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Making Music To Promote Human Rights In Guatemala: Interview With Members Of The Band, CANCHES

Guatemala is a country where human rights defenders face attacks and intimidation for their work against systemic corruption. Those involved in high-profile cases are often the target of harassment, smear campaigns, or even threats against their lives.

Daniel Butler and Erika Martinez worked for the International Commission of Jurists and Peace Brigades International in Guatemala. In 2015, they left their jobs to form the band, CANCHES, with Francois Guindon, and make music that could draw from experiences promoting human rights and fighting against impunity and injustice in Guatemala.

Martinez is from Spain and plays drums. Guindon is from Canada and plays bass. Butler is from England and sings and plays guitar and keyboard.

The name of the band comes from Guatemalan slang that is used to describe someone with pale white skin. This is what the local community in Guatemala called the band before they had a name. They decided it was appropriate to have Guatemalans name the band because many of their songs dealt with their experiences in the country.

Initially, the band performed cover songs from rock bands. They recently released their debut album, “To the Rescue.”

Butler and Martinez were asked about the new album, the subject matter of a few of the songs, the band, and what inspired them to leave their jobs to make music that underscores their commitment to human rights.

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Why did you leave your jobs to record this album of music? Was making music something you could not do while continuing your work in human rights activism and the fight against corruption?

We had been living and working in Guatemala for around six years and it felt like the time right time to record the album for a number of reasons, first and foremost because we had accumulated a lot of experiences related to the protection of human rights that we wanted to share.

Guatemala is still suffering the consequences of its long and brutal internal armed conflict and impunity is still at around 90 percent. So it’s quite an intense environment to be in. It’s quite common for people to suffer “burn-out” after a few years there, and I think it´s safe to say we were all approaching that point around the same time as we were starting to write our own music.

Rather organically, we started using music as an outlet for our frustration with the situation facing human rights defenders in Guatemala and started thinking about using music as not only a way of venting but as a medium for promoting human rights and raising awareness of other political issues, such as the fight against impunity and corruption.

As well as the timing being right, there were some practical issues that meant we couldn’t progress as a band and record and play our music while staying in our jobs. The work we were doing in Guatemala was quite politically sensitive so we were required to display at least some semblance of impartiality. We couldn’t openly express our political views without risking damaging the image of the institutions we were working for. Once we left our jobs, it permitted us to be much more openly political and really let our hair down, even if it put us at risk of being deported as it had done in the past.

There was also the issue of time. Once we left our jobs, it allowed us to concentrate full-time on recording the album. Had we tried to do both things at once, it might have taken us all year.

The album is titled, “To the Rescue.” How did the band develop the ideas and themes you all wanted to explore through this album?

“To The Rescue,” debut album from CANCHES

We really wanted to deliver strong political messages with the album but without being self-righteous or preachy or taking ourselves too seriously. The title “To The Rescue” is a reference to the “white savior complex” you see so much of in human rights-related work, particularly in field work.

Many people get into this kind of work with good intentions, but you also come across a lot of “voluntourists” or arm chair activists, who treat human rights activism as a regular desk job like any other, as opposed to something you actually need real vocation for. In recognition of that fact that the band is also entirely white and from privileged backgrounds, we are also making fun of ourselves with the title.

Beyond the title of the album, the idea was to write music about all the injustices we had seen in Guatemala, to name a few: impunity for historic human rights violations, lack of access to justice in rural communities, corruption, gender inequality, and a lack of transitional justice.

The idea we had was to record a concept album, dealing with issues relating to Guatemala´s (incomplete) transition from conflict to post-conflict society. The first few songs we wrote all focused on the subjects of enforced disappearance and sexual violence committed during the internal armed conflict and the struggle of victims to find redress, restitution, recognition and guarantees of non-repetition. We had several meetings with organizations that represent victims and families of victims of massive human rights abuse to ensure that our songs were respectful.

As our repertoire expanded, we didn’t want to limit ourselves to these issues, and as there were many more that the band felt passionately about, we also started writing more satirical material aimed at lampooning politicians involved in corruption scandals and started including commentary on other issues, such as economic and gender inequality.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, and there are a few rays of sunshine on the album that deal more with “lighter” subject matters. But the beating heart of the album is the politically-orientated material.

