When Havana was Friki: AIDS, Politics and Heavy Metal in Cuba

Player utilities

September 25, 2014


Juan Carlos Torrente: Yo soy un friki, friki….

[Music: Still Pluto, Bitter Pill]

Daniel Alarcón: Welcome to Radio Ambulante: Unscripted, a new way to listen to Latin America. Part of SoundWorks from PRI... I'm Daniel Alarcón.

Singing 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. That deep voice you heard earlier saying “I’m a friki” in Spanish belongs to Juan Carlos Torrente, the singer of a Cuban death metal band called Combat Noise.

Radio Ambulante producer Luis Trelles recently told us the story of the rock and metal scene in Cuba and the brave woman who started ‘El patio de María”, a place where bands could play freely, at a time when nobody would accept them.

And I wanted talked to Luis about the “frikis” in Cuba. He sent me some of their songs, which we will hear in a bit. But to begin, l asked Luis to explain the term “friki”:

Luis Trelles: Friki is like how the most extreme members of the rock scene are called; the ones that wear the mohawk, the ones that are full of tattoos and piercings and, you know, they have the longest hair and wear skulls all over their clothes --those are the frikis. And in Cuba it’s spelled f-r-i-k-i, but it’s basically, you know, a hispanicized version of freaky, you know, like freaks. And the term started being used in the 80s, and you know, they used it as pejorative term against the freaks. And little by little they kind of co-opted the term, and people within the scene are very proud to call themselves friki because there’s like a whole code that goes along with being a friki, you know? It’s about being who you are, it’s about, you know, following an individual bend within a collectivist society, I think that’s part of it as well. So the term has a lot of like unspoken meaning to it.

Daniel Alarcón: What would you say makes the music Cuban? because I was listening to it and watching these videos and it was surprising to me how in some ways how derivative the music seemed. So I was wondering what is it that makes it Cuban, just for your ears, as a listener.

Luis Trelles: For one thing it’s in Spanish and they are singing about stuff that was going on in Havana in the 90s. They were singing about not getting enough meat to eat, they were singing about, you know, the terrible transportation system in Havana at the time. So they’re singing about a lot of local stuff, and that makes it like very genuine. And also if you listen carefully to the beats, you might hear some timbales, you might hear a cowbell, you might hear some bongos, and the conga, so in the rhythms session, way back hidden in there you might listen to some percussion that is really Cuban based, and not just, you know, like a metal drum kit.

Daniel Alarcón: Right, right. Can you describe the Patio de Maria as a physical space? both what it was like back in the 80s and what it’s like now?

Luis Trelles: Yeah, so El Patio de Maria was a Casa de la Cultura, which is basically a kind of like the Cuban government’s version of the YMCA. And there are casas de la cultura, or these community centers, all over the island. And this particular casa de la cultura, this cultural center, was run by a young bureaucrat called Maria Gattorno, and she started letting rockers in to just...to play, and that set it apart completely, and it blew up! like all the bands in Havana started gravitating towards this place and really it became the center for a rock scene in Havana, which was unheard of before then. And then it got shut down in 2003 by the government, and the reasons are murky and I couldn’t get like a real straight answer; but I think it was a combination of things: they were very close to the casa de la revolución, which is like the center of the Cuban government, and I heard that basically the government representatives were tired of just seeing these metal heads around their neighborhood. And when I went to do the Radio Ambulante story I basically found a place that was just in shambles, it was falling apart, parts of the roof were falling apart...it’s this big house, it’s a big house with columns out front and kind of like this rectangular yard by the side, and in that yard...that was the patio where the bands used to play.

Daniel Alarcón: It seems to me, from what you told me as we were producing the piece, that the scene was always very precarious.  

Luis Trelles: Cuba is a place with a lot of scarcity, and it was really hard to come by the instruments. And so coming across like an old electric guitar from east Berlin was something the be really appreciated. And so they would run out of guitar strings and they would make their own guitar strings out of telephone wire; they would make their drum kits out of like the stuff they use for X-rays; and, you know, they would reconfigure old radios and use them as amplifiers. You know, the thing is, if your guitar broke, if your electric guitar broke, you might just be out of the band and not have a band anymore, because you wouldn't have anything to play with. So another interesting thing is that inside the patio, well, you know, instruments were really precious things, so part of the job that Maria had as the coordinator of all the activities inside the Patio de Maria was just making sure that the guys would lend the instruments to each other so they could play. And that wasn’t as easy as it sounded, because people were very protective of their instruments, because if somebody broke your guitar you wouldn’t be able to play again. So part of her role was being a peacemaker and just trying to make sure that everybody could get their hands on a guitar and kind of be able to play.

Daniel Alarcón: You know, I love that, because its almost like the socialist principles of Cuba within the scene. The musicians had to share instruments, and had to kind of bring this collectivist ethos to their music, the irony there is that they were being accused at the same time of being kind of ideological renegades within Cuba, right?

