, but its quantitative focus does not allow for a deep understanding of the potential relation between metal and activism. Finally, scholars have argued that the protest song, and thus the activism it entailed, reached its peak during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, fizzling out during the following decades12. Unfortunately, metal music is also absent from this last analysis and its critical social positioning is mostly ignored. Scholars devoted to the topic of metal music have frequently addressed how the music tackles important social problems, including racism13, homophobia14, sexism15, xenophobia16, and colonialism17. Although extremely valuable in helping us understand how metal engages in critical assessments of different contexts, these forays have yet to consider how metal becomes a form of social activism. 

Metal music studies need to engage in an extended process of understanding how, and if, the critical messages in the music actually manifest themselves as critical, direct actions. Since these critical, direct actions manifested in everyday life can take many shapes, social activism being just one of them, this seems like a worthwhile diachronic agenda for future considerations. This is something that metal music studies has done before with other themes of importance for said community. One excellent example is the topic of scene formation. Scholars like Jeremy Wallach and Mark Levine18have explored in detail how metal scenes are formed, what keeps them alive, and which factors foster their maintenance through time. They have even proposed tenets capable of explaining this process; a “how to account for” type of list to best understand scene formation. This type of valuable systematic exploration has been glaringly absent in other topics related to metal music. Social activism fostered by, or associated with, metal music is one of them. This may be related to the ever-present debate over some of metal music’s reluctance to engage with politics19. This debate on metal’s supposed apolitical stance has been driven mostly by scholars living, and researching metal, in the Global North. The experiences of metal in the Global South, and particularly in Latin America, have been radically different and necessitate their own frames of thought and analysis. As the music emerges and continues to thrive in settings marked by coloniality’s continued oppressions, we find a pressing need to, at the very least, begin the conversation. 

It is no surprise, particularly to those of us who identify with the region, that the last decade has seen the emergence of metal music inspired social activism in Latin America. Some examples include the Metalmorfosis group in Colombia, who work with human rights issues and the aftermath of the armed conflict. The same can be said about the Internal Circle in Guatemala, who work with indigenous schools affected by the country’s civil war20. These forms of metal music activism and communal intervention have begun to be explored21 and deserve more detailed attention. In light of this need, we converged around a research project grounded in the context of Ecuador and the band Curare as an ideal case study, with the aim of closely exploring the process through which metal music becomes a catalyst for social activism in contexts impacted by coloniality. 

Method – Ecuador as a Case Study

The Ecuadorian band Curare has been active for more than 20 years and has focused its efforts on the protection of the environment, highlighting local indigenous culture, and denouncing the exploitation of indigenous communities22. The band is actively engaged with other activist groups in the country. In this paper we focus on the band’s environmental activism against mining. Ecuador has been severely impacted by legal and illegal mining practices characterized by foreign intervention and the privatization of local lands for such purposes23. These mining practices have had detrimental effects on water supplies24 and have fostered clashes with the worldviews of local communities25, that have sometimes devolved into all out violence against them. These extractivist practices are one important example of how coloniality is still at play in Ecuador and are manifested in a worldview that seeks to exploit nature for local and international capital, at the expense of local indigenous communities26

In order to implement our case study we established communication with the band’s members and engaged in preliminary conversations during a one year period. Afterwards we travelled to Ecuador for two-weeks in order to accompany the band in their musical and activist endeavors. We carried out approximately 100 hours of participant observation and completed in-depth qualitative interviews with 10 individuals, including band members (n=4), relatives (n=1), music industry representatives (n=1), and social activists (n=4). All interviews were audio/video recorded and later transcribed for analysis. Two members of Curare are co-authors in this article, a strategy that we collectively implement to decolonize academic endeavors by dismantling the distance between researchers and communities. This has allowed all members of the writing team to engage in a sustained collaboration that ensures the fidelity of the presented analysis while being respectful of the lived experiences of the musicians and their embeddedness in the Ecuadorian context. The protocol was approved by the Florida International University’s Institutional Review Board.

