A history of rock in Cuba
IN SEPTEMBER 20, MORE than 1 million people in the Plaza de la Revolución watched Colombian rocker Juanes and his friends - cheering, dancing, swooning from the Havana heat.
Those that watched the concert know there was merengue, salsa Nueva Trova (the revolutionary folk pioneered by Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés), funk, hip hop and pop. But for us Cubans, only Carlos Varela rocked (the 46-year-old gnome with the black wool hat, the only one on stage who defied the order to wear all white and stuck to his trademark black t-shirt, a slogan across it that stated: "I'm wearing a WHITE shirt"). He was also the only Cuban on stage who made anybody nervous, singing his song, "25 mil mentiras dobre la verdad" 25 Thousand Lies About the Truth).
After half a century of Revolution, the idea of Cuba and rock still strikes a discordant note for some. Rock was made official in 2007 with the creation of the Agencia Cubana de Rock. And it is accepted by the authorities in the Ministry of Culture, for whom it is the music of their youth. But rock still occupies a complex space. Its bad-ass attitude perfectly fits young people's compulsion to rebel. But in Cuba, rebelling frequently invites suspicion.
In the early years of the Revolution, rock had no official support. In fact, a lot of young Cubans' rock instruments were homemade; drum heads were patched with X-ray film and niics were lifted from old telephones.
Governmental hostility between Cuba and the United States gave certain cultural functionaries the excuse to reject rock as a way to show their "patriotism," to "safeguard national culture" from "foreign, noisy and scandalous beats" and to protect our "helpless youth" - the same young people who were dancing to rock in the countryside and in factories while building socialism - from the "ideological diversionism" represented by this "dangerous music of the enemy."
So as not to seem too dogmatic, these functionaries added that they had nothing against rock per se, so long as it was in Spanish. So while the rest of the world was experiencing the British Invasion, official Cuban radio was awash with groups such as Juan y Junior, a Latin version of Simon & Garfunkel.
There was censorship in the streets too. Police and young party militants routinely raided Coppella, the ice cream park in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, to catch Cuban hippies and forcibly cut their hair, accusing them of being "homosexuals and anti-patriotic dissidents." They also stopped hippies on the streets and inspected their vinyl records. If the album cover for Pello El Afrokán contained vinyl by the Rolling Stones, they would break the costly disk.
While the official media satirized rock fans and those who dared to defend their right to choose what to listen to, Cuban youth listened to foreign FM stations and records brought by relatives and friends who were diplomats creating an early instance of revolutionary privilege), aviators or merchant marines, any occupation that allowed travel to capitalist countries. Cuban youth danced to cover bands that played as close in style to these originals as possible (a performance style called "fusilar"). This imitation retarded the emergence of a Cuban rock with its own identity for another decade.
Influences like Nueva Trova, the occasional visit by foreign rock groups (including the socialist camp), and the constant imitation of Anglo-Saxon rock set the terms for the Cuban rock explosion that came in the 'Sos. Festivals such as "Caliente" at the Casa de Cultura in the upscale Havana neighborhood of Playa (which continues to host rock shows), concerts in the Soviet-style suburb of Alamar and events such as'Oudad Metal" (Metal City) in the towns of Santa Clara and Cruces helped the more radical elements among the hard rockers to find a home in heavy metal. Fans of this style were referred to as "frikis" (there's a debate about whether the word is derived from "free kiss" or "freaks"), which were distinguished by their dress and attitude: "We're bad cuz nobody loves us; nobody loves us cuz we're bad. …