Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.
Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

The time to do Cuban punk is now

13 minutes / Susana Gomes Bugallo

23.09.2020 / Interviews

Being punk in Cuba is nothing like being punk in Spain. And, at the same time, it is the same. The rebellious style, the aggressive music without many melodic complexities, and the maxim that the street teaches everything there is to know to get what it has to offer from the guitar, are truths that the punks of the Island defend with the same passion as to your instruments. Here, the important thing is to play.

That magic reached the Spanish Carmen Torre Pérez, who is in the fifth year of her doctorate in Hispanic Studies in the United States and who —for those rare reasons of destiny— became interested in the Cuban sound, becoming the founder of Punk Cubano, a project that brings together an important part of the production of this genre in the country on a website. At the same time, Carmen develops a documentary about this genre in Cuba. She tells us about this trip and the discoveries it has brought her.

Carmen Torre Pérez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Carmen Torre Pérez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

What is your relationship with music and punk in particular? Why create a project on the Cuban scene?

“My relationship with alternative music and punk has always been very close. During my childhood, my father played in various metal bands, and together with my mother he ran a rock bar, so since I was a child I have received many influences from underground music and culture. As a teenager I began to get involved with the punk movement in my city (Santander, Cantabria) and since then I have tried to know the different scenes of the places I have visited and in which I have lived.

“The interest in doing a project on Cuban punk was born in a quite casual way. At the end of 2015, the University of Kansas, where I was studying at that time, was offering scholarships to do research in Latin American and Caribbean countries, aimed at novice researchers who had little experience working in these areas. I wanted to take the opportunity of this scholarship to get to know Cuba and, given my general interest in punk, I thought about developing a project related to the country's alternative musical cultures. I had tried to find some information about it on the Internet, but I barely got results, so the subject began to interest me more and more: was there a punk culture on the Island? Why was it so difficult to find information about him on the networks?

“Considering also that the context was so different from that of the countries where punk had first emerged (such as England or the United States), what could characterize the Cuban punk scene? After a long time on Google, I got in touch with a hardcore-punk band from Trinidad called Arrabio. With the help of their guitarist, William García, I created a small network of contacts that I would interview during my trip to learn more about the history and situation of Cuban punk. My project was well received, I received the scholarship and I embarked on my first trip to Cuba in December 2015.

“Once I started to know more about this universe, I realized that it was a super rich culture and very different from other well-known scenes. As I had experienced before, there was hardly any data or music available online and practically no one from the academic world had dedicated themselves to researching this topic. So I decided to focus on filling that void. I made the punk culture of Cuba the central theme of my doctoral thesis and I have spent almost five years, since that first trip, trying to make it more accessible and known outside the country's borders ”.

What cannot be left out of any investigation like this and what are the most complicated moments?

“The essential thing in an investigation of this type is the ethnographic work. There are no official archives that one can go to in search of information, and there are hardly any texts that talk about this story (with some exceptions, such as Humberto Manduley López's books on rock in Cuba ). To learn about the punk culture of the Island, you have to meet Cuban punks. It has been through many moments of observation and numerous personal interviews that I have been able to learn about the context, experiences and history of the country's punk community. These contacts gave me access to the music recordings that are available, allowing me to share all of this publicly. His desire to help and his desire to make his work known outside its borders have been, in reality, what has given life to this project.

“The most complicated thing about an investigation like this is navigating all the difficulties that life in Cuba implies. On the one hand, traveling to the island from the United States carries many restrictions. On the other hand, within the country it is often difficult to comply with a travel itinerary: transportation is scarce, telephone or Internet communications are complicated ... Many times the initial work plan has to be rethought, and on more than one occasion there have been concerts that have been canceled or interviews already scheduled that I have not been able to carry out ”.

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

What things have surprised you in this research?

“Sin dudas, el evento más sorprendente de la historia del punk en Cuba con el que me he tropezado es el hecho de que, a principios de los ’90, varios de los miembros de esta comunidad decidieron contagiarse voluntariamente con el VIH para ingresar en uno de los ʽsanatorios del Sida’ que regentaba el Estado. En entrevistas y conversaciones informales he recibido respuestas distintas en torno a las razones que llevaron a estos jóvenes a contraer esa enfermedad: algunos querían huir del servicio militar y de la persecución policial; otros buscaban un espacio al margen de la sociedad donde poder sentirse más libres de ser ellos mismos; y estaban los que buscaban la garantía de un techo y comida en una época en la que todo escaseaba.

“At that time it was not clear how serious a disease like AIDS was, and most of the punks who injected themselves with the virus died over the years.

“Some works have been published on this subject and I invite anyone who wants to know more to look for the podcast Los Sobrevivientes , by Luis Trelles, where you will find the testimony of Gerson and Yohandra, two of the few self-infected people still living. ” [1]

How is the Cuban punk?

“It has been very influenced by the punk of Spain and Latin America, but it has adapted successfully to the Cuban reality. Musically speaking, he has an aggressive, fast and simple style. One of the maxims of this community is that you don't have to be a musician to be able to play punk. The punks of Cuba have not studied music and often have to play with instruments in terrible conditions. This translates into a raw, amateur sound that serves as a vehicle for a direct message — which can range from the harshest social criticism to entertainment and party themes. Beyond music, the punk community in Cuba is supportive and almost familiar. There are not many bands, so everyone knows each other, and if they have managed to survive during all these years it is thanks to having woven networks of solidarity among the members of the scene themselves, sharing spaces, resources, and music altruistically " .

