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Sábado Negro Para Siempre – Heavy Metal and Black Sabbath From a Latino Perspective

Alex Marrero of Brownout Photo by Kalu James
Alex Marrero of Brownout
Photo by Kalu James

I was at a Slayer concert last week calmly minding my own business and really digging the show. Next to me was an enthusiastic, somewhat intimidating, beer-chugging, long-haired, denim-clad Mexican dude. At some point during “War Ensemble” he slung his tattooed arm around my shoulders and enthusiastically started “singing” along loudly with the band. It didn’t faze me in the least. As a matter a fact, we just shared a quick nod and I joined in on the screaming lyrics. The moment passed, followed swiftly by some headbanging.

That moment was no different than if we had been guests at a friend’s wedding in San Antonio. Or hanging out in Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City, really getting into a band of Mariachis playing “Volver” or “El Rey”. Let’s face it: Metal is intensely passionate music. Metal requires good musicianship. Metal is exclusive yet incredibly inclusive. Above all, Metal is a tribe. It’s a tribe that welcomes any and all walks of life.

I was asked to weigh in on two themes: why metal music resonates so much with the Hispanic/Latino community, and the ability of Black Sabbath to endure and still be the most influential metal band to this day. Singing in a band that interprets Sabbath’s music through a Latin-Funk lense does not make me an expert, but as a fan, I do have some thoughts.

It is commonly accepted that Black Sabbath invented this style of music, the approach and vibe, which was then enhanced and further cemented as a viable musical genre by many other bands such as: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and so many more. It’s worth mentioning that while “white voices dominate metal”, there is a large contingent of Latin/Hispanic musicians both as sidemen as well as members of important bands. Beyond that, there’s musicians in some of the most important metal bands who also have Latin origins & descent.

A founding member and a driving musical force behind Slayer, who is also one of the most influential Metal drummers ever, is Cuban. Dave Lombardo was born in Cuba and came to the states as a youngster. It’s fascinating to me (as a Mexican-born son of Cuban exiles) that Cuban percussionists/musicians are amongst the most advanced, influential and highly regarded in the world. Most people wouldn’t think of it extending to metal, but thanks to Dave, it has. His (unfortunately, former) rhythm section partner Tom Araya is of Chilean descent. Charlie Benante, drummer and a main songwriter in Anthrax (also one of the most underappreciated drummers out there) is of Italian descent, just like Joey Belladonna and Frank Bello. The list goes on.

Latin countries draw their languages from the same roots, but more importantly for our purpose here: they share a religion. These are very Catholic countries. I believe it is one of multiple reasons why metal resonates so much within these communities.

Few things can be as cathartic and satisfying as metal music to a frustrated, angry young kid trying to figure out how to navigate their place in the world; especially in an economically challenged reality. We live in a strange world full of strife, corruption and hypocrisy. How does one to fit into that world considering an ever-growing sense of frustration, the need for rebellion and all those exploding hormones? This is true of all people. It is a universal experience to one degree or another.

Now add to that stew an extra thick layer of guilt-based religion that is so ingrained into the subconscious of every parent, grandparent, uncle and cousin; one that is so strongly sewn into the fabric of everyday life. There will be some sort of backlash in people’s behaviour. The imagery is what draws you in and pushes you away simultaneously. At first. It gives you a sense of seeing something you shouldn’t. There’s fear, nervousness, curiosity and defiance. The album covers and the posters bring out the paranoia by design: es el mismísimo Diablo (it’s the devil himself). Let’s face it: things tend to be more fun when they are forbidden. There’s the challenge of hiding albums from your parents for fear of having them thrown away or shredded. I had friends who didn’t have that issue, except when they brought them over to my house!

Then there’s music itself: angry, fast, complex, dense and energetic with an underlying message of non-conformity. Metal allows for reflection, deep connection with the self and critical analysis of the world around you. It promotes questioning societal norms and the reality of your surroundings. When you live in a place where government and religious hypocrisy are the norm or you feel intrinsically suppressed, misunderstood and you are struggling because you are low in the socioeconomic totem pole; metal is medicine. It shows you that the world is not always how it appears or how it’s sold to us. It allows you to break from the mental shackles instilled upon you by antiquated institutions.

The long hair and the clothes are part of the defiance. It’s saying “no” to how the world tells you to express yourself and how the media sells you a fabricated identity. It’s an attitude and for many it’s a way of life. When you historically come from hundreds of years of oppression and colonial submission, you embrace these principles that encourage you to be yourself and to be free. It also helps that these messages are accompanied by the loudest, most badass, fuck you music you’ve ever heard.

All of it is delivered with strong, powerful musicianship, energy, angst and fire. That is a recipe for absolute release. So, if you can relate and you “get it” the metal community is so inclusive and welcoming that it also fulfills the elements of unity that are ingrained in our DNA: familia. Imagine finding a large group of defiant and similar-minded people in a place where that is not the norm; your hometown or your neighborhood. Through that filter it becomes easier to see how the scene and the music are embraced wholeheartedly and why it is important.