Luis Trelles: Yeah, they totally were. I mean, the thing about the rock scene in Cuba and what really sets it apart in the 80s and 90s is that they were routinely harassed by police, by Communist Party authorities, by neighbors...and they were harassed because of the system, because of the political system, which is very collectivist minded. And I think there was this social pressure on them to be a part of the program, and just letting your hair grown long and listening to what was considered to be the music of the enemy, which is basically American music, and dressing with big hair and tight pants, that was seen just like a huge no-no, as being against the system. So there was a lot of pressure from everywhere to just really conform and be a part of the system. Which is strange because at the heart of the movement, the scene was kinda like a..it had like a communal vibe to it that is kind of socialist in its most idealistic form. So I think there was a lot of misunderstanding from the government on how to handle these kids, because it wasn’t really a political movement. It was more about...you know, the classic rock attitude.

Daniel Alarcón: Right. Now, you sent me some links to some songs that I wanted to talk about. The first one was by this group Zeus, and you spoke with Dionisio Arce from Zeus.

Luis Trelles: Yeah, so Zeus...I mean, Zeus are like the elder statesmen of the metal scene in Cuba. They’ve been around for 25 years,  and they basically set the tone for the whole scene. And when you listen to them, they kind of...I mean, they’ve gone through various changes in their trajectory, but they basically sound like Metallica from the early 90s, like Enter Sandman, One, and you know, that’s really what they want to play and how they like to play. And that’s where they’re coming from in the metal world.

[Clip from song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9Vgl7Ln1do]

Daniel Alarcón: Yeah, so tell me about this song, Violento Metrobus.

Luis Trelles: Oh yeah, so Violento Metrobus is like one of their most classic songs, and, you know, it’s a song from the mid 90s, and it’s kind of like an anthem, a metal anthem from the mid 90s Cuba. It’s the middle of the special period, the Soviet Union has collapsed and the Cuban economy is breaking apart because it doesn't have like the influx assistance that it used to have from the Soviet Union in the 80s and before that. People were not getting enough to eat, balseros were leaving the island by the thousands trying to get to Florida. And Zeus was just singing about the terrible conditions that the metrobus, which is like the main bus line in Havana, the terrible conditions about it, and how taking the bus in the 90s in Cuba is just like sardines in a can, people hated it. It kind of became their defining song.

Daniel Alarcón: Let’s talk about another band, that sings in English: Combat Noise. Not only is their name in English, but I think some of the lyrics..if they’re not in English they’re actually kind of indecipherable...I don’t even know what that is. But the title of the song that you sent me was “Soldiers must like to kill”. (Second take, straight to the point)

[Clip from song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIaAmx2e204]

I wanted to ask you first, given that the name is in English -Combat Noise- and the name of the song is in English, and presumably the lyrics and the title, how important was that linguistic choice? was that considered like embracing the language of the enemy? did that sort of make them open to accusations of ideological diversion?

Luis Trelles: The language issue was huge for rock bands, and its even an issue within the scene, because the earliest Cuban rock emerged in English. I mean, that really turned them against authorities because, you know, like English speaking...speaking English in Cuba in the 80s was just like a huge ideological no-no; I mean, you should be speaking Russian, not English if you were in Cuba in the 80s. And this band, Combat Noise, and this song, “soldiers must like to kill”, which is actually a pacifist song, its message is all about anti-war. And it’s a very strange thing, because Juan Carlos, the leader of the band, the lead singer, his day job is to be part of the national Cuban choir and by night he is part of this death metal band singing ostensibly in English, but you really can’t make out...at least I can’t make out what he’s singing, because he’s going to that deep grunting style of like hard core death metal. But he talked to me a lot about what it means for him to sing in English, and he told me that for him it was all about...that that was like the right language for the genre, and that death metal should be in English, and that’s why the Swedish death metal bands sing in English, and German death  metal bands sing in English, and you know, like..he’s a party member, a socialist party member, Juan Carlos. So for him it to a while to reconcile singing in English and be a part of the socialist system, and you can see that he still wrestles with it; but it turns out that he just likes singing in English, and that’s it!

Daniel Alarcón: Yeah, so that’s such an interesting contradiction. So it’s not for him an ideological thing, it’s just an aesthetic thing.

Luis Trelles: It’s an aesthetic thing, totally.

Daniel Alarcón: Right. So there’s another song you sent me that I want to talk about by this band called Escoria. And it particular it sort of highlights one of the darkest episodes in the history of the frikis, in the history of metal music in Cuba, which is when the AIDS crisis hit the island. So can you talk to me a little bit about this song by Escoria called “asquerosa canción de amor”?