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

What distinguishes punk on the island and what does it have in common with that of other countries?

"Punk in Cuba arises in a very different context from, for example, pioneering bands at a global level like The Ramones or Sex Pistols, which began their careers in the late '70s. On the island, the revolutionary government had dedicated itself to censoring and criminalizing all artistic forms of American influence, so punk emerged much later, in the early '90s, also coinciding with the fall of the Soviet bloc and during the outbreak of the crisis of the Special Period, in a context where it was difficult to access this type of music.

“If something distinguishes punk from Cuba, it is its alternative look at the country's history of the last 30 years. Punk, in its different scenes, is 'localized' and always adapts to the reality of each place. In the Cuban case, therefore, it is a tool to speak critically of the island scene. While things have improved, the punk community is still stigmatized, censored and ignored by the government. In addition, compared to the scenes of the global north, it lives a more precarious situation. The economic scarcity of the country, together with the blockade imposed by the United States, make it extremely difficult to obtain musical material, record and distribute compositions or even give concerts.

“Of the commonalities between the Cuban and foreign scenes, I can mention the oppositional and anti-system philosophy. Both the English punk of the late '70s and the Cuban of the Special Period coincide in that they explode in moments of great crisis, led by a young generation that feels displaced by the system and that has lost any perspective for the future ”.

How much has Cuban punk told about his country?

“It is a window open to the reality of lower-class Cubans and marginalized communities and, therefore, it has told a lot of what the official story leaves out. In this sense, I believe that Cuban punk is very valuable as a socio-historical document, and I trust that knowing this subculture better will help to understand in greater depth the complexity of life in Cuba ”.

What repercussion has the diffusion of the music of Cuban bands had in the world?

"I think the Cuban punk is still in the process of becoming known and is a little early to know the impact it will have in a few years. But one thing is clear: it is a subject that arouses great interest among the general public. In recent years, different initiatives have been born to send donations of musical material to bands and organize exchanges between Cuban and foreign groups, outside or abroad of the Island. On the other hand, since I began to share materials from my research there are many the people who have confessed to me not previously knowing that there was a punk scene in Cuba. I think the prospects for the future are promising. "

How much does your project contribute to the visualization of punk on the Island in the world?

“The general objective of my project is to publicize the music and history of Cuban punk outside the national territory. The web punkcubano.net is the first more finished product and offers a digital space to the music of many bands that were not featured in the network and some small testimonies of participants of the scene. In addition, it works as a directory organized geographically and alphabetically, so it can help both those initiated in the subject, as well as those who wish to search for a specific album or band ”.

At what stage is the documentary you are preparing?

“The documentary is currently in the editing phase, a job led by Samuel Reina Calvo, the cameraman who has been with me all this time. In February we finished recording the last necessary materials and now, with an editing script designed, we are finishing a first version. We believe that we will be able to release the documentary at the end of 2020, although everything has been delayed due to the coronavirus.

"Its purpose is to show in an audiovisual way the punk lifestyle in Cuba, and also to tell the history of this subculture through the testimonies of various participants in the scene."

How much will the Punk Cubano webpage continue to grow?

“My idea is to keep updating the band directory for life. On the one hand, I would like to add information and music about some that I know, but of which I have not yet been able to get files. On the other, if new bands emerge or new recordings are published, I want them to be reflected on the web. In fact, a few days ago I added a new album by Pólvora Soxial because its members already know about my project and they wrote to send me their latest album. I would like it to become a digital encyclopedia on punk in Cuba that people can use as a reliable reference. With regard to the video testimonials on the page, in the future, I want to add a larger selection of clips, but for the moment I will wait until we finish editing the documentary, which can also be found at the site when it is ready ”.

What do you think is the projection of punk in Cuba for the future? What could be done in the country to make this genre more visible?

“I think that, despite the difficulties, the future projection of Cuban punk is quite hopeful. Unlike what happens in other countries (I speak especially of the cases I know in Spain and the United States), where the average age of participants has aged a lot in the last 10 years, the punk in Cuba has a young quite numerous avant-garde - without forgetting, yes, that it is an underground and marginal movement whose popularity will always be very relative. In light of the current situation on the island, where it is rumored in the streets that a second Special Period is being lived, there are those who say that, in fact, the time to do punk is now ”.

 

[1] The movie Boleto al paraíso , by Cuban filmmaker Gerardo Chijona, also has a version of these facts.
Susana Gomes Bugallo

Susana Gomes Bugallo

Su plan más serio es dedicarse a escribir cuentos por el día y cantar boleros en un bar por la noche. Mientras tanto, hace un poco de uno y de lo otro. Y, de paso, algo de periodismo y marketing, que también la apasionan. Lo de la música no es negociable: necesita algún acorde siempre cerca. Y al menos siete canciones de Santi al día.

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    Carlos Fornes

    03.10.2020

    Muy interesante. Magnífica idea. Realmente hay poca info sobre punk cubano. Ojalá la página crezca. Cualquier colaboración pues ahí me tienen tengo lagunas maquetas que son parte de esa historia.


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