Interview with Kelenken: The Bird Men of Comodoro (Part I)
In June 2023, Patagonian metal band Kelenken celebrated 10 years of existence. Originally just a group of friends fooling around on instruments together, the Argentine band has since released 2 albums and performed throughout their home region and in the capital of Buenos Aires. Their latest album, Iaik, builds on the band’s key focus: celebrating Patagonian culture and blending heavy metal with folkloric rhythms, native instruments, and local subject matter.
During a trip to Comodoro, I had the chance to sit down with 4 members of the band to discuss their music and plans for the future.
Note: This is part one of a two-part interview. Read part II tomorrow. A Spanish language version of this article is available upon request.
Can you introduce yourselves and what you do in the band?
Gusta: I’m Gustavo “Gusta” Jelusich. I’m the bassist. And well, we’re all from here in Comodoro.
Ema: I’m Ema. I play the guitar. We’re all childhood friends and we’ve had the band since we were teenagers.
Leandro: And here we are today. Hi, I’m Leandro Rima. I’m the vocalist. Like they said, we’ve been friends for many years so aside from the music there’s that. That’s the nice part of this type of music, because we all have different influences besides the heavy metal base. Our influences are really varied, and the fusion that defines our music was born out of this, through each of our interests, the preferences that each of us have.
Emiliano: And I’m Emiliano. I’m the friend that supports them when they go play. The legal part, the administrative part…
Gusta: He is Kelenken in the shadows. And there are two more. There’s the drummer Julio Cheuque and the winds player Nazareno Casas.
What are some of your main influences as individuals and as a band?
Leandro: I’m more limited in that sense. I always go for rock and metal. Pantera, Maiden, Megadeth, the classics, older music. From Argentina, there’s Hermética, Almafuerte, Tren Loco. It varies, but always under the umbrella of rock or heavy.
Ema: My influences are heavy metal like him, because we grew up listening to the same stuff together. First I started listening to heavy metal nacional. My spectrum is a little broader. I’m always learning new things. Recently I was listening to black metal, just to learn about it, because it’s not something I like. (Laughter). But to expand my approach to composition, I take a little bit of everything.
Gusta: I also listen to everything. When I first started listening to metal, I listened to power metal. The first rock or metal band I listened to was Rata Blanca, which is a very well known band here (in Argentina). And besides that, I started listening to the work of Ricardo Iorio, V8, Almafuerte, Hermética, Tren Loco. Also rock bands, most of all Los Redondos.
Emiliano: I’m more of a rock person. La Renga, Los Piojos. And I also listen to a lot of metal, because I’ve hung out with these guys since childhood, and they made me listen to heavy metal. Almafuerte, Hermética, V8, Tren Loco. We went to see Tren Loco a couple of times.
How would you describe your musical style, and what does your process of composing music look like?
Gusta: We play a fusion of metal and folklore. Musically it’s pretty broad.
Ema: We have the defining feature of doing more heavy metal than folklore. There are other bands that do more folklore than metal. I’ve been listening to lots of bands that also do things with wind instruments like us, but in different ways that aren’t so much of a fusion. We want to approach it in a different way.
Gusta: Like Ema said, we have various elements. We’re not closed off and doing only one style of metal. In regards to the lyrics, I think Almafuerte and Tren Loco have influenced me the most. We can also mention folklore. There are a lot of similarities in what metal and folklore talk about. We could cite Hugo Giménez Agüero and Rubén Patagonia in terms of themes relating to native peoples.
Ema: For us, the lyrics matter more than the musical composition. When we compose, we compose based on what we’re going to talk about, what we’re going to sing. And we give a lot of importance to the lyrics. I don’t know if we do it well. (Laughter). But I have my idea and I bring it to the two of them (Gusta and Leandro) and they write and create a type of poetry. The lyrics don’t come to me, but I can create the musical part. In that way we start to work together as a group. And on my end, I always try to make my mark by using local rhythms.
This is one of the things that I find most interesting about your music. Can you tell me about the process of incorporating some of these indigenous rhythms into heavy metal music?
