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Representations of structural violence through noise imaginaries: A perspective from extreme metal music

José Omar González Hernández, Mario Castañeda, and Marco Antonio García

This article aims to discuss how concepts commonly used within the global metal scene, such as Genocide and Massacre, act not only as an allegory of brutality and noise, but as an artifact for collective memory and denouncement of injustice. Working around the idea of the distinction between global metal and the so-called Global South metal1, we hold the hypothesis that the use of these terms as imaginaries of brutal sound in the territorial network of Guatemala are not only aesthetic identifiers of metal, but also devices for social protest. Our study subject is the band Tortura (Torture) from Guatemala2, and we propose to carry out a lyrical analysis looking for the way institutional violence is presented in their music. Additionally, through a series of interviews with band members we look for the intersections of sonic identifiers like noise and brutality with  other violent adjectives used by the band. Within these intersections we aim to find the representations of sound that try to signify concepts such as genocide and massacre in the context of State crimes committed in Guatemala in the period between 1966 and 1996 and reflect upon how State violence is perceived in part of the Guatemalan metal scene.

Conceptualization of structural violence in Guatemala

Since the Second World War and the Holocaust a new way of conceptualizing violence is introduced by Raphael Lemkin with a new word that described such violent nonsense3; genocide. In this sense, Ricardo Falla defines genocide from Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide4, which was created on December 9, 1948 and went into effect on January 12, 1951. The State of Guatemala signed this convention on January 13, 1950, during the revolutionary government of President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo. It establishes that genocide is:

“any of the acts mentioned below, perpetrated with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 

  1. Killing of members of the group;
  2. Serious injury to the physical or mental integrity of the members of the group;
  3. Intentional subjection of the group to conditions of existence that will result in its physical destruction, in whole or in part;
  4. Measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children from the group to another group.” (Falla in Public Square, March 19, 2013)

Concepts such as massacre or genocide in countries like Guatemala with a large indigenous population not only indicates an act of senseless violence but one that involves systemic racism. As Hannah Arendt explains in her seminal analysis of violence, there is a paradigm shift in the approach to violence after the Second World War and the Holocaust. This shift is most visible through the creation of institutions like the UN, intended to prevent horrors like the Holocaust from repeating themselves. In this same vein, the legal definition of concepts like human rights and genocide mark a change in the approach. She attests that violence was not a stand-alone subject much studied within the social sciences, instead it was absorbed within the thematic of war or criminality. This twentieth century paradigm can be explained by modern bourgeois societies’ resistance to hegemonic liberalist discourse. These societies saw war as a fulfilment of a function which led them to the goal of peaceful civilization, built from dichotomies such as order versus chaos and goodness versus evil, which was also partly fuelled by the vision that all conflicts could be resolved through peace.

This leads us to think of twentieth century processes of colonization as drivers of the violent act, also about other categories of violence that we find relevant: structural violence and political violence. The first is understood not as a violent act but as a series of systemic practices that provoke it, such as xenophobia, machismo, racism and inequality. The second is understood from the intrinsic relationship that violence has with the exercise of power that is centred upon the ability to control the other. This power exercise “[…] results in a central fact of public life, which implies recognizing that political activity, understood as ‘the formation, distribution and exercise of power’,” has “[…] a component of violence.”5The political dimension specifically will be reflected through the dynamics of state control as through repression or the establishment of fear or terror tactics, also used by organize crime or state terrorism. Thus, the opportunity is created to generate a policy that is aimed at the open extermination of racialized communities under a racist ideology. This ideological assumption of the State is one of the most powerful instruments that end in acts and practices of racist violence that can possibly lead to a Genocide6

The armed conflict in Guatemala

The most agreed upon dates of the Guatemalan war are within the time frame of 1960 and 1996. This period begins with the armed uprising of a group against the government of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes in November, 19607, and ends with the signing of the Firm and Lasting Peace Agreement signed in the National Palace, on December 29, 1996.

However, there are several overlooked factors that serve as a catalyst of the war, for example the overthrow of the democratic government of Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán on June 27, 1954. This event came about because of the direct intervention of the United States government through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the international context of the Cold War, when the interests of the United Fruit Company were affected, especially with the issuance of Decree 900, Agrarian Reform Law. Also, the political instability caused by the overthrow of Árbenz, the persecution of his supporters and social movements, as well as the relationship with the anti-communism-Catholic religion, which helped to bring censorship at the juridical-political level. Later, the impulse that the Cuban Revolution instigated in Latin American youth and social organizations proved that a structural change was not only necessary, but possible.