Throughout our ethnographic observation and qualitative interviews, four main themes emerged as influences for the band’s engagement in social activism. These were: 1) the role of family influences during childhood, 2) the importance of the band’s direct contact with oppressed groups in the country, 3) the musician’s embeddedness in the field, and 4) the regionalization of metal music’s practices (i.e. sounds, lyrics, and aesthetics). In the next sections we describe each theme through our ethnographic and qualitative interviews, and later explain how we see each as a contributing factor to the decision to use metal music as a form of social activism.

Results

Dimension 1: Family influences during childhood 

After driving a few hours from the capital city of Quito, we arrived at Ibarra, the capital city of the Imbabura region. This visit was particularly important for us as this region, along with its communities, has been heavily impacted by government sponsored mining efforts carried out by private companies. Juan, the lead singer for the band Curare, mentioned this on several occasions throughout our journey. Once there, we pulled up to a small and unassuming house where we would meet Juan’s mother.  

Jennie greeted us at the door and invited us to come in. Her joyfulness and hospitality seemed to fill the room; the type of person that makes you feel welcome instantaneously. She swung her arms upward to hug Juan, his height greatly contrasting with hers, and invited us all into the kitchen where she was making breakfast for everyone. Jennie served corn arepas with scrambled eggs and informed us that “arepas are not particularly Ecuadorian, but still very tasty.” Juan grabbed an acoustic guitar and began to play some chords, as his mother cooked and talked to us about his upbringing.

Theirs seemed to be a musically inclined family. Jennie appeared to be very proud of her musician sons; Juan and David. She had exposed them to many different musical genres throughout the years, but songs from Latin American musicians stood out. She explained that “when they were little all the records I played were those. There were the long plays of Inti-Illimani, Joan Manuel Serrat, Silvio Rodríguez.” These sounds filled their childhood home and accompanied Jennie’s own guitar playing dreams. “I played the guitar a bit. The easier chords; right? A, D and E chords. A major, D major and E major. With those three chords I taught them to play some songs, and well, they began to do it for themselves. They were already interested in music. I think we all carry it in our blood because my dad played the accordion.” Her motherly influence was evident, as Juan played a song from Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodríguez on the guitar while we ate breakfast. He made sure to explain how his band combined these Latin American musical influences with their love for rock and metal music. “My mom did much more than that,” he explained while looking at her. “She bought me my first electric guitar and a drum set for my brother. She has always been there.” The exchange between Juan and his mother evidenced her desire to expose her sons to Latin American sounds who were keenly aware of the colonial plight of their region. It is as if she was preparing them, albeit unintentionally, to later transform these sounds through rock and metal as a way of engaging in extreme decolonial dialogues

This sentiment was echoed by David, drummer for Curare, in a later conversation as he explained how their mother’s introduction to Latin American protest music had sent them on a path to discover other similar sounds. “After being exposed to Inti-Illimani, Quilapayún, and Silvio Rodríguez, I saw rock as an amplification of those social concerns. It could scream them louder and more viscerally express what one felt against the State and the system.” David recalled discovering Pink Floyd’s album The Wall and being struck by its political content. “Later as an adolescent, I discovered Colombian metal bands like Masacre and La Pestilencia who sang about the war. Afterwards Sepultura releases Chaos AD and the song Refuse/Resist. I later discovered Argentinian bands like Malón and Carajo. Those bands showed me that metal could also be a type of protest song.” His brother Juan later introduced him to the socially conscious salsa of Rubén Blades and he was “amazed about the music’s ability to send such a clear message.” It was evident that, for both brothers, the presence of Latin American protest music throughout their development had kindled their interest on sounds they perceived as socially relevant. These would later be amplified by metal music. 

