Heavy Metal para siempre - Latin American metal and Las Marimbas del Infierno

A special feature taking a look at Latin American heavy metal in a new film which spins a tale of extortion, survival and the unlikely blending of traditional marimbas and death metal.

On the front of Don Alfredo Tunche’s intricately carved marimbas, careworn and chipped away by countless hours of practice and performance are the words “Siempre Juntos.” In his native Guatemala, this means “always together.” For Tunche, a deliveryman broken down by extortionists who have him on the run, forcing him to keep his family far away in hiding, his cumbersomely large yet prized marimbas are his only companion. He wheels them around with great difficulty everywhere he goes, lest damaged by scorned ex-band mates or worse yet; it’s stolen for some quick cash.

The ripples of global financial strife turned into waves and finally hit the shores of the small Latin American nation that would feel like mere tremors to us in the Western world, but have calamitous, earth-shattering consequences for those on the margins. Tunche, already down and out felt his bottom cave in when fired by a local restaurant. Upon the unlikely meeting of his godson, a glue-huffing street kid named Chiquilin and a brutish, death metal obsessed, long-haired doctor’s assistant named “Blacko” - it was where las marimbas del infierno – the Marimbas from Hell – was born.

Directed by emerging Mexican writer and filmmaker Julio Hernandez Cordon (Gasolina), the cinema verite style film with hints of Italian neo-realism is one of many films in this year’s Hola Mexico Film Festival, currently touring around Australia and internationally, showcasing the best in Mexican and Latin American cinema. Intriguingly, the film is centered by heavy metal but refrains from succumbing to the all too tempting heavy metal clichés to portray its stark authenticity. Instead, it presents the struggles of Guatemalan life in a tender, sometimes comic but ultimately heart wrenching fashion told via the creation of a ramshackle heavy metal-marimbas fusion band.

“I wanted to talk about artistic creation in Guatemala,” Julio says. “I also wanted to demonstrate the tolerance from different people that create new art and how these people never give up or surrender. I definitely try to run away from the clichés, like in all my work in film.”

Festival director Samuel Douek is a lifelong metalhead, travelling all over the world to catch his favorite metal acts including the 70,000 tons of metal cruise earlier this year. Including this film in the lineup was a decision made from the heart, having first attracted much acclaim globally.

“It was a very small project,” he says on the film, “it started very organically without very many big drafts or big money – it was just the idea of making this small story to start off with. It’s been to Venice then to the Toronto film festival and now it’s in the Hola Mexico festival.”

To western ears, heavy metal might sound rather “tame” and for fans like us, quite agreeable. In Guatemala, the landscape is still dominated by traditional music and when Alfonso and Chiquilin hear it for the first time at Blacko’s house, they are “traumatized,” Samuel says.

“They don’t know much about heavy metal and it’s more about [Julio] bringing the power of the heavy metal into the film, to make it relevant. Latin America is quite a Christian area and the film is about the [struggles] to bring it into part of their culture.”

Heavy metal is still very much in the underground in Latin America – so much so Blacko is ridiculed for his black t-shirts and long hair at various incidences (sometimes violently.)

“In Guatemala, metal is like a religion; it never died. It exists in an underground circuit of [heavy music],” Julio explains. “I don’t like a lot of the metal bands, but I do love underground; the way that they move and the way they breathe their rebellion into society.”

It’s also in the underground due to the hidden costs of heavy metal – guitars, amps and drums don’t come cheap when many people are out of work and living in the streets – it’s very much a luxury and inspires a passionate devotion to certain acts.

“If someone has an electric guitar in Guatemala, you could view them as a rich person,” Samuel tells us. “A good metal band has to have a big sound – bass, big drums – it’s not easy to form a metal band in [Latin America]…it’s possibly why there are no big name bands from there at the moment. I mean, in Mexico I don’t like any metal bands from there because there aren’t any.”

“I would be so proud as a Mexican to have a successful metal band from there. But the only ones we hear about are Angra, Sepultura and Brujeria [Dino Cazares’ “Latin” band] – it’s not like it’s a big thing. But what’s interesting is that when a band such as say, Blind Guardian goes to Mexico, they love it down there. Anywhere in Latin America, metal bands love it so much because we just jump at them.”

How so?

“I lived in Australia for eight years,” Samuel reveals. “The bands are good there but when you go to Mexico you will feel your life is going to be in danger! It’s not like you’re there just to listen to music and stand there; there’s a roughness to it. People there are hardcore. They really like their music, their metal. It’s weird that we like it so much but we can’t produce it.”

Though in the film the Marimbas del Infierno are rebuffed by the mainstream – much like any metal band – the inspiration to fuse the marimbas with heavy metal hasn’t really caught on beyond the film.

“It was something they did for the film – it hasn’t really been taken to any other places,” Samuel says. Julio blames it on a lack of acceptance for metalheads and those from outside the mainstream in general.

“In Guatemala, the people are very traditional,” he affirms. “They are not very tolerant of different people and different music.”

Fortunately, the release of Marimbas has shed light on a subject that has little traction in Latin America – heavy metal as a music of rebellion in the face of Christian social values rigidly time-honored in Guatemalan society. This film, Samuel hopes is the first of many that deals with poverty, struggle and redemption in Latin America through the lens of metal and extreme music.

“I was fortunate enough to find out about the film, to see it and find it’s actually a Mexican-Guatemalan-French co-production as well as about heavy metal. Regardless of those two things, it’s an amazing film. Anyone can enjoy it.

“There are a lot of films about metal coming from Europe and the United States – but I really hope we find some more films coming from Mexico in the next few years.”