Between 1954 and 1963, censorship justified by anti-communism resulted in the exile of many political voices of the opposition, closure of political spaces, and repression of political parties and organizations. These were the organizations that had found a way to democratize citizen participation and modernize the country in the October 1944 Revolution. This revolution ended the liberal dictatorships that since 1871, handed the country over to American and German capitals, as well as to national elites who were favoured by the anti-communist character of governments such as that of General Jorge Ubico (1931-1944) who, when overthrown in July 1944 by a popular democratic movement (teachers, students, progressive military, artisans, workers and even members of the bourgeoisie), transferred the command to another military man: Federico Ponce Vaides, who tried to prolong the dictatorship but was overthrown by the popular movement together with army officers on October 20, 1944.

During the governments of Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, the country was positioned in the international scenario as a young but politically modernized democracy with civil institutions, autonomy of the army and the state university, social security, dignification of the teaching profession, freedom of organization, independence of the three branches of government and strengthening of culture, among other aspects. Árbenz’ administration brought about a path of reforms began which, with started to accelerate the change towards a capitalist State with a nationalist character. Nationalizing the economy, strengthening the internal market, and generating autonomy in internal and external political decisions were processes in motion when Árbenz was finally overthrown after having beenaccused of being a communist because many of his government’s members belonged to the Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT), a communist party that went underground after 1954.

The first guerrillas emerged between 1963 and 1968, after the uprising of the November 13th Revolutionary Movement (MR-13) in November 1960, and the historic Days of March and April 19628; days in which the population confronted the strong repression of the regime of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. These days demonstrated the need to move on to another moment of the struggle because political violence had reached an unsustainable point. The anger of both the military men in uniform and the population that took to the streets was, among other reasons, due to the provisions of Ydígoras government. Ydígoras wasa military man who allowed the clandestine training of mercenaries on a farm on the southern coast while planning to invade Cuba and defeat the newly established government of Fidel Castro.  Of course, with the support of the U.S. government. On the other hand, his government was riddled with decisions that spoke strongly of authoritarianism and corruption, deteriorating public institutions, all of which generated a generalized malaise due to repression.

Ydígoras was overthrown by another military man, Enrique Peralta Azurdia, who called for elections. This time a civilian who supposedly could give a new democratic direction to the country won: Julio César Méndez Montenegro. However, it was a government that gave rise to the so-called “governments of façade democracies”. Méndez deepened violence against the population that was organized in popular movements, as well as guerrilla organizations9.

Although elections were held between 1970 and 1982, they were fraudulent and with a gradual increase in repression, especially during the military governments of General Carlos Arana Osorio (1970-1974), General Kjell Laugerud (1974-1978) and General Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982). Then, around  1963, the wave of military coups d’état arose with, for one, Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt assuming the de facto government between 1982 and 1983, and Gen. Humberto Mejía Víctores between 1983 and 1986. With the latter, elections were opened to reach the first democratic government, the one of the civilian Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, for the Christian Democracy (DC) party, who, as part of a Central American regional proposal, initiated in his mandate, a political solution to the wars being experienced in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

During the 1960s, Central America began to make progress in its economic development through the Central American Common Market, an economic project that proposed the possibility of regional integration, but which was truncated by U.S. interference which aided in the promotion of monopolies10. This interference would add to the 1969 war between El Salvador and Honduras, which would gradually bring down the integration project in the region. This and the increase of repression in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala by the governments would unleash wars, or the deepening of wars that had already begun/ already were developing.

Unlike El Salvador and Guatemala, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had taken power in 1979 but was waging a war against the so-called “Contra”, supported economically and militarily by the U.S. government and operating from Honduran territory. Meanwhile in Guatemala, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) was formed as the unification of the different guerrilla organizations of the country in February 1982 (Guerrilla Army of the Poor [EGP], Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms [ORPA], Rebel Armed Forces [FAR] and Guatemalan Labor Party [PGT]. These organizations, together with communities from different regions of the country, faced the Guatemalan army in one of the strongest moments of the counterinsurgency. In El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) sought to seize power, but was ultimately unsuccessful. El Salvador would be the first Central American country to sign a peace agreement.

The Guatemalan government and the URNG signed most of the agreements during the first five years of the 1990s. In December 1996, the last agreement, the “Firm and Lasting Peace”, was signed, but the situation of poverty and exclusion would not be resolved with the accords; on the contrary, it would worsen. The neoliberal reforms of the 1980s increased poverty, migration within the country and to the United States, population growth in settlements on the margins of basic living services, along with an increase in social conflicts over the defence of natural resources, as well as crime and other forms of violence linked to social inequality and drug trafficking.