The familiar influences seemed to extend beyond musical preferences. As we continued to converse about the plight faced by the Imbabura region, it became evident that a connection to the local land had been forged early in Juan’s childhood. Jennie described it simply as the “love for the land.” She explained how her grandparents were always “in contact with the earth.” When talking about her maternal grandfather, a lawyer, she stressed how he would get up “at four in the morning, put on his hat, rubber boots, and his farming clothes, to water the plants and sow.” Only after completing these tasks would he leave for his law office. She stressed how these worldviews on loving the earth, and the land around them, would be transmitted through later generations in the family:

We were always in contact with the earth. So that led us to always love Pachamama and its products because she feeds us. I think that was also passed down from generation to generation. Now my granddaughters and my grandsons can also be heard talking about love for the land. 

Juan interrupted his mother, so as to clarify the multidimensional influences that were at work in his worldview and music. In a balancing act with his mother’s artistic influences, he brought up his father, the scientist. “It is also the influence of my dad who was a biologist,” he explained while his mother looked attentively. “We grew up learning a lot about… not just about animals and plants, but about their relationships, about the ecosystem.” Juan frequently mentioned the need to be in balance with the Earth, as we were “part and not owners” of what surrounded us. It was evident that Juan was channeling his artistic influences through his music, while simultaneously thinking about the scientific merits supporting his anti-mining and anti-extractivist positions. This balance came across in his music. Songs like Revolusiembra, a combination of the words revolución and siembra (revolution and sowing) stressed the band’s belief in the importance of ecological preservation in Ecuador. We listened to the song and it felt like the perfect combination of his mother’s musical influences and his father’s ecological concerns. Both lessons were not lost on Curare’s music.

This combination of familiar influences from their childhood, the artistic and the scientific, seemed to blend perfectly in Juan and David’s activist worldview. The former spoke of Ecuador with passion, yet fully embedded in scientific facts, and explained that in such a small country you could “easily see where your water comes from, where what you eat comes from. Then you can know what it is you have to take care of.” He stressed the need to take care of local moors, as these gathered humidity and water that would later “sprout lower in the mountains.” These would subsequently be “transformed into rivers and lagoons that give us water to drink.” When listening to Juan speak we were amazed by his ability to move seamlessly between his positionalities as a musician, an activist, and an informed and engaged Ecuadorian citizen. He would mention songs from Curare’s repertoire in which these themes were directly addressed. He would link them with the need to be active in fighting national and foreign companies that placed the Intag zone at risk. He stated the following about mining in particular:

That is why it seems stupid to us that a mining company comes, or the government comes, to concession a moor in the region of Azuay for mining. Because it would dry out all the water that is produced for the city of Cuenca, which is the third most important in the country. These kinds of things that do not make sense to us are what led us to unite with the people who are protesting. It is the people who are in the communities. There are rivers that are already dead due to mining in the south of the country where mining is present. Because that’s the first thing that is damaged. The rivers are dying. Since I was little, I remember listening to my dad say “the day a mining company enters Intag, it will be all over.”

It became evident to us during our initial visit to Ecuador that Curare’s music and Juan’ positions on environmental exploitation were deeply rooted in his childhood upbringing. His musical inspirations were clearly linked to his mother’s love for Latin American music, specifically singers who were part of the Nueva Canción movement, and also influenced by it. This musical movement was characterized by critical political positions against local oppressive governments and foreign imperialism27. These musical influences were supplemented with environmental concerns posed by his father, a scientist concerned with the ecological health of the region in which the family lived and worked. Both worlds seemed to converge in that small kitchen, something that became evident in our conversation with Jennie and her son. Juan looked at his mother with what we interpreted as a sense of gratitude, and she looked back at him with naked admiration.

The aforementioned interactions might seem novelesque for some readers and misplaced in an academic journal, and yet we believe they can inform metal music studies that want to understand how metal music becomes a form of activism. Just as important as a particular sound or lyrical content that fosters critical thinking, family dynamics and the upbringing process seem to play an important role in fostering activism among metal fans. In the case we present here metal music might be the manner in which activism is channelled, but that was preceded by family dynamics that instilled critical values and worldviews.

