Arts, Culture & Media

Havana's death metal pioneers bucked authority and made waves for their art

Frikis en el Maxim Rock.jpg

Juan Carlos Torrente, the lead singer of the Cuban metal band Combat Noise performs at Maxim Rock, the official government-run venue for rock bands in Havana.

Credit:

Courtesy of Luis Trelles

Playing in a death metal band probably wasn't a big deal in most Latin American cities in the 1980s and 90s. But in Havana, it was a different story.

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Luis Trelles, recently traveled to Cuba to look into the country's heavy metal scene in the island. On his trip, Trelles met with Maria Gattorno, the woman who made this rock and heavy metal scene possible. She opened the doors of a community center she ran in Havana to young rock musicians — known as frikis — at a time when nobody would accept them. The community center became known as "El patio de María" (Maria's patio), and it quickly turned into the epicenter of the rock scene in Havana.

The government closed down the patio in 2003. Trelles says the reasons for the shutdown are murky. But despite the setback, the frikis continued to fight for a space in Cuban society. Years later, the government created the Cuban Rock Agency, an entity that promotes and represents professional bands and musicians. The agency has seen several directors come and go, but the frikis mobilized to convince Gattorno to lead the agency. Earlier this year she finally accepted the position, ending her self-imposed exile from the rock scene in Cuba after the patio's shutdown in 2003.

Trelles also spoke to Dioniso Arce, the lead singer of a band called Zeus. The band, born in El patio de María, has been playing for over 25 years. In this video for their song "Violento Metrobús" (violent bus), the band critizes the poor state of the public transportation buses in Havana.

Combat Noise is another band that came out of El patio de María. They sing in English, and the song in this video is called "Soldiers must like to kill" — a pacifist song.

Like musicians all over the world, the frikis were influenced by bands from the United States and Europe, so many of them sang in English. However, "speaking English in Cuba in the 80s was just a huge ideological 'no-no,'" Trelles says. "I mean, you should be speaking Russian, not English."

This linguistic choice — purely aesthetic, according to the lead singer of Combat Noise — was one of the many reasons Cuban authorities persecuted the frikis.

He also met the band Eskoria. Trelles defines the group as "the founding fathers of Cuban punk." But the band also represents one of the darkest episodes in the history of the frikis and of rock music in Cuba.

Eskoria was formed inside a state-run AIDS sanitarium. During the late 80s and early 90s, these state-run sanitariums were opening up all over Cuba, "and they had what was seen as extremely good [health] care inside, with a lot of food — more than you could actually get outside because of the scarcity in the island at the time", Trelles says. So some frikis self-infected themselves to be able to live inside these sanitariums. "It's hard to comprehend the level of hopelessness that most of these kids had. They were 17-, 18-year-olds just injecting themselves with AIDS. And most of them died," Trelles adds.

Gattorno started a campaign called "Rock vs AIDS" at the patio to help the frikis as they faced this crisis. She would hand out condoms and informational leaflets during concerts and other activities to raise awareness among the young rockers.

One of the last bands to come out of El patio de Maria was Porno para Ricardo (Porn for Ricardo.) They're known for their overtly anti-Castro lyrics.

"Their whole thing was about making fun of Fidel and Raul Castro [...] They're kind of like in that stick-it-your-face vibe, and they've been persecuted for that since the very beginning," Trelles explains. Their lead singer, Gorki Águila, is a well-known Cuban dissident. In this song he sings about "how to screw over a Communist."

You can hear to Trelles' piece about Maria Gattorno and the frikis in Spanish at Radio Ambulante.