State crimes and Genocide

Although the war began in the 1960s, it developed in several phases. The firststage, between 1963 and 1968, was marked by the rise of the first guerrillas and an intense politicization of social movements, especially among students, in the face of the militarization of society and selective repression. The next phase, approximately between 1970 and 1978, was when the second wave of guerrilla presence in different regions of the country took place. In contrast to the first wave, in which the nuclei of presence were in fewer places (capital, north and east of the country). This second stage was characterized by advanced union, peasant and student organization, and constant guerrilla activity. At the same time, repression increased not only against social movements but also against armed rebel groups. At the same time, high-ranking military leaders of these governments began to share the space of economic power as owners of financial shares, banks, industrial and agricultural companies, as well as land, fundamental in the dispossession of indigenous communities11.

In 1976, the San Gilberto earthquake not only evidenced the economic situation that was beginning to decline and the political and social convulsions of the country, but also became a watershed in the processes of social organization, as well as the reconfiguration of the counterinsurgent State. From collective assassinations to massacres such as that of Panzós, in Alta Verapaz, towards the north of Guatemala. Death and disappearance of student and union leaders, the burning of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala by the security forces, and the peaceful occupation by indigenous community leaders from the west to denounce at international level the repression of the government of Lucas García by the army in the western highlands.

The increase in State violence generated greater distrust of organized civil society among   businessmen, the army, the government, and some other sectors of the population. The United States supported Guatemalan administration of José Efraín Rios Montt with training, economic resources, and military aid, especially during the Reagan administration. Throughout the 1980s, the governments of Israel, Taiwan, Argentina, and South Africa also supported the unstable military governments and the first civilian government, that of Vinicio Cerezo, in different areas of counterinsurgency12. This decade corresponds to the third stage of the war, where State violence became institutionalized terrorism. Between 1978 and 1985 during the government of Vinicio Cerezo, the greatest number of massacres took place. But in this case the democratic situation allowed the pressure of the social organization to be heard at the international level and to denounce what was happening in the country.

The last stage occurs from the end of the 1980s to the year of the signing of the peace agreement in 1996. Although blatant state violence was reduced after this date, one of the last massacres perpetrated by the army took place as late as October 1995, in the community of Aurora, Quiché, in western Guatemala.

The series of massacres committed in different regions of the country, especially in the allegedly Franja Transversal del Norte, which crosses from west to east the departments of Huehuetenango, Quiché, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz and Izabal, was one of the most affected areas by political and military violence. Among other reasons, due to the dispossession of peasant and indigenous communities by economic, political and military power structures, as well as the attempt to destroy the social support that the guerrilla forces had in their areas of operation.

The counterinsurgency was organized against the Defense General Staff by: Benedicto Lucas García, brother of Gen; Romeo Lucas García, president between 1978 and 1982 who was overthrown by a coup d’état that briefly maintained a triumvirate, leaving Gen; José Efraín Ríos Montt, as de facto head of state, who unleashed a counterinsurgency offensive based on anti-communism as a strategic ally of the United States in Central America, and influenced by the Protestant religion. From the data that is widely available, we know that between 1978 and 1996 approximately 626 massacres occurred13. In addition to the massacres, terror was installed, among other ways, through the concentration of civilian population in different territories from their place of residence or in their places of residence but surrounded by the army. Approximately one million people were also forced to form the named Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PAC). This structure forced civilians to become watchmen and executioners of the same populations as a support to detect the insurgent presence and denounce those who supported the guerrilla in their communities.

On May 10, 2013, José Efraín Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison by the First Court A of Highest Risk:  fifty years for the crime of genocide and thirty years for crimes against humanity. The verdict meant justice for the victims of State violence during his regime, especially for the Ixil population living in the villages of Santa María Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal and San Gaspar Chajul, in the department of El Quiché. It was a long legal, political, and social struggle for the communities and organizations that accompanied the process. However, ten days later the Constitutional Court (CC) annulled the sentence arguing that the court that issued the sentence “failed to comply with a resolution of the highest court to suspend the debate and process a challenge”, forcing the trial to resume from the state it was in in 201114.

Music, violence and genocide

But what is the correlation between the study of genocide and extreme acts of violence with music? Most notable, we’ve found, are the changes in approaches to ethnomusicology after 9/11. These studies have a tendency to discuss violence within music15. However, few studies have carried the weight to shine a light on extreme acts of violence like genocides and their relation either as an interpretation or a cause and correlation. We understand that music is not exempt from acts of violence but rather, as Johnson and Cloonan, note:

Music is not just an aesthetic or moral terrain, nor just a form of supplementary knowledge to visual modes. It is sound, part of the larger soundscapes that constitutes our world, and when inflicts violence it does not only by virtue of what it means but what then is: noise16.

