Rock Music in Cuba

By Fabiana del Valle

HAVANA TIMES – Two teenage girls headed up Pinar del Rio’s main street towards the Pista Rita (amphitheater). They were barely distinguishable amid the mass of black and grey. One of them was trying hard to hide her novice look by stretching the borrowed dress that kept hiking up on her thighs, revealing more than what was allowed.

The year was 1999, and at 6 pm the group called “Zeus” was going to play. The streets were flooded with long-haired youth with their tattoos and piercings. They sported t-shirts, tight jeans, studded belts, sneakers or high boots, and sleeveless jackets with multiple patches.

The two girls were going to see their first live concert. When the hardcore music began, they ran to take refuge near the stage, for fear of ending up crushed against the walls of the amphitheater. The event’s organizer tried to expel them from there, but the teen in the borrowed dress stood her ground.

“You just try and get us down from her, because there’s no way I’m going to join that horde.”

That big lout seemed so mean! She learned from her friend that he directed Tendencia, at the time the best-known band in the Pinar del Rio province.

Who could guess that one year later she’d be appearing in one of Tendencia’s videos doing headbanging, and that “Kiko” would be the one to organize her first Art Show in the gallery run by the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (Youth cultural association”. Or that later still, she’d be a privileged witness to the secret exodus of the band in 2022.

The band Tendencia

But it was 1999, and she made her official entry as a Cuban rock follower with a borrowed dress and by standing up to a guy who frightened her. That stance won her a place in the first row, right beside the band’s drummer, where she could enjoy the sight of Dionisio’s bare round butt when the lead singer for Zeus, with no reticence whatsoever, lowered his pants to the rhythm of “Violento Metrobus.” 

Rock music in Cuba has a history of ups and downs, always limited and semi-clandestine due to the official disapproval.

In a speech he gave in 1963 on the steps of Havana University, Fidel Castro clearly expressed his scorn for those manifestations of foreign trends, like the music of Elvis Presley, tight jeans, or the blue jeans we called pitusas.

Many of those good-for-nothing kids, children of the bourgeoise, are going around with some pants that are way too tight. (laughter); some of them with their little guitars striking Elvis Presley poses, and who have taken their excessive freedoms to the extreme of wanting to go to the public gathering places to organize their wimpy shows on their own.”

In more recent years, the regime’s attitude towards rock music has softened, not only towards local and Latin American artists, but also towards some of English origin. RickWakeman, Sepultura,Audioslave, and the Rolling Stones have all offered huge concerts in Havana that drew in fans from all over the country.

But lately, a new phenomenon has become visible. Several bands have begun emigrating to the United States. It’s not the first time that Cuban rock has suffered the scars of economic crisis or emigration – it’s just that this time pessimism reigns.

The blows of the 90s demonstrated the genre’s strength and the public’s unconditional support. The current situation involves a new wave of bands that are trying to subsist in a country with scarcities and a world where rock and heavy metal music have lost ground.

For the moment, in the face of this panorama, the only thing left is listening to the music of all those bands I once enjoyed hearing live. Recalling stories: that Tendencia concert where I suffered my first fainting attack; the trip we took with Medula and la Comision Depuradora; the photos with Aldo of Los Aldeanos; or my surreptitious trip into the National Hotel to get pictures of the Sepultura band members.

I’m going to hang on to the memory of every moment lived, and go forward like that first time – when in a borrowed dress, and together with my friend, I discovered the value of Cuban rock music and the tenderness of its followers.

Read more from the diary of Fabiana del Valle here on Havana Times.