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Unearthing the Metal Underground: Northern Andes Folk Metal

What more defines a culture than its customs and the influences of the indigenous people that combine to form a sense of nationality? That's the majestic quality of pagan folk metal, that it brings out those qualities of a nation and heritage steeped in tradition. The countries of South America are rich in overtones from the pre-colombian civilizations that existed up until the 16th century. Largely vanquished by Pizarro, other tribes and pandemics such as small pox, the descendents of these native empires remain to this day - continuing their traditions. Pre-hispanic folk metal permeates nearly every country from Mexico to Chile, especially gaining momentum in the upper Andes region nowadays.

Half of the 13 countries in South America are straddled by the immense cordillera of the Andes mountains, an imposing natural fortification that thwarted the Spaniards looking to pillage. While eventually nine countries were colonized by Spain and adopted Spanish as the official language and culture, the ancient ways remained firmly entrenched. South America's burgeoning pre-hispanic folk metal scene can be attributed to a people yearning for self-discovery of their origins and also as a means of superceding the oppression. Rock/metal has always been a viaduct of freedom of expression, something not always possible in that part of the world. Take Peru, for example. Their country was very permissive of cultural and musical liberties in the sixties. Rock bands and surf music were all the rage. Then the coup'd'etat of 1968 ended all that for the better part of two decades. Their neighbors Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia got just as raw of a deal in the political realm. Rock had been viewed as an alienating factor by various governments and it has taken a while for the memories of the supression by right-wing dictatorships and left-wing juntas to subside in the psyche of the masses.

Building back up since the nineties, the scene has been truly vibrant in many of these South American nations. The lands are awash with dozens of thrash, progressive, death and other variations of metal bands - and many rival some of the best American and European bands in terms of sound and originality. Latinos are quite spirited and put a lot of heart into what they do. They don't take things for granted like some of the more jaded listeners of larger nations. Recently in Paraguay, thousands of people protested and picketed on the streets to get Iron Maiden to add a tour date in Asuncion. Would we do that here? No, because we don't have to fight to have a scene.

South American bands have been fine-tuning themselves for years to intricate and professional stylings of the sub-genres. With that, it should come as no surprise that the pagan metal scene has been thriving in the Andean countries. Dubbed "Ancestral Metal," the traditional folkloric take of black (and other) metal is infused with richly synchronized instrumentation from the Incan and other pre-colombian cultures. There are many bands delving into this style, and you can check out a good cross-section of them in these two nice anthologies Metal Nativo Americano Pts. 1-2. Bands take various different approaches to this infusion of native influences with metal. Some are doom, like Kranium of Peru, or progressive symphonic metal like their countrymen Yawarhiem, while others take a folk-rock approach that has metamorphosized during the years like Ecuador's legendary Aztra or an industrial sound like Bolivia's Alcoholika Lo Christo.

What unifies most of these bands is using themes that date back to cultures that have their inceptions over 10,000 (according to many anthropologists) years ago. They integrate the sounds of instruments from their ancestors, such as the traditional "quena" flute, the "zampoƱa" - a flute with five or six pan-pipe sound holes, or the "charango" - a guitar made either from wood or the back of an armadillo. Even the "quejada" is utilized, which is a percussion instrument made from the jawbone of a horse or donkey. Combine these pre-hispanic notes of the Andes with traditional or death metal, and a sound is derived that is quintessential South American folkloric metal. The native appeal interwoven with metal creates a sound that is as stark and lush as the majestic mountains and rugged valleys that form the backdrop of the countries. The best known song based upon Incan music will probably always be "El Condor Pasa" by the Peruvian Daniel Alomia Robles (covered by Simon and Garfunkel), but now metal bands are doing their own adaptations. Today we will transpose you into that setting by looking at a few bands from the South American highlands and their outlying regions.


Ch'aska is a quechuan word used by the Incas to describe the brightest star in the sky - possibly Venus. It is also a good metaphor to describe this incredibly talented band from Arequipa, Peru. They combine extreme metal with native influences in a way that is seamlessly heavy and mind blowing. Conceived in 2000, they put out their first demo, "Imperio Caido" three years later. They perform all over Peru now, having played at a Chuck Schuldiner Tribute fest a few years back. As their popularity gains, they have played in the desert border city of Arica, Chile and have opened for Sepultura in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. A couple years ago they finally released their debut album, "Pururauca," and below is the title cut - along with a few others from the band.


From the coastal city of Cali, Colombia - the gateway to the Andes - comes a black ancestral metal group with an incredible following, Guahaihoque. Formed in 1996, they count Borknagar and Septic Flesh as some of their many influences. Having gone through many line-up changes in which they had sopranos and mezzo sopranos singing in the band, they have streamlined their sound to a more native approach present day. Also interesting to note is that they sing in Quechuan. Now utilizing ancestral woodwinds and ritual percussions, they describe their sound as "the spirit of the dead and writings of mysticism evoking the golden age of milleniums ago." Below is a sampling of their music from various endeavors.


C.U.R.A.R.E. hails from Quito, Ecuador - a capital city that straddles the equator but remains cool and verdant due to its 8,000 foot altitude. They have been active in the scene there for nine years and are probably one of the better known folk/metal bands in the region since they are very politically active. Their material straddles everything from nationalistic latino punk metal to traditional folk-rock metal. "Comando Urbano" and "Radical Accion" were their two studio efforts so far, with a live one - "Curare en Vivo Carajo" put out in 2009. They are currently working on their new one due out this year, titled "Revive Esperanza."

The culture of South America comes alive when blended with the native sounds of the civilizations that came before and remain alive through the centuries in the hills and landscapes - like echoes of the past. This is the tradition of folk/pagan metal - to build meaningful art on the foundations of the past, and combine it with the essence of metal.

Join us next week when we unearth another scene in the Metal Underground .

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Vicky Willis has been a freelance journalist and former college radio disc jockey for almost twenty years. She has been contributing to Metalunderground.com since 2010.

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