Music can inflict violence, like the use of Metallica and heavy metal songs to torture war prisoners who weren’t adjust to that type of sounds, but also can “[…] interpret those acts in particular ways”17. The study of music with heavy and violent representations has been examined through several perspectives: from historical approaches and the urban delimitation in hip hop and rap, to the glorification as a ritual in the northern states of México, to the capos in narco corridos. We have also seen how mainstream music studies have a tendency to emphasize the therapeutic effect of music, and on the other side, to discuss the way violence representation affects young listeners. This is particularly seen in the metal studies from the 1990 to the middle of 200018.

The few studies that we found that cover the relation between sound, music and concepts such as massacre or genocides, deal with topics  such as music and the holocaust19, the fall of Yugoslavia20, music as incitement in Rwanda’s genocide21, the relation between music, torture and trauma22, and identity and collective memory23. There are fewer that note the subject through metal like Aitken24 who notes the activism of the band System of a Down as the recognition of the Armenian genocide.

In the case of Guatemalan studies, the study on the marimba from Dietrich25, or the one of the metal band Máximones from Castañeda26 include a discussion over the involvement of music, with political violence and the genocide. Those two studies deal directly with the relation of music, and stand out among other studies that only deal with the causes and consequences of the genocide.

Noise as an allegory of genocide

We  base our research questions around events that mark the history of  Guatemala, and the idea of noise taken from Jaques Attali27, where noise is  described as a contra of modern discourse that encapsulates the error and failure, what western societies refuse to acknowledge, hear, or sense. Either calling it genocide or massacre, what is clear is that there are and were violent crimes committed by the State, and that the interviewed band (Tortura) denounce them using metaphors and sound imagery, not only for the cry for justice but for the refusal to allow them to happen again. And also, alluding through the lyrics and iconography to the permanence of the collective memory of these atrocious acts.

Some musical subcultures, including metal, have in common the representation of the abject as an aesthetic identifier, being exploited in their sound. In these cases, noise or its idea become a predominant part of their aesthetics, and at the same time it becomes a vehicle for political activism through the noisy or brutal songs. Noise is a concept that has historically been aligned with otherness, abjection, subalternity and decolonization28, likewise it has become a tool of appropriation to have conversations around state violence and repression. Noise within the hegemonic discourses of capitalist modernity becomes what is wrong, the error, the failure. In musical terms we understand it as the opposite of western traditional music or tonal harmony, while in terms of production it is inaudible, and invisible in the intellectual and mainstream artistic normativity29. The only place that seems adept for noise is the so-called underground space, which is where most of the extreme metal dwells.

Although we notice that the idea of noise has been openly used and discussed within western academia and traditional music, the use of the word as a descriptor for a genre or as a motif is still disruptive of the Hegelian idea of absolute music if we consider this a well-established idea within western academia, noise will disrupt. Noise as a descriptor for music is used in many cases “[…] either because the sound, lyrics and attitudes of the musician shake the establishment.”30In this sense Attali sees the use of noise as composition as a final front for silence, which is an artefact of neoliberalism, and with this noise becomes a tool for resistance and deregulation of mainstream music practices31.

Logically, because of the way it disrupts, the conception of noise will be found in the imaginary magma of violence representation. This is where concepts such as genocide and massacre intersect with extreme metal and the bands subjects of our research. 

In metal, both concepts are used liberally. Doing a preliminary search in the Encyclopedia Metallum, we found 116 bands called genocide of which 21 belong to Latin America, including one with national socialist (NS) ideology. There is a certain tendency of NS metal bands that frequently use the word genocide as a name or within their lyrics. As for the term massacre, there are 132 bands, 28 being from Latin America.  Regarding the lyrics,  we found 5,309 that contain the word “genocidio” or genocide, and 4,421 with the word “massacre”. Moreover, we found that there are few groups that allude to historical events such as System of a Down (USA), and the Armenian genocide and Necrosis (Chile) with the conquest of America (Encyclopedia Metallum).

Metal studies on violence and the extreme

Regarding the studies of Castañeda32, that go over political elements such as State violence and metal music, we noticed that metal studies have had some focus on the conceptualization of violence, or that have mostly tackled discourses related to violence, either from cognitive or social disciplines.

Deena Weinstein (2000), in her cultural sociology of metal, proposes a distinction that will become characteristic of the change in metal as a musical genre. She mentions two adjectives to differentiate both in aesthetics and sound the commercial metal – spread by transnational record companies and music channels such as MTV- and the metal that is inhabiting, the so-called “underground”33, which is based on cultural codes adopted from musical subcultures34 for instance DIY, among others. Thus, Weinstein defines the first stage as “Lite Metal” and the second as “trash/speed metal”, supported by what could be considered as canonical or traditional metal, it becomes a series of sub-genres, each with its own particularities.

