Congregation: Metal is the Musical Opposition Party


HAVANA TIMES – Staying in Cuba for twenty-four years making rock, I think, is something almost heroic, but if it’s making metal, it’s even more heroic. Congregation is a Cuban metal band from the capital, which just celebrated its twenty-fourth year of existence. We talked with them after finishing a rehearsal for the concert they will give to celebrate all this time in the Cuban music scene.

Gisselle Hernandez Rivas (group producer): There are many types of rock, as well as many types of metal… the most significant difference is in the speed; metal tends to be faster, heavier musically.

Ariel Bustamante (director and drummer): The group originated from the band Trance. In 1999, Lazaro Castro, the vocalist of Creation, and I founded Congregation. The first concert was in the “Patio de Maria,” which at that time was one of the top places for rock in Havana, in March 2000. Shortly after, this cultural center closed.

Months later we recorded our first album in Ivan Leyva’s studio, which was a very good studio thanks to Vicente and Santiago Feliu, who produced it. Later, we made an album at Radio Progreso, which unfortunately didn’t turn out well, and more recently, we recorded “Congregation Congregation,” a compilation requested from Miami with iconic songs from the band.

About this latest album, Leo tells us that the audience itself requested the recording of old songs with current technologies and better resources.

Ariel (drummer and director) and Leandro Chamizo (Leo) (vocalist): The Cuban Rock Agency, a fantastic place that is neither black nor white, has many nuances. Despite negative opinions, it provided the opportunity to promote and give space to what the Cuban rock and metal audience likes. Unfortunately, at this moment it is struggling; there is a new leadership that provides little support, they aren’t doing anything. It’s all hurdles upon hurdles to work, and when you manage to organize a concert, an album, or anything based on your effort, they want to take all the credit. We have spectacular bands like Zeus, Hypnosis, and others like Death Point that filled the Maxim to capacity.

Today, you cannot make a living from rock in Cuba; most rock bands in Cuba are doing covers because they need to live. They are excellent musicians, and I take my hat off to them, but they need to eat. What we do, we do out of love for art, music, and metal, but we all have alternative jobs to survive.

Leo (vocalist): We have a musical proposal that combines different styles, both musically and in our lyrics. We are not pure underground. Congregation has evolved in an incredible way thanks to Ariel’s talent. I used to sing hard rock, soul, country, and Ariel asked me why I didn’t sing with them. That was 14 years ago… I went to a rehearsal completely skeptical, and there wasn’t a single theme that didn’t captivate me harmonically and musically. How is it possible that from the aggressiveness that metal conveys, I could find so much tenderness and feeling? Since that day, I fell in love with death metal and Congregation. I was 21 years old, studying at university, and now at 35, I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Congregation, without abandoning its essence, has mixed tones, rhythms, trends; we have modernized, we have used other chords with folk scales from different cultures.

Ariel (director and drummer): At 12 or 13 years old, I started listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones… you know, I started “chasing” Cuban groups at concerts on the Avenida del Puerto, the amphitheater in Alamar, the Patio de Maria, which in the 80s were the top places for rock.

Gisselle (group producer): I started listening to rock in high school because near my house, in Cerro, a group rehearsed, which I can’t remember the name of; it was something I loved… I would leave school running and sit to listen to the group rehearse… also as a teenager, I attended the rehearsals of the punk band Garage H at the Centro Habana cultural house… since then, I’ve been a rocker.

Lazaro Hernandez (Lachy) (group bassist): Four years ago, I joined the band. I came from Combat Noise, another rock band, and here I am making metal. One day I tried a salsa group to see if I could earn some extra money, but no luck; metal is my thing.

Jorge Garcia (El Indio) (guitarist and music producer): I am a founder of the group. I have had the honor of playing with everyone who has been part of this band. I have a recording studio dedicated solely to rock and metal. When bands come to record, I make arrangements for them, give them suggestions and such… the other day, some reggaeton artists approached me and said they would pay me well, and I told them no, I don’t do traditional mixes; I am very loyal to metal.

Ariel (drummer and director): I wouldn’t say rebellion; I would say countercultural, not globally, but in Cuba, it has always been a countercultural genre.

Leo (vocalist): Metal, as a musical genre, is the musical opposition party. It follows rules, but you can’t discriminate against me, you can’t go against my rights. Metal doesn’t seek anarchy or chaotic freedom. Metal stands up for the underprivileged, the discriminated. From its inception, metal has taken on the responsibility of expressing what we didn’t like, not to criticize, but to improve as a society and as a country. Congregation doesn’t criticize the government; we criticize the things that are wrong in the country.

Leo (vocalist): Of course, we face discrimination; no one wants to hear what’s wrong; everyone wants to hear what’s right. The market imposes consumption codes that distance from the countercultural and critical.

Leo (vocalist): The producer is the central axis of the band. The Cuban Rock Agency is your national representative, but they tell you, “you handle your affairs, and I’ll tell you if you can or can’t” regarding concerts, tours, etc. We haven’t been able to perform in a province for years because the Agency tells us no. The producer is the linchpin of what we call the musical realm; they handle everything, logistics, and documentation. Congregation had a great producer, Alexander Piloto, a brilliant mind for production. Now we have Gisselle, who is also very good and committed to the work; she ensures everything functions smoothly.

Gisselle (producer): I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’ve seen the effort rockers and metalheads go through to survive over time. We’ve always been undervalued; no one has supported us or supports us. These people who are still on stage deserve a medal in the middle of their chest.

Gisselle (producer): We have been invited to the May festivities (in Holguin) and are still seeking spaces beyond Maxim Rock, like the Doble A bar and other private venues that might open their doors to us. Another plan is to record a music video for one of the band’s original songs and continue promoting the album… in short, keep struggling.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.