About Me

Interview with Cabrakaän

Cabrakaän is a Mexican folk metal band formed in Toluca, Mexico, in December of 2012 by Marko Cipäktli (drums/growls) and Pat Cuikani (clean vocals). The Mexican-Canadians have recently stirred up the metal world with their video single Fuego, followed by the release of the documentary Journey to Aztlán, which dove deep into a world between Aztec culture and contemporary heavy metal. Cabrakaän combines the best of both worlds, traditional Mexican mariachi and metal and manages to impress the listeners with a blend of metal riffing, ritualistically intense drums, and the characteristic mariachi instrumentation – all topped by the operatic voice of Pat Cuikani. In November, “Aztlán”, the second full-length, was released and it tells different stories from the Mexican history. The band stays true to their roots and the result is absolutely stunning. Metal Imperium interviewed Marko Cipäktli, one of the founders of this unique and interesting band. Here is the result of that conversation...

M.I. - The band was formed in 2011 by drummer Marko and vocalist Pat. How did the idea of form the band come up? Care to share the band’s history with those who are unfamiliar with you? 

Our band began as Pat (our vocalist) and myself. I started out with the intention of assembling a death metal band. Somewhere around 2011, I owned a recording studio back home in Mexico. Pat came to my studio as part of another project she was performing with. When we met, we found that we had a lot of creative ideas that would work well together. One day, she told me: “I’ve always wanted to do something pre-hispanic”. With that, it was a part of our musical history that really defined who we are as a band today. 
In our earlier years, we also met a fellow musician, Ramón Estrada. He had a great interest in European folk metal and, even though he’s not an active member anymore, he made a big impact on the evolution of our sound. Every other current member of Cabrakaän we’ve met between 2014 and 2022. We met Paolo Belmar, our rhythm guitarist from 2016-2022, back in Mexico through mutual friends. He and his family moved to Canada around the same time, and at that time, we began to learn about the Canadian metal scene. When we were invited to perform at metal festival in British Columbia in 2016, we met Alex Navarro, our current lead guitarist. I remember that we asked him to join us for the festival a month before we were scheduled to perform, and he learned our material in record time. He’s been part of us since then. We met David Saldarriaga last year through Alex when we needed a bass guitarist for our studio recordings, and as it turned out, he also contributed classical guitar elements that brought our songs to another level. We met our newest member, Brendan Wilkinson, early this year. He’s an Australian who recently moved to Canada, and we clicked right away. 
For me, Cabrakaän evolved from a desire to learn about my heritage and expressing myself through the medium of metal. In the early days, I was a huge fan of Scandinavian metal. So from this inspiration, I started learning more about my history, and then I just understood that it made no sense for me to try to make something that wasn't even in me. At some point, I told myself: I love the bands, but this is not me. As Mexicans, we have a long history of warriors: Aztecs or Mexicas, Tlaxcaltecas, Toltecas, and so on. What’s more metal than that? 

M.I. - Cabrakaän was a Maya god of earthquakes and mountains. Why have you opted for this name for the band? 

Cabrakan, the Mayan god of earthquakes and mountains, was known for being incredibly powerful. According to myth, his power brought out his arrogance and vanity. We wanted to leave this part behind and carry the name forward to symbolize power and strength because it represents exactly what we want to do with our music. As well, the name has a lot of power in terms of phonetics. The 
original name we chose was “Kaprakan” - we changed it because “Cabrakaän” is more easily pronounced in the Spanish Language. 

M.I. - Both band members are now based in Canada, but you still work with indigenous Mexican artists. Has moving to a totally different country influenced Cabrakaän’s music somehow? How different would your music sound if you were still based in Mexico? 

For me, recording Aztlán became a passion project where I could reconnect with my roots after moving to Canada. At the same time, it was about celebrating our evolution as a band and the many new connections we’ve made on our journey. We talk about this in our documentary Journey to Aztlán a bit more, but it was of course important to acknowledge our past, our roots, and the many new experiences we’ve had in recent years. 
I believe every artist imprints their own unique mark on a song and album. If we weren’t in Canada, we would never have known to collaborate with some of the contributors and musicians we’ve met: Cody Anstey, who co-produced, recorded and mixed our album, added a lot of production value and creative input on the percussive elements of the song (especially Tonantzin, our album’s intro track). Reed Alton, Osyron’s vocalist, collaborated with us by singing on our cover track, La Cigarra. We also had a Canadian string ensemble perform on multiple tracks of the album. I think that working with Canadians put a unique spin on the album that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been here. 
At the same time, the foundation of our music is our Mexican roots and history. We are, and always will be, influenced by Mexican history and culture. Working with people like Agustín García Reyes, who contributed some samples of pre-hispanic flutes and ocarinas on this album, are very valuable to us. 