Weinstein describes how the creation of this series of subgenres aligned with the concept of heavy metal will legitimise both its sound and cultural practices in what she calls an “established musical genre”. From here, the paradigm shift that will occur from the so-called “thrash/speed metal” will originate a series of aesthetic proposals that will be grouped under the concept of “extreme”, and thus begins the discussion around such terms as the key differentiator of commercial, mainstream and underground metal.

The term “extreme” will gradually become the denomination to describe many subgenres like thrash, doom grind, death and black metal, whose main characteristic is to remain inaccessible to mainstream audiences35. The extreme becomes a path to the representation of violence in metal as a tool for transgression. Heavy metal as a musical genre, as well as a culture, has an adscription from its formation to the present day to subjects such as darkness, horror and abjection. This is characterized by Kahn Harris (2007, p.20) as the holistic characteristic of metal.

In its lyrical, sound, and iconographic qualities, there is an appeal to social transgression, insofar as it questions normativity through imaginaries of horror and abjectness. In this sense, both the concepts of genocide and massacre will be constantly there, as transgressive aesthetic elements. Thus, the metal band whose content is more violently explicit will obtain transgressive subcultural capital, a concept coined by Keith Kahn Harris (2007) who, taking up Sarah Thornton’s concept of subcultural capital36, who in turn takes up Pierre Bourdeau’s concept of cultural capital37, explains that extreme metal acquires legitimacy from its level of transgression. That is, the more transgressive the lyrics, iconography, performance or sound of the band, the more subcultural capital it will have; therefore, the more authentic it will be.

Transgression then becomes a major factor in the aesthetics of extreme metal bands. From the use of horror imagery influenced by cinema, literature and grotesque art38, to the most explicit demonstrations of violence; images taken from the nota roja39 and sounds adapted through the sample of gore websites such as the “Blog del narco”, “bestgore” and “Shownomercy”40.

While Harris speaks of certain aesthetic characteristics (specify) that can be considered holistic within a global scene, the motivations for such aesthetics differ in the artistic scenes of the Global South. According to Harris, there is a tendency in most southern scenes where transgression is accompanied by a politicized reflection, as opposed to northern scenes where transgression occurs for the sake of shock value. Smialek criticizes this position somewhat by arguing that Harris does not consider North American scenes in his study41.

Smialek, as Weinstein, considers that in North America there are examples of resistance against the persecution conducted primarily by evangelist groups and by the conservative mass media, having its paroxysm in the censorship promulgated by the PMRC, led by Tipper Gore. This type of media persecution will be referred to as “moral panic”42. But it is not something that occurs only in the United States, it extends to different parts of the Global North and South. Specifically, we noticed that in the South the persecution not only ends on advisory labels for records.  It also extends to structural violence and systemic repression that attempts to struggle against not just the livelihood of the interpreters and fans, but against their own lives too.

We have already observed how metal uses violence to transgress spaces, either to differentiate itself from the mainstream or to legitimize itself before its sensorial community. But what we have not explored is the differences in the motives of the violent representations of not only extreme metal as a subject of study, but of extreme metal studies themselves in both the Global North and South.

Thus, we find  the discussion implemented by both Harris and Smialek to be relevant in distinguishing  the holistic motifs of metal in its various geographies to emphasize how lived violence, particularly that which is  perpetrated by the State, generates imaginaries and sound representations that allude to topics such as noise or brutality, and how these are used as artefacts for collective memory, particularly in the Global South.

A non-exhaustive comparative analysis of published on metal studies from both Global North and South that problematize the concept of violence, reveals some significant differences. Initially, metal studies focused primarily on cognitive disciplines and studied violence based on the attitudes of listeners, who were usually considered to be young people. Subsequently, an attempt was made to destigmatize metal as a cultural model that produces violence or violent acts in its listeners, despite its aesthetics. There is a tendency to convince the readers that when discussing violence, it is not done from the prejudice towards this type of music that produced the so-called moral panic.

It was not until metal studies began to sprout in other latitudes, that violence began to be examined not only through censorship and moral panic but also through repression, control of bodies and resistance. While Weinstein, Harris, Purcell and Phillipov, among others, piled on to the sociological and aesthetic construction of global metal with ground-breaking analyses, others like Levine43 defined the territory of Islam as one of the spaces where making metal was a matter of life and death. In Latin America, the case that concerns us, there are analyses based in postcolonial theory, referencing authors like Bolivar Echeverría and Aníbal Quijano, among others. Using a theoretical model that points to the decolonization of metal, offering a new perspective on the use of violence from Latin American bands where the association of social movements, protest and memory with topics such as brutality, noise, gore, where the periphery and death can be observed44.