The combination of Juan and David’s love for music and their environmentally conscious upbringing was but the first step in the development of activist metal musicians. It set the groundwork – a fertile ecosystem, if you will – on which other experiences would take foot. One of those experiences was the band’s direct contact with oppressed groups in the country.

Dimension 2: Contact with oppressed groups and alignment with their plights

We are live with the Longo28 Metal band Curare,” said the radio host as he sought to energize the audience tuning in to the Friday evening radio show. The small studio was packed to the brim. The four musicians from Curare with their respective acoustic instruments, the radio host, and ourselves left little room to move around. Still, the producers on the other side of the glass looked enthused about the band’s visit to their show. The band was there to promote their participation at a local anti-mining event that would be hosted by the Mining and Social Environmental Observatory of Northern Ecuador (OMASNE for its acronym in Spanish), an activist organization that had taken unto itself the monitoring of mining practices in Imbabura. “So, let’s start at the beginning. Curare. What does the name mean?” asked the radio host to the band. Juan and David went on to explain that Curare was a venomous substance from the Amazon that was used by indigenous groups to hunt. It is derived from plants and when consumed or injected has a paralyzing effect on the host. “It is a substance for war among the indigenous people of the Amazon.” The name was chosen, as they explained, in order to highlight a strong “concept of resistance. A local concept, rooted here, and typical of our land.” The manner in which the name was chosen seemed even more interesting. Juan explained:

 

We chose the name after a very beautiful anecdote that we had during an indigenous uprising in 2000, which we were supporting here at the Salesiana University and in which we were able to share with the Amazonian Quichua people. We did a cool musical ceremony with them exchanging their tribal songs with our rock songs. It was an incredible sharing event. They gave us the motivation and the strength to take this path. They made our war paints, our war makeup, and they sent us with this mission to sing to all the people about what we are, and what is happening here. 

As the interview went on, the band’s affiliation with oppressed groups in the country would become even more evident. The band had not taken inspiration from indigenous groups as a purely aesthetic and sonorous practice. They were embedded in their plight and their fight via social protest. The band’s concern over the exploitation of local lands for mining, and its effects on water supplies, would not lose sight of the consequences of those practices on people. Marginalized indigenous communities were at the forefront of their concern, but the problems posed by mining would also have adverse effects on many other populations. The radio host picked up on this thread of the discussion and posed a seemingly innocent question: “Curare is a political band, right?” The sound booth went silent.   

The band looked at each other for a split second and David immediately took to the microphone. “What is our duty as musicians?” he posited to the radio host. “Informing people about this. Telling them what is going on.” The radio host, seemingly fully aware that the answer seemed too political and would not go over well with some of the audience, felt the need to justify his line of inquiry. “I ask you this question because suddenly there are still musicians who, despite the fact that their music is political, are reluctant to qualify it as political. What do you think of that?” Juan seemed unamused by the clarification and addressed the topic directly.

I believe that what we are doing now is also going one step further. Because right now you can produce all the music and cute speeches you want, but if in your practical life you don’t do something about it, you’re just talking, bragging, creating propaganda for people to follow you. This is why we are supporting OMASNE. They are the ones in charge of monitoring all the concessions, because practically the entire Intag zone is under concession to the mining companies. By creating a Ministry of Mines and making an extensive mining map of Ecuador, thanks to the gringo’s satellites, now everyone can know where there is gold. So, if legal mining does not enter, I can go and illegally start to exploit if I know where the concession is. 