M.I. - Cabrakaän incorporate instruments like ocarinas, flutes, percussion instruments and more to add drama and Melody to the music. How did the idea of using these mexican elements come up? 

This all began when we first started as a band, deciding to incorporate pre-hispanic and folkloric elements. Using these instruments is an important part of how we use our music to connect with our culture and tell others about our history, especially when we have listeners who might not speak the languages we sing. It adds a sound element that helps tell our story through the universal language of music. 
Combining metal with pre-hispanic and folkloric elements also signifies how mixed our culture is: Mexican culture, as it is now, is a combination of our ancient past and everything that’s evolved over the course of our history. Some elements, like the conch shell and death whistle you hear at the beginning of Fuego, are great examples of this. They’re both sounds that alert your senses to something imminent, like an attack. We don’t live in a time where that happens anymore, but the sounds evoke the same feelings in us as humans. It’s very interesting how it connects us to our past in subconscious ways. 

M.I. - In November 2023, you released “Aztlán”, alongside a documentary about the Mexican culture. What cultural aspects will fans get to know this time? What else can you tell us about this release?

We wanted to release a documentary alongside our album because we felt that it helps tell our story to broader audiences, including fans who don’t speak Spanish. Everything in the documentary relates in some way to the themes of our musical journey, which of course includes Aztlán. 
Through both the album and documentary, fans can learn more about our contemporary culture and how it’s a very unique combination of all parts of our history, including the dark parts. We wanted to show that even colonization played a role in making Mexico what it is today. It influenced our language and religion, but it also mixed with our pre-hispanic customs and traditions in ways that you can still see today. 
Fans will also learn that we use different languages in our music, not just Spanish and English. We also use Nahuatl, Zapoteco and Otomi languages because it’s our way of trying to keep them alive. 

M.I. - “Mictlán” takes us into the Aztec mythology. How complicated/easy is it transforming a myth into lyrics? Who is responsible for this huge task?

I think that the hardest part is in condensing a complex myth into a song format, because there’s so much more to it than what we were able to do in a 5 minute song. According to the myth, Mictlán has 9 challenges that the departed must successfully pass through before reaching their final resting place. In the song, we only really talk about a small part of it, including the importance of the Xolo, which is a symbolically important dog who helps guide the dead through those challenges. I definitely recommend that mythology enthusiasts read more on the topic, because it’s much more than what we were able to cover in the song. Pat, our vocalist, wrote the lyrics for this song. 

M.I. - Supposedly, “Mictlán” is “still relevant today in understanding the meaning of our lives”. How so? Do you truly believe in these myths?

When we say it’s still relevant today, we mean that it’s a concept that influences the way we understand ourselves and our lives even if it’s not a literal belief system. I think it’s something that happens in many cultures with a history of mythology. 
Death has always been a celebration in Mexico. All our pre-hispanic civilizations believed in this in some way, and it evolved with the influence of Spaniards after the conquest. We celebrate it on Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, every November. Day of the Dead is based on the connection between life and death described in the myth of Mictlán: Every year, our departed loved ones are thought to travel from Mictlán to visit their living loved ones, guided back to us on a path of Cempasúchil (marigold) petals. We make what is called an ofrenda, or a sort of memorial that has photos of those loved ones, food and different objects that were meaningful to them in life, and the pathway is between the gravesite of the departed loved one and the ofrenda. It’s a very complex thing to explain, but Mictlán and Day of the Dead are what connect us to the loved ones we’ve lost, and it has become a symbolic way of honouring and celebrating their lives. 
When we are told about Mictlán as children, we learn that there is a dog (Xoloitzcuintle) that guides the dead through the Mictlán. In order to receive that guidance, we’re taught to be kind to all animals we encounter in our life. 

M.I. - “Aztlán” tells different stories from the Mexican history. Tell us more about these stories please! Which of these stories is closer to your heart?