2015 Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival - Day 2
Brownout live at Bonnaroo
Photo by Jeff Kravitz

There are few other music scenes that are as tight knit yet open and welcoming as the metal family. Even if you stop listening to metal exclusively or don’t keep up with the music’s ever evolving categories you will always still be a part of that community if you wish to be. You will always go back to those records that you grew up with and feel that same sense of release and awe.

This is also why Black Sabbath is still relevant all these years later. That’s the power of good music. It’s also the power of the song. The music they created in the 70s with Ozzy and in the 80s with Dio is so potent and has such a visceral vibe and energy to it that it will continue to be relevant for many future generations.

Sabbath emerged from four unique lads in a British industrial town but their music reflects much more than that. Its influences include the deep well of American blues and jazz, as well a touch of the Beatles approach to songwriting. There’s some psychedelia, some deep, heavy grooves and – like no one else before or perhaps even after them – a seemingly endless bounty of amazing, powerful riffs. They were not afraid of extending songs into epic, groove-shifting pieces that took you on a unique journey. Sabbath’s personality evolved quickly and they became masters of mood and focused intent; these are powerful combinations. It also continues to prove that a good song is a good song, no matter how you change it, move it around or re-interpret it.

When an artist or a band creates something so unique that it comes to define a genre, there is little to nothing that can be done to eradicate that. The only other artist/band I can think of that can make that claim and be globally accepted as such is Bob Marley & The Wailers. Even though metal is ever evolving, mutating and constantly developing into hundreds of subcategories, its roots will always transcend. Those Sabbath roots are deep, honest and pure. That’s why those first six Sabbath records are still the blueprint for everything that came after it. That music is organic, heavy, unique, intense, masterfully executed, beautifully recorded and has universal human themes.

Let’s face it, not all of their catalog transcends. Bands evolve, change, devolve, get sidetracked by trends, money, fame, personnel changes and personal conflicts. Scenes also change, cultural climates rearrange and shift to the point where what is popular today might very well be laughed at in 3 years time. Any band that lasts over 20 years will go through every single critical and creative up and down that is to be experienced in the music business. I don’t know anyone who when wanting to listen to Sabbath goes to their record collection and grabs 1986’s “Seventh Star” or the Body Count guitarist (Ernie C) produced 1995 album: “Forbidden”. That just does not happen even if you actually own those records. The only exception is if you were 12 at the time and those are the records that you discovered them through. Possible, yet highly unlikely.

Band chemistry is a real thing; clearly the magic was there with both Ozzy and Dio. Time and trends affect everyone, although some more than others. As much as a few people (some who I know, actually) will say the Ian Gillan era yielded some real gems, it’s not the classic and transcendent sound of the Ozzy and Ronnie James eras. Sorry, it’s just not the case. Lighting in a bottle comes around once and twice if you’re really, really lucky.

However, if you do survive long enough, if your original output and fanbase was strong enough and you still have some mojo and a good team around you, the chances are high that you can come back for another go-around. Clearly, that is the case with Sabbath, 40 plus years later. So many new generations have embraced their music and want to see them perform it. Then to take it a step further, they paired up with the mystical wizard that is Rick Rubin: a man who manages to get bands to tap into their original intent and essentially cannibalize themselves musically in order to sound more like their classic eras. Case in point: Metallica’s Death Magnetic & Black Sabbath’s 13. These are albums where you hear a song and can immediately pinpoint specifically which song from their classic catalog they are referencing for “inspiration”.

I’m not knocking either of them for that. It works. People are nostalgic and tend to want to re-live great moments from the past. Having new material that is clearly reminiscent of the original fire allows the band to unite a new era of fans with their die-hard lifers. A lot of times it’s children and grandchildren; familia. I imagine it can also be like a drinking from the fountain of youth for the band and tapping into a most powerful energy that may have seemed lost forever. It further allows the band to tour and play all the songs that people love, along with new material that is contextually reminiscent but fresh to them.
It’s a win-win situation: you get to play to millions of people again, make them happy, make some bank and you don’t go absolutely insane because you’ve been playing the same 20 songs for 45 years.

Are any of the things I’ve referred to entirely exclusive to the Latino/Hispanic community? No. Perhaps culturally to a certain extent, but in the grand scheme of things it’s just another example that shows us that even though we all experience the world through the reality of our immediate surroundings and the shared experiences passed on to us through the filter of our culture and geographic locations; humans are really not very different. The things that bring us pain, joy, sadness and euphoria are pretty much the same. It’s all a matter of context, experience and personal preference. Metal cemented itself as a viable genre and continues to flourish (much to the chagrin of its critics) due in large part to Black Sabbath and all the innovators that built amazing houses of their own by following those original blueprints and adding to them. Not a bad legacy to leave behind upon retiring almost 50 years after you began.

–Alex Marrero

Alex Marrero is the singer in Latin funk act Brownout. Their second album of Black Sabbath covers, Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath, Vol. 2 will be released October 28 via Ubiquity records. Order it here. Follow Brownout on Facebook.

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