Curare did not mince words about the political dimensions of their music. Their call for artists to engage these topics, not only via music, but via concrete actions, was deeply rooted in their concerns for the local communities and their own personal experiences. David had recounted earlier in one of our meetings how their involvement in social protest had resulted in his arrest, torture by the local police, and a close encounter with death at the hands of a tear gas canister that almost hit him in the chest. Another had sent one of his activist friends to the hospital for reconstructive mouth surgery. These firsthand experiences allowed the band to back up their message with personal accounts of their activism. They had directed these messages against the exploitation of local natural resources and its detrimental effects on communities, which they saw as a coordinated colonial effort between local politicians and international governments. Juan would explain to the audience how these mining efforts affected local communities and their resources:

A high percentage of Ecuador’s territory has been stupidly concessioned, and especially a percentage in highly sensitive environmental areas. The moors of the Cajas! (…) How are we going to mix that water with sulfuric acid and cyanide? To extract gold you need to mix that water with cyanide. Why are we going to do that while sacrificing the environment?

As the interview drew to a close, the band quoted one of their songs to drive home their point.  “Water is worth more than gold’ as our song says. Water is worth more than gold. Water is worth more than oil. Water is worth more than copper.” As the band prepared to leave, we realized that most of the interview had gravitated more towards their political positions than their music. The radio show event that we witnessed as part of our ethnographic outing that night evidenced three things: 1) Curare had been exposed in their early adulthood to the plights of indigenous groups. This experience had impressed upon them the need to resist the mining endeavors that had taken hold in the country. 2) The band strived to make people in Quito understand that the plight of indigenous groups, and other communities in extraction zones, had effects on the country as a whole. Thus, they used these opportunities as a way to socialize others on the environmental challenges faced and their relation to local and international neoliberal/colonial policies. 3) Finally, the musicians had realized that their identification as a political band would follow them everywhere and seemed to navigate those perilous waters by focusing on their main topic of concern: extractivism of their land via mining. It was evident to us that their initial contact with oppressed indigenous groups not only provided them with a band name, but rather an activist agenda. This agenda was not only manifested in the recording studio but extended itself to the field. 

Curare’s narrative continued to inform our understanding of the use of metal music as activism. Not only had they received a critical upbringing by their parents, they had also met, along the way, communities directly impacted by the long-lasting effects of coloniality. These developmental milestones cemented their activism, and brought their musical agenda even more closely aligned with extreme decolonial dialogues. They fostered these dialogues throughout the metal community with the hope that they would also ripple throughout other spaces in Ecuador that needed to become aware of this ongoing colonial plight. Their outright political stance linked to extractivism in the region, and in their immediate backyards, was unashamedly linked to challenging coloniality.

Dimension 3: Embeddedness in the field 

We reached the concert grounds in the town of Ibarra, in the Imbabura province, and the band began to unload their equipment. We had arrived a full ten hours before their concert would take place. It was evident that the band members wanted to attend all aspects of the event. The band was graciously greeted by leaders of the organizing group at the front gate. Hugs were exchanged and an air of camaraderie was evident. It was clear that these people knew each other, and that this was not their first time collaborating. Once we were all in the concert grounds, we were invited to do a walk-through of the site.

The site was located in the Intag zone, and the open-air site allowed one to see one of Ecuador’s many majestic mountains in the horizon. The logistics of the event felt like a hybrid between an activist communal meeting and a concert. Large banners decorated the walls or hung between trees. They denounced the International Monetary Fund’s presence in Ecuador and drew attention to the consequences of mining in their land (See figures 1 and 2). Throughout the large lawn area one could see many tables where members of the activist groups would sit, talk to those interested, and share information on their particular causes and activities.

Stage backdrop denouncing extractivism at a Curare concert. Photo by Nelson Varas-Díaz.
We had the opportunity to speak to one of the organizers of the event, a young woman in her mid-twenties. She was keenly aware of the problems faced in the region and expressed her desire to challenge existing practices of oppression in the region. We sat down with her and members of the band to talk about the event. Without hesitation she explained that they were members of the “Mining and Social Environmental Observatory of Northern Ecuador.” This group, mentioned by Curare in their radio interview days before, is a civil society collective that aims to “raise awareness in the cities of the struggle that exists in the countryside.” She explained that since 2009 the exponential increase in mining concessions placed the country at risk. “It is currently known that 15% of the national territory is concessioned to mega mining,” she stated with a somber face.