[Clip from song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlvB-4kXl1o]

Luis Trelles:  Yeah, so the title in English I guess would be “dirty love song”, “this dirty love song”. And Escoria is like the founding fathers of Cuban punk. Yes, it is a very dark chapter for the frikis in general, all bands in Cuba, because this band emerged out of a sanitarium, a state-run sanitarium that was created for AIDS patients. And what happened was that in the late 80s and early 90s some rockers were fed up with the system, and being otrasized, and being rejected, and you know, these sanitariums were popping up all over Cuba to deal with the AIDS crisis, and they had like what was scene as like extremely good care, health care, inside; and a lot of food, more food than you could actually get outside because of, you know, the scarcity in the island at the time. So some rockers, out of ignorance and...just decided to inject themselves with blood that had AIDS in it, just to be self infected and be able to be inside the Sanitarium. And it’s hard to comprehend the level of just like hopelessness that most of these kids had. I mean, they were 17, 18 year olds just injecting themselves with AIDS. And most of them died. I know that the lead singer of Escoria, WIlliam Fabían, he’s dead; and there was another pretty famous band that also formed inside one of those AIDS sanitariums call HIV, and all of them died as well by the late 90s. So it’s a very sad story, but also it kind of like really blows my mind to think of these guys trying to find freedom inside this sickness, you know? inside being sick and inside a sanitarium.

Daniel Alarcón: Now, the last song you sent me, or the last song that I wanted to talk about was...is an explicitly political song, and it’s something that we’ve kind of danced around, because the frikis it seems like by virtue of wearing their hair long were making a political statement in Cuba, but maybe not directly in their music.

But this particular song does. I want to talk about this song by Porno for Ricardo.

[Clip from song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XO6EwfmImY]

Daniel Alarcón: There’s a couple things that I noticed watching the video. One, the production values. If you compare them to the grainy video from Zeus, taken in like 86, where it’s just a bunch of head bangers in black and white looking absolutely grimy... It’s like death metal uses the same imagarey again and again and again. But then this song I think is very Cuban in its rhythms, and also the production values are incredibly high.

Luis Trelles: So listen, this is the thing with Porno para Ricardo. This is kind of a punky band that started in like the last group of bands in el Patio de Maria in the late 90s, and it’s one of the last bands to come out of the scene. And the thing about it is that it took a more overt turn in its political message in their songs. So their whole thing was about making fun of Fidel and Raul Castro, and that was really what they’ve done. I mean, they’re kind of like in that stick it in your face kind of vibe, and they’ve been persecuted for that since the very beginning. So actually its lead singer, Gorki Aguila, went to jail...When el Patio de Maria closed down in 2003 it closed down as part of this huge drug raid all over the island, and Gorki Aguila was caught with some marihuana, I think, and he spent some 3 years in prison. And when he came out he went to Mexico, spent some time there, I think now he is back in Cuba. But he goes back and forth in and out of the island. And he’s become one of the most over voices against Castro. He is very good friends with Yoani Sanchez, the dissident Cuban blogger. And that’s the thing, that video that you mention, that was...I think that was filmed in Cuba, but that’s the thing about Yoani and Gorki Aguila, like people, rockers in Cuba don’t like him, they don’t like him, the people I talked to don’t like him. And they question where he’s financed. They might not be totally against his message, but what I hear against him and about dissidents like Yoani Sanchez inside Cuba, from people who are not pro-state or just want to do their own thing, what they criticise them for is that maybe they are being financed by Cuban exile groups in Miami. Because, you know, people in Cuba know that...or at least they told me, that ou just don’t get that kind of production value if you are doing that inside Cuba.

Daniel Alarcón: So where do you see the scene going now? Is it a scene that’s in decline? is it a scene that’s dying?

Luis Trelles: I think it’s a scene that’s in decline, maybe, it’s not as big as it used to be back in the 90s; but at the same time it’s a scene that, because it’s been...it’s so embattled and it’s seen so many obstacles to just being able to be a scene, to be there, to be out there, it’s a very...you know, the people that are in feel very strongly about it and they’re going to keep it up. And another strange thing about this Cuban scene is that there are so many frikis that have left the country, and that’s something that has affected them too. But yeah, it’s a scene that a lot people who fought for it in the 90s are not even in the island anymore, and that’s, you know, that’s just where Cuba is at right now, like, a lot of its population is outside. It’s the Caribbean story all over again, kind of the Latin American story.

[Music: krackatoa, Noahs Stark]

Daniel Alarcón:

Luis Trelles is a Puerto Rican journalist and filmmaker, and a producer for Radio Ambulante. Visit radioambulante.org to listen to his piece ‘When Havana was friki’ in Spanish.

This interview was produced by Silvia Viñas with engineering help from Claire Mullen. Special thanks to Laurie Ignacio, and production intern Diana Buendia. The Radio Ambulante team includes Martina Castro, Camila Segura, and David Pastor. Carolina Guerrero is Executive Director.

If you liked this interview, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Sideshow, a podcast about art and culture hosted by Studio 360’s Sean Rameswaram. You’ll find that and other podcasts on Soundworks.org. You can also subscribe to Radio Ambulante Unscripted and other Soundworks podcasts on iTunes. And if you like what you hear, please leave a review and share these episodes with your friends.

Radio Ambulante: Unscripted is supported in part by PRI’s New Voices Fund, bringing new perspectives and personalities to public media. Donors to the Fund include Maureen and Michael Ruettgers and the Sara & Evan Williams Foundation.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. To hear more, visit our website –radioambulante.org. There, you’ll find links to our stories in Spanish -including a Spanish-language version of this interview-  and more content in English too. I’m Daniel Alarcón, thanks for listening.