These are all stories that are very close to our heart, because they’re all part of who we are. Here are a few of them: 
Tonantzin: the instrumental first track was inspired by our pre-hispanic indigenous interpretations of Mother Earth. Tonantzin has been extremely important throughout Mexican history, and we even had a temple built to worship her. When the Spanish conquest happened, Catholics built over that temple, which was one of their many strategies to change the ideologies and beliefs of indigenous Mexicans. 
In this track, you can hear a slow breathing followed by a rapid series of breaths. This was meant to represent the relative “peace” leading up to that conquest.
Tonantzin also symbolically represents the importance of mothers in Mexican culture. 
Fuego and Luces y Sombras are both, in their own ways, about the Mexicas’ anticipation and experience of the Spanish Conquest. Luces y Sombras especially speaks to the atrocities that happened during colonization, and especially the ideological conquest. Spanish colonizers worked very strategically to change the ideologies of indigenous Mexicans, and those ideologies blended with their original customs. It’s about lights (Luces) and shadows (Sombras) because we wanted to tell listeners about not only the dark parts, but the fact that it’s simply part of who we are now. 
Malintzin - this song is based on the concept of malinchísmo, a term we use to describe a person’s resentment of their Mexican identity. It’s a very complex concept rooted in historical racism. The origin of the word came from a Nahua woman named Malinche, who assisted the conquistador Hernán Cortés as an interpreter, advisor and intermediary during the conquest. She was seen as someone who defied against her own culture in support of the conquest. There’s a lot more history than what I can talk about in a short interview, so I recommend reading more about it. It’s a very important concept that we see all the time today - our song was based on a recent experience of Pat, our vocalist. 
I won’t go into too much detail because I could say a lot about it, but several other songs also have a historical basis: Yolot is based on a historic documented love story between a Spaniard and an indigenous Mexican woman, Xóchitl is an ancient Nahuatl lullaby that’s been around for hundreds of years, and Tlaloc depicts the guerra florida, or flower war which was a conflict between the Aztec triple alliance and its enemies before the conquest. Tlaloc is the god of rain and thunder, and the war was said to have started in the advent of a severe drought and conflict over resources. 

M.I. - These stories are especially focused on percussion, one of civilization’s first musical instruments. How long did it take for you to prepare the whole album, before actually recording it? Did you make many changes along the way? 

The album definitely took longer than we would’ve wanted, but I’m kind of glad it happened that way. I think we began recording it in 2022 after spending a lot of time planning beforehand, and finished in summer 2023. There are many reasons it took more time: coordinating between Mexico and Canada, finding the right collaborators and resources, going back and forth on some of the creative elements, and the rollercoaster of immigrating to a new country. When it was finished, we knew that we had something very meaningful and special, so I’m glad it happened the way it did. 
There are certainly a lot of percussive elements on this album. Since I’m a drummer and the co-producer, Cody, is also a drummer, it was a great pleasure for us to play around with these elements a lot. As you mentioned, percussion is one of the first musical elements in history, and we wanted to pay respect to that. The instrumental intro track, Tonantzin, was one where we really exemplified this. We hope listeners appreciate all the percussive elements of the album! 

M.I. - Cabrakaän is a fusion heavy metal with folkloric themes and orchestral arrangements. How do you describe your sound in a word or two? Folkloric metal?

We have never spent much time trying to define our sound in words, but it’s necessary to do it when someone asks us to categorize it. We have folkloric, symphonic, opera, thrash, and death metal elements. When asked about it, we usually refer to it as symphonic folk metal since those are the parts that seem to stand out the most in our music. 

M.I. - What is the feeling you want the audience to feel when they listen to your music, especially your latest album? 

When audiences hear our music, we want Mexicans to feel represented within it. Some of the themes in our music are seen as taboo in parts of Mexican culture, including talking about the colour of our skin and colonization history.
For non-Mexicans, we hope that audiences get to hear the beauty and complexity of our culture while enjoying the overall sound. 
We put our hearts and souls into making this album something to be proud of. My biggest hope is that audiences of all backgrounds will feel something in it that’s personal to them. Whether it’s the sound, the lyrics, or something else, I want others to find enjoyment in it. 

M.I. - “Aztlán” is recommended for fans of Maria Grever, Linda Ronstadt, and Megadeth. What bands/musicians/artists influenced you for this album in particular? 

For Aztlán, we had a mix of music derived from Mexican folklore and contemporary metal influences. When composing the tracks, I was inspired a lot by Amon Amarth’s With Odin On Our Side and Wintersun’s Time. Every contributor added something unique, so you’ll hear a pretty wide variety of influences throughout the album.

M.I. - Have you got any plans to promote the album live? Any plans to tour Europe? 

We’re working very hard and making plans to promote the album live. Europe is our biggest dream, and I think there’s a big possibility of this happening in the next year. When we know, we’ll be sure to make the big announcement! 

M.I. - If you could choose a festival to play in, which festival would you choose and why? 

As a long-time fan, I’d love to play Wacken. I think it was great to see some Mexican representation in recent years with Cemican, and I would love to see Cabrakaän play on the same stage as many of the artists who have inspired us over the years. Let’s see what happens! 

M.I. - How has Cabrakaän’s life been when it comes to live performances? 

Performing live brings an incredibly special energy to our music. They’re very meaningful to us because they allow us to connect with the people who listen to our music. I think that something very special happens when we get to share that with a live audience. We have so much gratitude for our fans! 

M.I. - What’s the band’s main goal for 2024? 

Our main goal is to keep promoting the album, and one of those ways is of course through live performances and touring. We’ll be sure to announce the plans soon! 

Listen to Cabrakaän, on Spotify

For Portuguese version, click here

Questions by Sónia Fonseca