It’s important to shine a light upon decolonization, specifically considering the risk that is being absorbed by westernized academia–even if decolonization presents itself as an epistemology for and from the global south–to avoid stereotyping or the expectation to apply decolonization on all of the research production. This would be deafening for an epistemic liberation of the Global South. Decolonization must be considered with all of these contradictions.  In Latin America we found various research groups, like the Seminar of Heavy Metal Studies in Mexico; GIIMAH from Argentina, and the Peruvian group of metal studies, among others, that prioritize collective over individual research. This groups offer a range of topics related to metal from various disciplines like history, communication, social and political sciences, linguistics and epistemologies for instance intersectional feminism and sensory studies.

But what we do find in common beyond the predominance of decolonization, are the studies that reflect on extreme metal from its aesthetics or cultural industries and social movements in Colombia, Argentina, Perú, Uruguay, Mexico and Guatemala. This is what positions us as researchers with the responsibility to approach the diverse contexts of metal without alienating it from social issues or depoliticizing it, and reflecting on what in most cases is absent in the aesthetics of extreme metal: political activism. 

Tortura and the fight for memory through “noise” and brutality

As we stated before, the resistance to the violence of the State and the private sector aligned with the military governments have been expressed in different subcultures, one of them is metal music.It is unusual for metal bands in Guatemala to directly address and vindicate the struggle of the people, and even more unusual to address sensitive historical situations, precisely because of a growing erasure or denial of historical and collective memory. However, Tortura, a thrash metal band formed in 2016 by José Reyes, Jeovany Rodríguez, and Erik Rodríguez, has focused on projecting their perspective on State Violence through their music, directed towards the people most notably in their homonymous record produced in 2019.

Currently, the band is formed by Ludwin Rodríguez on guitar, Julio Blanco on bass and Erik Mayén on drums and vocals. The band’s name derives from the experience that survivors told in different social spaces about the violence that the Guatemalan army committed against the civilian population. Erik Mayén explains that after reading the book “Masacres de la selva” (“Massacres in the Jungle”)  by Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla, he delved into the accounts of what happened in the country during the so-called Internal Armed Conflict, thus  contributing to the naming of the band. Precisely, Ricardo Falla, who has accompanied from his pastoral mission the populations affected by violence, like the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR), has contributed to the explanation of concepts that are essential in the struggles for memory and justice; which also appear in the lyrics of the songs of Tortura, for example, “Genocide”

While the definition that Falla takes up is forceful from the relationship and commitment from the States, Tortura has also reflected it on “genocide”, not only from the intertextuality with the book “Masacres de la selva” (“Massacres in the jungle”), but also from thinking individually and as a group throughout its trajectory as a band, and in relation to family and friends, or experiences of survivors of the massacres, which is transversally crossed by the idea and experiences of violence, which we paraphrase as follows:

Guatemala is what it is in the present because of thirty-six years of war. The frustration generated by the thought of how a group of people manipulated other people to murder without mercy, carrying out orders, even against their own community. Actions that were denied and, therefore, without the right to justice by the Constitutional Court when it decided to annul the sentence against José Efraín Ríos Montt. In addition, there are many people who deny the genocide, arguing that the State violence was only against subversion when, in reality, the government razed entire populations to the ground. That is why the chorus of the song “Genocidio” says: “genocida tyrant damned tyrant, homicida no pagas delito” (“genocide tyrant, damned tyrant, homicide don’t pay for no crime”). Both the genocide and the prevailing violence is experienced through different manifestations, especially in everyday life, and is crossed by privatizations, increased crime and corruption. Relations between States through Free Trade Agreements, drug trafficking and the electoral structure itself.

Genocide is, therefore, interpreted as a State practice where established power groups, in a systematic way, look for the extermination of vulnerable population. Thus, despite obtaining a verdict, the frustration that the judicial system defended the perpetrators contributes to the fact that, at present times, the structural causes of the internal war have not been resolved yet; on the contrary, they have endured. In addition, the current situation in the country maintains different forms of violence that reproduce dynamics that are not far from the counterinsurgency strategies applied by the State and that have been transferred to different instances and social spaces in the economic, ideological, and political spheres.

In the album “Tortura” (“Torture”), the group explains the order of the songs starting with “1982”, the song that kicked off the record. In the introduction, the voices of different people who survived the State violence during the war can be heard. Erik Mayén explains it: 

At least that introduction, when all the songs were already made with the themes and remembering all those documentaries we had seen, we could realize that each, at least in those testimonies, each little piece we placed, kind of name each song. So, first it was that it had the name, for example, they say, it was framed by the scorched earth: we have a song called “Tierra arrasada” (“scorched earth”). Our relatives were burned alive in the church, we have a song called “Quemado vivo” (“burned alive”). So, all those, all the people, those testimonies that are there, speak directly of what we want to make known with the lyrics and, as you say, it is a rather long intro with respect to the testimonies that they say.