Activist banners against mining at a Curare concert. Photo by Nelson Varas-Díaz.
She went on to explain the importance of having musicians like Curare become involved in their fight. “Their presence is important as they help us draw attention to what is happening here.” It was evident that Curare had worked with the group before, and the band members were all well informed of the plight described by the young activist. As the conversation continued, she explained that her main concern was the local communities; specifically, the breaking of what she called the “social fabric” amongst them. She stated: 

The companies come to the communities to tell them that there is going to be development, that they are going to give them jobs. But they don’t really tell them what their objective is in the territory. (…) Because mining has phases. Initial exploration, advanced exploration, exploitation and closure of the mine. However, communities are only told about the initial and advanced exploration phases.  They don’t tell them how their mountains are going to end up. An open pit. Contaminated water. This is what has happened here in Intag, for example, which is a mega-diverse valley. It still has the remnants of primary forest. One of the few that remains in Ecuador. In this valley they have struggled for more than 25 years. Despite the fact that several of the most powerful companies, such as BHP Billiton, have come, people still have not been convinced and have continued to fight for 25 years. (Activist)

It was no coincidence then that many of the make-shift booths throughout the event provided attendees with information about the tensions between international companies and the communities. The environmental consequences of mining were explained in detail to those who walked up to those present. The same messages were transmitted by the master of ceremonies who introduced each act. In between the live performances, he provided information on the current mining situation in the Intag valley. Jazz musicians, rap artists, and poetry readers would address the crowd to explain their concerns and invite people to join their efforts in the field. David was very attentive to all that was happening in the event. We sat down to talk about the band’s involvement in this particular event, and in activism in general. He stated the following:

We grew up in his beautiful province. It is our duty to join the organization that is putting this event in place to help the communities that are defending the land, and everyone’s water in the Intag zone. We are here to contribute with a grain of sand to that cause. That is why we invoke the spirits of this land so that they will join this fight. This inspires us to keep going. We play traditional songs from this area in our metal versions. Because we were born here. Our roots are here. We use art to create awareness and unite with people to resist. Help people understand that we can live in harmony with the ecosystem. There is another future for humanity, and this is our step in that direction. We may be small ants, but there are many of us. 

It was evident from David’s comments that he saw Curare’s role as a way to inform people and invite them to become engaged in the larger fight against the mining companies. This was one of the many events they would support throughout the year against the mining companies; they were always in the field in one way or another. The musicians from Curare had now taken their childhood influences and what they learned from interacting with oppressed groups, infused their music with an air of protest, and taken it to the people. They had become part of a larger artistic and activist community while infusing these events with the sound of metal music. Curare was bringing a different sound and approach to the table and it was evident that those around them valued this sonic diversity. Most of all they seemed to appreciate their clear and committed activist standpoint. Shortly afterwards, we would witness how those activist stances would manifest themselves on stage.

Dimension 4: Regionalization of metal music’s practices (sounds, lyrics, and aesthetics)

Curare took the stage to close out the activities of the day. The place was packed with almost 300 people, a large crowd by local standards. The audience was a clear mix of local community members, environmental activist, poets, rappers, and metal fans. Juan would address the audience between songs, highlighting the importance of protecting the environment, respecting local culture, and championing indigenous peoples and their cause. Upon seeing Curare play live for the very first time, we felt a critically didactic approach in their interventions. Before the night was through and Curare was done with their show, Juan would talk to the crowd one last time.

