Heavy Burden on Cuban Rockers
Cuban rock musicians say a spate of recent defections by artists performing abroad has increased government suspicion of the heavy metal scene.
This summer saw four of the country’s leading heavy metal bands take advantage of American visas, which are issued for promotional tours and music festivals, to stay on in the United States.
They included the head of the government-funded Cuban Rock Agency, Yury Ávila, who chose to leave her job and stay on in the States.
The defections seem to be motivated more by the career opportunities available abroad than by dissident views.
“Like everywhere else in the world, it’s important to keep up to date and have access to technology, and this is something that we don’t have there [in Cuba],” Fanny Tachín, lead singer and bassist for rock group Hipnosis told the US-based El Nuevo Herald, after she and the other five band members defected in July en route to California. “We felt we didn’t have enough space and there were too many limitations to working in Cuba.” she added.
Fans fear the regime will use these defections as a pretext to crack down on Cuba’s heavy metal subculture. Music blogger Alejandro González warned of the danger of a government “crusade”.
The Cuban authorities have always had an uneasy relationship with rock musicians. However, after a long period during the 1960s and 1970s when the genre was seen as an imperialist import, attitudes have softened in recent decades.
These days, the government tries to co-opt musicians and control them through official agencies. For rock acts to be able to play professionally, they need recognition from the Cuban Rock Agency (ACR), founded in 2007 as a branch of the culture ministry.
Similarly, to get a record deal, Cuban musicians need to avoid or soften any political content in their lyrics and performances. (For more on the politics of artiistic subcultures, see Balancing Act for Cuban Hip Hop)
Heavy metal is a minority interest in Cuba, and some say government tolerance is just a tactic to keep bands on the margins.
Describing the situation on Cubanet – a news portal based Miami and blocked in Cuba – journalist Camilo Ernesto Olivera said, “Rockers in Cuba have lived in exile for decades. The existence of the ACR does not guarantee anything more than dark control, by the government, of the capacity of the genre to grow.”
Members of the ACR generally get a percentage of the profits from ticket sales, but this kind of music remains a precarious way of making a living.
Rock concerts are cheaper than more popular forms of music like reggaeton and salsa, with tickets selling at the equivalent of one to three US dollars. However, this is still a considerable amount in a country where the average monthly salary is 19 dollars.
“The takings are going down significantly, because the fans prefer to buy drinks and spend the night chatting in the park on G [Street]],” the vocalist of one metal band in Havana said, referring to a location in the Vedado neighbourhood which has become a cult hang-out for heavy metal fans.
While bands that keep their politics ambiguous and conform to other cultural norms can enjoy some success with their public profiles and recording careers, more outspoken performers face reprisals from the authorities.
Punk outfit Porno para Ricardo has found it near-impossible to perform or record music, and lead singer Gorki Aguila has been given numerous prison sentences.
Despite being formed in 1998, the band managed to release a recording in May called Año Sí Se Cae, in which it invites protest against the “dictatorship”.
The city of Santa Clara in central Cuba hosts an annual festival called Ciudad Metal, but rock blogger González bemoans what he sees as corrupt official control over the event.
“The festival used to be the best in the country, but it’s become a theatrical circus,” he said.
Critics of the rock scene say bands should take matters into their own hands rather than expecting others to help them.
Independent recording studios specialising in rock music have started to appear in Cuba, including Brutal Beatdown, which runs its own ten-day metal festival, and La Paja Records, which is linked to Porno para Ricardo.
Michel Sánchez, co-editor of the rock fanzine Scriptorium, says both fans and musicians have got to “stop dreaming of the day Cuban communism cares about rock, and mobilise their own efforts”.
Nico Cervantes is a Cuban journalist and photographer.