Mayén continues:

[…] The truth is that we wanted to make that known, precisely, that people would say that, that it was not something that we invented, but that someone who lived it, someone who gave testimony of it and that they would say that it existed, very much so. Let’s pay attention to it, not only to listen to the band, but also to the lyrics. Even for “1982” there was no need to put specific lyrics to it, but with all that it had, it was enough. And, musically, when the vergueo45part starts there, in the middle of the song there is a drop, and what we wanted to imply there is that the whole part about the massacres starts, and when there is a change of government, where supposedly a government that is religious and all that, apart from the evangelical one, there is  little calm, it goes, where all of a sudden, well, there was a rebound again and it was worse it goes, then, we interpret that part of the song, then, it comes strong and then it goes down, calm and then it goes back to the strongest part of the massacres. So, it was kind of a complementary part, even at the beginning, I said to those guys, “should we put that intro separately or make it part of the song as well?”, because it was, that’s the only one that doesn’t have lyrics. So, should we put it separately or together? And in the end, we decided to put it together, it’s like, even to join that part of the testimonies, already with the music, well, there I shouted as if I was saying ‘let’s start!’. […] That’s where that part of listening to people who are not there, who are not me or the other members, but real people who lived it and tell you about it, started. So, that’s how we saw that part of the testimonies in that song46.

Finally, although some of the other songs reflect the abuse of power and State violence as “Torturado”(“Tortured”) and “Dolor y muerte” (“pain and death”), there are also songs like “Resistencia” (“Resistance”) and “CPR” that reflect on ways to disrupt the hierarchy of power, and claim from a collective us, not only a popular organisation, with the need to flee from the massacres and move to a place where they constitute themselves as persecuted subjects, but who fight for life.

Final reflections

As we saw through the musical experience of the band “Tortura”, the sound imaginaries related to brutality and noise are used to discuss events that corrode  their past and present through violence. These terms are not only a form of aesthetic performance, but also involve a series of beliefs centred around activism and seen from a counterculture point of view where the notion of ugliness, noise and violence finds a place to scream.

Guatemalan history has been marked by a colonial and republican heritage that has been defined in the conformation of its power structures. Liberal dictatorships built imaginaries that persist in the present day, along with social relations conditioned from the link between the State and national and international capital within the different contexts that have occurred, particularly during the twentieth century. This link has been strengthened from militarised instances where the army has played a key or tangentially influential role along with the deepening of Catholic and Protestant religions in different spaces of society. 

The internal war or Internal Armed Conflict, as it has been called, is more complex than a war between two parties: government and guerrilla. Not only its causes but also its actions and consequences derive from the direct and indirect participation of local and transnational actors in the framework of the Cold War. The latter, as a scenario of power dispute, but also as a defence and resistance against the political and economic interference of States, institutions and groups. Not only the armed resistance but also the popular and cultural movements that have also established relations of solidarity inside and outside the country. Music, as an element of culture, has also been part of the tension between the reproduction hegemony and the search to speak what the powers that be wanting to deny; in this particular case, the Guatemalan genocide. A debate that has been long and tense in Guatemalan society where education, religion and the problems inherited have remained, not without generating polarizations; not only from the war but also from the structural elements that gave meaning to the idea of nation and State.

Metal, although it has been a different response to the understanding of the world and the meaning of life, has not always been positioned from the oppressed sectors, especially in Guatemala. However, there are metal bands, such as “Tortura”, that have decided to confront this dispute for historical memory and collective memories from the intergenerational relationship, becoming an intermediary to generate from metal. This can be seen as a reflection that adds to the diversity of expressions of this genre but consciously assumes the need to not forget.

The voices that in their songs are expressed as oral memory, especially in “1982”, are the links that, against the grain, confront the hegemonic discourse of official history and the history that the power groups sustain. The social practice is in the music. The denial of genocide does not fit in the present. It is an awareness and a positioning from a young generation that does not try to say things as they were, but to show them from their present; how they have inherited them and externalised through thrash metal. 

Somehow, it contributes to articulating the past in a new and different time. Certainly a time which is plagued with violence that, at the same time, is answered with another form of violence, born from rage, awareness and the need to not want to live in the discourse of the victorious or remain in memory as defeated in an open, constant and rebellious time that screams without bullets.