We do not want to leave without first thanking the Mining and Social Environmental Observatory of Northern Ecuador, OMASNE, for organizing this event. For trying to talk about all these issues that have to be known. Especially here in Imbabura where open pit mining directly affects us. We want to thank everyone for this type of event and tell you that we have to be vigilant. Because they want to come and take the gold. They want to come and take the minerals and they are going to leave us a desert in our green Imbabura in exchange. That is why we are here singing. Because we love this land and we always want to see it as a fertile land, as a good land, as a land that welcomes us. For that we also have to respect it. We also have to take care of the water. We also have to learn from the people who care for nature. 

One could feel the energy in the crowd growing, as the fans knew what song was coming up next. “This song is called Mama Yaku. Our mother water,” screamed Juan at the top of his lungs. David, sitting in the drums and ready to lead the group on this last song, addressed the crowd. “We invoke the power of the Imbabura lakes. Yahuarcocha, Cuicocha and Imbacocha. Spirit of the water, come now!” A short count in on his hi-hat gave way to the groove laden song, whose lyrics address critical topics related to decolonial practices: the importance of water, the protection of ecosystems, the need to stop the displacement of communities, and a critical assessment of the role of international companies in exploitative mining practices (see lyrics below).  

As the song progressed, a mosh pit opened up in front of the stage. It was evident from the looks in some people’s faces that this traditional dance among metal fans was new and alien to them. Although we had seen this on many occasions throughout our Latin American travels, one particular thing stood out. Several people in the crowd, including a few in the mosh pit itself, were wearing Aya Huma masks (See figure 3). These masks are used by indigenous groups to honor the Inca Sun God, Inti, during the winter solstice, in order to secure a good harvest. This local character is believed to cast away bad spirits that can affect people’s lives. Not surprisingly it was characterized as a devil by Spanish colonial settlers. It was somewhat surreal to see the many Aya Huma masks in the mosh pit, as it felt like a perfect integration of local customs to a music that is frequently perceived as alien to the region. While the masks filled the mosh pit, the sounds of Juan’s electric guitar were seamlessly combined with those of local wind instruments like the quena and the zampoñas. It was evident that Curare’s metal was regional in its content, sounds, and imagery.

Concertgoers wearing Aya Huma masks in the moshpit. Photo by Nelson Varas-Díaz.
As the song came to a close, Juan reminded the audience one last time that “water is worth more than gold. Water is worth more than oil. Water is worth more than copper.” The band stepped off the stage and engaged in conversations with attendees. It was clearly evident that their activism manifested itself on and off stage.

Amazonía perdiendo vidas
por la codicia y sed de riquezas
explotación
petroleras asesinas
La minería es una inmundicia
naturaleza vive en peligro
ecosistemas
enfermarán y morirán
sangra la tierra.

El agua vale más que el oro
El agua vale más que el petróleo
El agua vale más que el cobre
El agua es nuestra fuente de vida

Comunidades son desplazadas
asesinadas por mercenarios
o compradas
intervención transnacional
Empresas sucias depredadoras
extractivistas no son previsoras
No hay marcha atrás,
la humanidad
con su ambición
cava su tumba

El agua vale más que el oro
El agua vale más que el petróleo
El agua vale más que el cobre
El agua es nuestra fuente de vida

Yaku para sembrar
yaku para sanar
yaku para limpiar
yaku da muerte y vida
muerte y vida

Mama yaku
ñukanchik yaku kausay takun29


Lyrics to the song Yaku by the band Curare.

Discussion

Going one step further” was the phrase used by Juan to describe Curare’s goal with metal music. These words seem strategic, as they are an invitation for us to consider what metal music can do in Latin America, and other parts of the Global South, when it surpasses the mere critique of the social problems it sees in society and decides to engage them through direct actions. When it becomes, as other Latin American scholars have posited, artistic activism30. Curare’s reflections and actions were strategically directed at the environmental effects of coloniality; therefore they closely aligned with the extreme decolonial dialogues we have identified as salient in Latin American metal music. As metal musicians continue to engage in these decolonial analyses, and aficionados deploy music to engage in decolonial activism, scholars working with this musical genre need to understand how the music fosters this process; the transition from decolonial critique to praxis. We stress this without detracting from the merits of the process of thinking critically about one’s situation, but with the certainty that without direct actions to accompany these critiques, metal’s role in the process of decolonization would, otherwise, be limited.

