Cuba Maps Its Rock Music History

Dalia Acosta

Rock Concert at the Maxim Theater. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Oct 11 (IPS) — Cuban rock ‘n’ roll, once an underground movement, is being mapped for inclusion in an exhaustive compendium of Latin American rock — from the music itself to its transformation into a lifestyle.

The project’s promoters say the Cuban rock music “map” will serve as a guide, a way to open doors, and as a historical record of a musical genre imported and kept for decades deep in the cultural underground.

It is a matter of “conducting a much deeper study of the rock music scene,” according to Liliana Gonzalez, Cuban coordinator of the Cartography of Rock in Latin America project, sponsored by the regional office of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.

With a 10-year period for the project, the “Cartography of Rock in Cuba” is in the phase of receiving contributions of information, after winning approval from Cuban national institutions in 2009. At the head of the initiative is the Centre for Investigation and Development of Cuban Music (CIDMUC) and the Cuban Rock Agency.

Personal archives from musicians and fans hold the memories of the music itself, and its impacts on broader culture. From early on, rock music made its mark. In 1954, the electric sounds of rock ‘n’ roll captivated followers on this Caribbean island. The first amateur bands emerged soon after.

Rock arrived early to Cuba

“Although rock didn’t originate here, it did arrive early on, and there was a strong appropriation of it, so much so that there are already four decades of Cuban rock,” said Gonzalez, a CIDMUC researcher and university professor.

The idea that only music which originated in this country can be considered Cuban is sorely “out of date,” she said.

The project’s basic concept of “rock scene” allows the mapping process to encompass both the production of music and the social movement that accompanied it. “We are mapping discourses and forms of behavior. We are trying to create a big database of material on rock in Cuba,” she said.

The first step, said Gonzalez, is to compile the underground production of materials: “we have ‘fanzines’, like Scriptorium and Punto G, and we are including tattoo artists, and accessories used in attire as important forms of socialization and differentiation.”

Rockers in the 60s and 70s were barred from university

If you were a rocker in Cuba in the 1960s and 70s, it meant not being admitted into the university, being rejected by potential employers, being seen as “antisocial and periodically detained by the police,” recalls Cuban author José Miguel Sanchez (who writes under the pseudonym Yoss) in the digital magazine “La Isla en Peso.”

Faced with widespread rejection — whether neighbors or the government — there was a need for an alternative world to satisfy the needs of rock music lovers. While some groups like Almas Vertiginosas performed at private parties, professional bands like Los Dada had one repertoire for broadcast on state-run television, and another for their live performances.

After the 1970s, glimmers of acceptance of rock music began to appear. Cultural promoter Marma Gattorno in 1987 adopted the rock movement into the Roberto Branly Cultural Community Centre, in Havana. But authorities finally shut down the legendary performance space, known as “Marma’s Patio,” in September 2003.

The homemade recordings of songs and albums was followed by government support, coming from the Samz Brothers Association; the annual celebration for many years of the Alamar Rock Festival, outside Havana; and photographers like Nacho Vazquez, who focused their lenses on the expanding world of Cuban rock.

Rock agency emerged in 2007

The mapping process will gather videos, audio recordings, photographs and texts, from both official and alternative sources. “It is not intended to provide one vision, but rather to contrast different visions, from different viewpoints,” explained Gonzalez.

“Preserving this entire heritage is essential for the survival of Cuban rock. The Cartography is rescuing many years of history from oblivion,” Yuri Avila, director of the Cuban Rock Agency, told IPS. The agency represents 17 groups, mostly heavy metal bands, like Zeus, Agonizer, Escape, Combat Noise and Chlover.

The agency emerged in 2007, marking the period of professionalization of this musical genre, until then mostly involving amateur bands. Its headquarters at the Maxim Rock Theatre in the capital — which has been renovated specially for rock concerts — is the only space in the capital for these heavy metal groups to practice.

According to Avila, there are strong enclaves of followers throughout the rest of the country, such as in the western cities of Pinar del Rio and Matanzas, the central city of Santa Clara (which hosts the Metal City cultural gathering), and the eastern cities of Camaguey and Holguin.

Different types of bands have different histories. The band Sintesis has melded rock with Afro-Cuban rhythms for two decades, achieving great success inside Cuba and on the international scene.

“The problem is the lack of information among the Cuban population. That is where we run into our biggest obstacle,” said Avila, in reference to limits on the promotional efforts of her company. To achieve international awareness for Cuban rock, the Agency has joined the French record company Brutal Breakdown Records to host Brutal Fest.

Now in its second year, Brutal Fest brought French and Swiss heavy metal groups to Havana. Avila believes the festival will foment exchanges that will carry Cuban rock beyond the island.

The inclusion of current bands in the Cuban Cartography will confirm “a presence that the international market will have to recognize, because high quality music has long existed, and exists today in Cuba,” David Chapet, representative in Cuba of the French record company, wrote to IPS in an e- mail.

In the long term, this map will allow “a change in the current view of rock in Cuba and will strengthen the entrepreneurial efforts, marketing studies, consumption and treatment of rock,” said CIDMUC’s Gonzalez.

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