Introduction To Patagonian Heavy Metal Part 3
All good things come in threes.
(This article was written by Professor Guanaco. Professor Guanaco is a linguistic anthropologist studying Patagonian music. You can follow her work on Instagram.)
Awkan – Awkan (2016)
From the first seconds of Awkan’s self-titled debut, it is clear that this is not your typical metal album. The first sound of the album is not an electric guitar, but rather the distinctive ring of a trutruka. The first words in the album are not in Spanish or English, but rather in a language called Mapuzugun. While these elements are soon joined by ones more commonly associated with thrash metal in other parts of the world, these first seconds set the tone for an album unique to the region, and, in the words of the band, a “message of vindication of our Mapuche nation.”
The members of Awkan are part of the Indigenous Mapuche people native to Wallmapu, the lands that today are more often known as southern Argentina and Chile. A dominant national narrative that presents Argentina as composed exclusively of European immigrants often erases the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples in Argentina from the country’s history. Mapuche people have resisted this narrative from the beginning, but in recent years a particularly strong wave of resistance has emerged. Young people are now pushing to reclaim their Mapuche roots through relearning the Mapuzugun language and traditional native musical practices. These revitalization movements go hand in hand with Mapuche political causes, particularly fights to reclaim Indigenous lands that are currently under the control of the Argentine government, international corporations, and wealthy private landowners.
Awkan is one of an increasing number of bands that incorporate native Mapuche musical instruments and language into outside genres of music such as hip hop and heavy metal, often with a political bent. The band Awkan hails from Gvnko Gvllev in Huilliche territory, known in Spanish as the city of Junín de los Andes in Argentina’s Neuquén province. The band’s name has a complex meaning in Mapuzugun open to multiple interpretations, but the band translates it in two ways on their YouTube page: “to be or feel free” and “territorial defense in times of usurpation.”
Awkan was initially founded in 2005. In their first decade of existence, the band released several demos (2007, 2008, 2011), performed extensively throughout Patagonia, and contributed their voice to a variety of local political struggles, gaining a reputation for themselves in the regional scene. Their full-length debut, released nearly 11 years after the band’s formation, serves as a celebration of all they have achieved up to this point. And an exciting celebration it is!
Opening track “Ngellipun,” whose title refers to an important Mapuche religious ceremony, comes in strong with the use of Indigenous instruments including the trutruka/ñolkin (a sort of trumpet), pifilka (a sort of flute), and kaskawilla (bells). Second track “Awkan” maintains this energy by incorporating the trutruka and pifilka. The end of this track also brings in the trompe, a regional take on the mouth harp. In a very cool outro, it playfully duets with the guitars and drums. While it is not unheard of to use these Indigenous instruments in heavy music, it is certainly not common. This choice of instrumentation contributes to Awkan’s unique sound and their commitment to foregrounding Mapuche soundscapes. Even more notable than the Indigenous instruments is the use of the Mapuzugun language.
While Spanish, Argentina’s official language, is the primary language of the album, Mapuzugun plays arole throughout, and the first two tracks in particular contain extensive lyrics in this language. Tothe best of my knowledge, this is the first heavy metal album released in Argentina with lyrics in Mapuzugun that go beyond stand-alone words and phrases. The band chose to place the tracks containing the highest amount of Mapuzugun and Indigenous instrumentals on the front end of the album, which I see as another strategy to foreground Mapuche influences in a country that frequently erases them.
Lyrically, the songs on the album take on many themes, including environmental conflicts and other struggles facing Mapuche communities in the past and present. For example, track “Lonco che” details community organizing against mega mining and fracking, particularly conflicts that took place in the Junín de los Andes area in 2015. “Kalfucura” discusses the infamous 19th century Mapuche longko (leader) whose remains, stolen and kept in the Natural Science Museum of La Plata for years, are in the process of being returned to his homelands. Despite the heavy lyrical material, the album has an overall optimistic feel. “Estamos vivos,” vocalist Sergio “Checho” Cañicul declares in late album standout “Destino.” Each song serves to reinforce this message: that Mapuche people are not only still standing, but have the power to fight for and protect Indigenous lands and the che (people) that are inseparable from them.
Throughout the album, the vocals shine. Vocalist Cañicul is very dynamic, moving between yelling, speaking, cleans, and combining all three. “Amigos” is a great example of this approach. The vocals start out sing-songy and almost playful, then gradually build to a near-shout before Cañicul switches tactics to a dramatic spoken part that bleeds back into singing to close out the track. Cañicul often does not take the obvious vocal interpretation, and I am obsessed with how he chooses to articulate certain lyrics.
Some moments that live in my head rent-free include the way that he says “a favor de la vida” in “Lonco che” (followed by an epic guitar part), and his belting of “la democracia hoyyyyyy” in “Marginalidad a la vista.” Cañicul’s drumming is as strong as his vocals, and Hugo Namuncura, Luis Araneda, and Gustavo Muñoz are more than up to the task of matching that performance on guitar and bass.
The band is rounded out by Pablo Callicur, who covers the various Indigenous instruments. The album features dozens of epic guitar riffs and solos, a few of my many favorites being the intro to “Escupo razón,” the final minute of “Kalfucura,” and the solo at the 2:43 mark of “Marginalidad a la vista.” The blending of the many instrumental parts is well done in both the initial arrangement and the album production. The album was recorded and mixed by Estudio Patagón in Esquel (discussed in my previous post), which deserves another shout out here because this album sounds absolutely fantastic.
Awkan is a unique, fun, and inspiring album. I would especially recommend it to anyone who finds fusions of Indigenous musics and heavy music interesting. I want to end this post with the statement that appears in the album’s liner notes, which sums up the band’s foundational message and goals:
This album is dedicated to Mapuche people who resist in diverse ways, to communities that recuperate and defend the ancestral territory, to our families, to our children, friends, and those that use music as a tool of resistance. After 10 years of existence we assert that free, underground, self-made, and independent music is both possible and necessary.
Checho – Luis – Hugo – Gustavo
Listen to the album here:
Find more information about the band at the following links:
2017 Interview with Sergio “Checho” Cañicul on Awkan and importance of Mapuche practices more generally, from the program “Mapuche kimün” by Radio y Televisión del Neuquén:
2021 Interview with Sergio “Checho” Cañicul on Por el Metal Podcast:
Info about the Mapuche instruments mentioned in this post; this musician has a series of videos demonstrating each instrument.