“Bones” is the third song on the album. What inspired “Bones”?

“Bones” is a reference to the remains of the thousands of families who were disappeared during Guatemala´s internal armed conflict by the Guatemalan armed forces and who are to this day still being exhumed so that their relatives can find justice. There are hundreds of mass graves in Guatemala, created as part of a state-sponsored plan to exterminate Guatemalan indigenous peoples—many of which are yet to be investigated.

The song is critical of the prioritization of economic interests over the rights of citizens; in particular the rights of its indigenous populations to resist unlawful exploitation of their ancestral territories. It is also a commentary on how the detractors of transitional justice and proponents of all-inclusive amnesties have perversely promoted “forgiveness” over accountability, victim dignification, reparation and truth.

The gold mining industry is one that profited massively from the forceful removal of rural communities from their land to facilitate precious metal extraction (something that is still happening today). Hence the lyric, “Bones in the woods traded for gold.”

“Co-Op Inc.” is the fifth song on the album. What inspired “Co-Op Inc.”?

“Co-Op Inc.” is a critique of how international cooperation and development aid has been cynically manipulated and used to facilitate corruption and to help clean up dirty images of governments involved in shady activities in the country they provide aid to.

[The United States] for example has always had very questionable foreign policy when it comes to Latin America, having sponsored and even organized a number of coup attempts in the region (and elsewhere). Yet, it is the biggest giver of aid to Guatemala by quite some margin.

A lot of their aid is dressed up as promoting citizen security but really goes towards militarization to assist with the protection of economic interests they have in the country. The “border security” programs they have in Guatemala are designed more to keep “illegal immigrants” outside of the U.S.A than anything else.

“Zoo” is the sixth song on the album. What inspired “Zoo”?

This song is about the recent “immigration crisis” on the U.S.A-Mexico border and also in Europe. It talks about how right-wing governments, in cahoots with some parts of the media, have managed to convince people of the great “threat” and “danger” immigrants and asylum-seekers pose to society, using “fear and hate” as the song says, very much “Shock Doctrine”-style.

The titular “zoo” refers to the way that authoritative governments have literally put families in cages (such as on the U.S.-Mexico border) but also refers to how we have been conditioned to live in self-contained bubbles, rather than as communities where it´s easier to organize and where the common good is priority.

CANCHES (Photo from CANCHES and used with permission from the band.)

How did the band, CANCHES, form? How did you meet the other members? And what can you tell us about the sound/style of music played on the album?

The three band members had all been living in Guatemala for a number of years when we got together and started jamming once we discovered we had similar tastes in music. As we all worked in issues relating to the protection of civil liberties and the fight against impunity, our experiences in these areas naturally started to bleed into our music and gave it all a political flavor. The project soon became much more than just us enjoying music but also about the messages we wanted to get across.

Our sound is primarily rock, but there´s also some blues, grunge, and alternative in there. We were keen to avoid our music “sounding” too much like protest music so we stayed well away from folk and tried to make some of our lyrics a bit more challenging than your regular protest music.

Our influences are mainly Radiohead, Ben Folds, The Divine Comedy, The Beatles and Basque punk/rock. As well as all being fantastic bands musically, they are also known for the political nature of many of their songs and their keen observational dark humor. That’s something we definitely tried to emulate.

How important is it for artists to transcend the immediate political climate and speak to these critical issues?

The goal of CANCHES is to make social justice issues more accessible to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be open to those ideas but who would listen to music.

It’s well known that music has an effect on people that transcends the immediate listening experience. It has the ability to instantly connect with people and it can be an effective form of creating a critical mass and raising awareness. It’s the duty of everyone with a critical mind, social awareness, and a voice to try to reach out to people, who think differently and share their knowledge, and engage with them in constructive discussion and debate.

The world is not currently going in the direction most people with a social conscience are happy with. Artists have a plethora of means at their disposal to try to reverse this, be it through lampooning politicians through comedy and satire, art installations or graffiti, supporting protests in favor of civil liberties and human rights, or maybe even singing some songs about it.

If just a few people’s interests can be piqued in some of our lyrics, it may lead people to look up the story behind the lyrics, and then maybe the rabbit hole will lead them on a greater journey of discovery.
Listen to the debut album from CANCHES, “To The Rescue”:

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."