  1. Keith Khan Harris, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. Berg, 2007.
  2. Tortura:https://torturagt.bandcamp.com/album/tortura
  3. Lemkin, Raphael (1947) Genocide as a crime under international law, in American journal of international law, No 41, 1, pp. 145-151.
  4. Falla, Ricardo (2013). “¿Cómo que no hubo genocidio?”. En Plaza Pública. Last view on September 27 2021: https://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/como-que-no-hubo-genocidio
  5. González Calleja, 2017, pp. 36
  6. Marta Elena Casaús Arzú, Racismo, genocidio y memoria. FYG Editores, 2019, p. 86
  7. Luis Taracena, “Los rasgos políticos del conflicto interno en Guatemala, 1954-1996”, in: Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, Sergio Tischler Visquerra, Arturo Taracena Arriola, Virgilio Álvarez Aragón y Edmundo Urrutia (editores). Guatemala: Historia reciente (1954-1996), Guatemala: FLACSO, 2012, p. 224
  8. Ibid, p. 240
  9. Ricardo Sáenz de Tejada, “Revolución, guerra y democracia (1944-1996)”, en Edelberto Torres-Rivas, Bárbara Arroyo, Luis Méndez Salinas, Luis Pedro Taracena. Leticia González, Juan Carlos Sarazúa, Ricardo Sáenz de Tejada. Historia de Guatemala. Un resumen crítico. Guatemala: FLACSO, 2017, pp. 169-172.
  10. Edelberto Torres-Rivas, La piel de Centroamérica (Una visión epidérmica de setenta y cinco años de su historia). Anexo: ¿Cómo éramos hace medio siglo? Guatemala, 2006, pp. 92-93.
  11. Edgar Gutiérrez, Política exterior y estabilidad estatal. Cuadernos de Investigación No. 5. Guatemala: Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales en Guatemala (AVANCSO). Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales CLACSO, 1990, p. 47.
  12. Jennifer Schirmer, Intimidades del proyecto político de los militares en Guatemala. Guatemala: FLACSO. Segunda Edición, 2001, pp. 253-299.
  13. Ricardo Sáenz de Tejada, “Revolución, guerra y democracia”, pp. 189-190.
  14. Prensa Libre. Edición electrónica del 1 de abril de 2018. Last view September 27 2021.
  15. Fast, Susan, Pegley, Kip (2012) Music, politics and violence, Wesleyan university press.
  16. Bruce Johnson & Martín Cloonan, Dark side of the tune: popular music and violence. Ashgate publishing, 2013, p. 4.
  17. Susan Fast & Kip Pegley, Music, politics and violence, Wesleyan university press, 2012, p. 1.
  18. Eric Smialek, Genre and Expression in Extreme Metal Music, Ca. 1990-2015. Ph.D. thesis, McGill University, Montreal.
  19. Amy Lynn Wlodarski, The sounds of memory: German musical representations of the Holocaust, 1945–1965, University of Rochester, Eastman school of music, 2010; “National identity after national socialism: German receptions of the holocaust cantata, jüdische chronik (1960/1961)”, in Music, politics and violence, Edited by Susan Fast and Kip Pegley, Wesleyan university press, 2012.
  20. Catherine Baker, “The afterlife on Neda Ukraden: Negotiatin space and memory through popular music after the fall of Yugoslavia, 1990-2008”,  Edited by Susan Fast and Kip Pegley, Wesleyan university press, 2012.
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  24. Aitken, A. Paul (2011) Attack/Affect: System of a Down and Genocide Activism, MUSICultures 38. Last view October 05 2021
  25. Dietrich, Wolfgang (2003) “The marimba: musical and secret language of the political violence in Guatemala”, América Latina hoy, Vol. 35, ed. Universidad de Salamanca.
  26. Castañeda, Mario (2020),“The Transfiguration of the Deity Maximón as a Practice of Resistance in Metal from San Pedro Sacatepéquez, San Marcos, Guatemala”  In N. Varas-Díaz, D. Nevárez Araujo, & E. Rivera-Segarra (Eds.), Heavy Metal Music in Latin America: Perspectives from the Distorted South Lanham: Lexington Books.
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  29. Jonathan Sterne, The audible past. Cultural origins of sound reproduction, Duke university press, London, 2003.
  30. Cedrik Fermont and Dimitri della Faille, Not your world music: Noise in South East Asia. Berlin and Ottawa: Syrphe and Hushhush, 2016, p. 16.
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  39. “Nota roja” is usually used to describe magazines or newspapers with a strong tendency to sensationalism with violent and graphic pictures.
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  45. Vergueo is the word used in parts of central America to name the mosh pit
  46. Tortura, interview September 22, 2021