Ema: For me these rhythms have a…there’s something natural that comes out in the rhythm, in our way of interpreting the music, using the beats of the loncomeo or of the purun, or even the chacarera from northern Argentina. That for me is heavy metal. It’s heavy metal with a creole guitar.
Gusta: When bringing those rhythms to metal, something happens that you don’t usually see with other bands. People start applauding, clapping along with the music. In other metal recitals they don’t do this. That usually happens in genres that are more for dancing or something. But well, it’s something strange that happens that caught my attention when I realized it after the fact.
Leandro: I’m realizing this right now as you’re saying it, I hadn’t thought about it before. But it’s true, people clap at certain times like it was a dance. Accompanying us with clapping, something that you don’t usually see in heavy metal. Usually you just see a common applause at the end.
Can you give me an example of a song where you incorporate some of these rhythms?
Gusta: The first heavy metal track that we created based in the loncomeo and more than anything in a purun, is “Marichiwew.” Purun is a dance rhythm, a ceremonial rhythm. “Dun dun, dun dun, dun dun.”
Ema: That was the first heavy metal track that we created with that rhythm. The rhythm was there first and we tried to add onto that. I remember sitting on my bed with an out-of-tune guitar and I started to play, “pam pam, pam pam.” It all came from there. At that time we were in the middle of the pandemic, so all we were doing was playing music. We had just started working on incorporating native rhythms. And everything came together for that track.
Ema: And in addition, another rhythm we have is the chacarera. It’s not from our region, but it has a lot of influence here. Lots of people from other provinces came to live here and so we also incorporated this style. It’s part of Argentina too. To me the chacarera rhythm is also very heavy metal, isn’t it?
Leandro: Yes, you’re totally right.
Ema: And our drummer also listens to folklore, so he also has that influence and brings it to heavy metal. Lots of people have noticed the unique way of playing that our drummer has. It’s distinct from heavy metal.
Gusta: Ema, you also have this influence from folklore.
Ema: You’re right, sometimes my way of playing also has that influence.
Leandro: There’s also the time signatures.
Ema: Right, because we don’t always play in 4/4. We play in others, 3/4 for example.
Gusta: 6/8. The chacarera is 6/8 I think. And there’s also part of our song “Guardián del sol” that is a carnavalito rhythm that’s also in another time signature, I don’t remember. But we don’t know anything about this. We just play it, nothing else. (Laughter).
Indigenous mythology also plays a big part in your music. Can you tell me a bit about this influence and how it relates to the name and concept of the band?
Gusta: When we started, we said that the name would be something that represents the region. And at that moment I was reading about the worldview of the Tehuelches and their spiritual beliefs. And well, among the various myths they have, there is one that talks about evil beings, evil spirits. And one was kelenken. It was a kind of black bird that appeared when people were suffering, part bird and part man. So we said, well, a demon bird man who is from the area goes perfectly with heavy metal. It’s classic.
Leandro: The idea was to choose something heavy metal that at the same time represented where we are and where we come from. I think that Kelenken captures this.
Gusta: It was also a good choice because people are always interested in our name.
Leandro: Right, because not to discredit anyone, but the classic names are things like, I don’t know, Mad Dog, Hot Skull, whatever. So when people hear a band name that is strange, that they don’t know what it means…obviously they are going to ask what it means. And they get interested because of this. Then they see that we are making heavy metal music fused with other types of strange instruments and they really pay attention.
Gusta: The intention is always to raise awareness of local culture. Culture that at the end of the day is ours, but it’s unknown. Many people here don’t know about these legends or stories, so it’s good to spread them so that people know that we have this history that isn’t so visible. It is part of our identity as Patagonians.
Some of your songs also have lyrics in Indigenous languages, right? Like “Guardián del Sol”?
Ema: That’s right. The chorus of “Guardián” says: “Inti. Antü. Shewen”. These are three ways of referring to the sun. In Quechua, inti. In Mapuzugun, antü. And shewen from Aionikenk.