The ethnographic observations and interviews carried out echo previous findings from studies that aim to explain predictors of social activism. For example, Curare’s involvement in activism was motivated in great part by the systemic elision of environmental issues and indigenous communities. This echoed research documenting the relation between institutional discrimination and activism31. Curare’s social ties with oppressed groups influenced their activist worldview, much like it has been reported by other studies on other subjects32. The band was keenly concerned about the health and wellbeing of others in their country, an important motivator of activism33. Juan and David saw the environmental consequences of mining as completely controllable but ignored by authorities, a significant variable to understand activism34. Finally, the band members felt a sense of empowerment stemming from their activism, a tendency that has been documented in other studies on the matter35. These similarities between our observations/findings and existing studies are important, as they point towards metal music’s potential role in contributing to variables and themes we know are important predictors of activism. Still, a more detailed examination of our work reveals more information of the particular role metal music can play in this process.  

Our case study with Curare sheds light into the process of how metal music can move from engaging in extreme decolonial dialogues to foster extreme decolonial acts. These acts would be activist practices that stem from, or are motivated by, people’s engagement in metal culture. From Curare we learn that this process is multifaceted and present throughout the lifespan of a handful of musicians, practitioners, and aficionados. Metal music may not have served as the catalyst for activism among the members of Curare, but it did serve as a conduit to channel these reflections and activities. The music was used as a strategy to channel life experiences that exposed musicians to injustices taking place in their setting, and, consequently, opens pathways to address them. If metal scholars want to understand how this musical genre is related to social activism, they must step outside of the music itself to better understand topics like: musical influences during a musician’s childhood (particularly parents and grandparents), the way metal music interacts with other regional genres more closely linked to activism, one on one interactions with oppressed groups (or their belonging to one), the use of metal music to amplify those experiences, metal musicians’ involvement with local activist groups, and the transformation of metal music (visually, lyrically, and sonically) to reflect the concerns of a region, particularly the effects of coloniality on their land, people, knowledges, and ways of resisting. Of course, future studies must explore how Curare’s listeners, who may not have had the life experiences described by the band members, decide to use their music to engage, or not, in social activism. This is an important issue to address in the future, and just another example of the complexities that surface when exploring metal music’s role in activism in general and decoloniality in particular.

Finally, as metal music scholars from the Global South continue to describe the uses of metal music in the region, we must distance ourselves from universalistic theoretical perspectives, mostly stemming from the Global North, that detach this musical genre from political reflections and actions. Understanding the role of metal music in decolonial activism is an important endeavor in this process and we hope that this case study on Curare, and their fight against coloniality in Ecuador, serves as a catalyst for other studies in the region that can shed light on how metal music engages in social activism.

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  28. Longo is a word frequently used as an insult towards indigenous Andean people. When people saw Curare use indigenous instruments as part of their metal sound, some called the musicians longo. The band appropriated the term as a badge of honor, recognizing that indigenous people use it to denote “youth.”
  29. Amazonia is losing lives/due to greed and the thirst for riches/exploitation/killer oil companies/Mining is filth/nature lives in danger/ecosystems/will get sick and die/the earth bleeds/Water is worth more than gold/Water is worth more than oil/Water is worth more than copper/Water is our source of life/Communities are displaced/killed by mercenaries/or bought/transnational intervention/Dirty predatory companies/extractivists are not farsighted/There is no going back,/humanity/with its ambition/digs its grave/Water is worth more than gold/Water is worth more than oil/Water is worth more than copper/Water is our source of life/Yaku to sow/yaku to heal/yaku to clean/yaku gives death and life/death and life/Mama Yaku/ñukanchik yaku kausay takun
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