So it says, “sun, sun, sun.” Inti, antü, shewen. And then we do a similar thing with “condor.” Kuntur, condor in Quechua. Manke, in Mapuzugun. And oyikil, in Aonikenk.
Gusta: We made this track with a fusion of Andean rhythms, and it talks about how the condor unites different native peoples. There is a mix between what the condor represents for the Andean cultures and how it unites all the peoples of America, or at least South America. And it talks a little about the mythology of the Andean peoples, the Incas, in which the condor dies every day and is reborn every day, bringing the sun. We try to demonstrate that culture. Here in Comodoro there’s lots of immigration from Bolivia, lots of Kolla people, who have this Quechua culture.
Which songs are your favorites on the album?
Leandro: “Sangre Guacha.” I love how it starts, how it gets to the middle and how it ends. I feel the same way about every track, but with “Sangre Guacha,” it’s like everything fits together perfectly from the riffs, to the fusion, to the lyrics. For me it’s one of the best things we’ve done.
Ema: I really like “Chacametal,” because it has a chacarera feel. I remember that we were looking to make a chacarera, but one that didn’t sound like a chacarera. A track that respects a certain structure that the chacarera has, but that sounds heavy metal. In other words, you are listening to heavy metal, and you don’t realize that it is a chacarera. And we achieved a beautiful fusion, one that can even be danced to. And when we’ve played it live people have danced and everything. I love that and I really like how this track ended up.
Emiliano: My favorite is “Chancho Colorado.” First, because the second album is really influenced by that theme generally. Also, I have really good memories of when we recorded the video for that particular song. It was the first song on the album and that day everything turned out very well. So that song is my favorite, because it always brings back that memory.
Gusta: I think for me also “Sangre Gaucha.” But for more sentimental reasons. We had gotten together at one point, I don’t remember anymore, Ema started playing it on the guitar and it stayed just like that. And I had written lyrics thinking about my grandfather who had passed away. He grew up in the countryside, here in Chubut, in Cholila. The track doesn’t really talk about my grandfather, it talks about the gauchos. But every time we play it it makes me think of him.
What is the heavy metal scene like in Comodoro?
Leandro: Look, that’s the bad thing here in Comodoro. Comodoro and Patagonia in general. There aren’t many places to play. Here in Comodoro, in terms of fixed venues or bars with a stage to go and play at, there’s just two. One is called El Trahuil and the other is called Sótano. And Sótano isn’t exclusively a rock and metal venue. Besides that, I don’t know, some agent X or person X might organize some specific event in another space. But these aren’t fixed places.
Ema: We continue playing in private places, unfortunately. Because they won’t give you space elsewhere, in cultural spaces. They don’t have the necessary permits for musical creation, the bureaucracy doesn’t allow it. It leads to you not being able to do anything on your own and you end up playing in just a few places. I think we continue to be the only genre discriminated against to this day.
Leandro: They think there is going to be chaos, that we’re going to fight, that we are going to stab each other.
Ema: That’s their image of us.
Leandro: All of the heavy metal concerts you’ve gone to here, in Esquel, in Bariloche, was there ever a problem like that? Not at all! It’s something that doesn’t exist. I think the last time there was a problem, something like that, was when…
Gusta: When you were there causing trouble? (Laughter)
Leandro: Yeah. When I was 18. It’s true. (Laughter).
Ema: And we’re family. Heavy metal is family. Today we have children and we’re raising them inside of this world.
Leandro: And we all know each other.
Ema: And we are people who contribute to this society on a daily basis. We are workers, we are parents, but everyone continues to discriminate against us.
Leandro: On top of that we are a small community. We all know each other, we know everyone in other cities too. That’s why it’s rare for there to be a problem.
Join us tomorrow for Part II!
Kelenken is: Emanuel Montecino (guitars); Leandro “Wini” Rima (vocals); Gustavo Jelusich (bass); Julio Cheuque (drums); Nazareno Casas (winds); Emiliano Soto (manager).