Rock in Cuba
By: Michel Garcia Photos: Lourdes Nogueira & Richard
Walking up the narrow park in the middle of "G" Street on a Saturday night might just be as common as taking any other big street in Havana. Also called the Avenue of the Presidents, this street starts at the Malecon and climbs several blocks into the heart of the Vedado area. I listen to the sounds of the late evening while enjoying the cool breeze from the sea at my back.
Then, little by little, as I get closer to 23rd Street, the park starts to get busier and busier with a crowd of youngsters sitting on benches and on the grass. Some speed around on their skateboards showing off for their friends. At first, you might think that it is just a bunch of kids hanging out in a park but it is more than just that. These are the alternative music and rock fans of Cuba.
Generally called Rockeros, they are one of the most underground urban tribes in a country known for and monopolized by Salsa . More than 70 percent of the music played on Cuban radio stations is that mix of African and Spanish music. It remains so popular that Cubans say, "we like to put it on our bread."
Being a rock fan myself, but not entirely deprived of the thirst for different types of music, I feel pretty much attached to this group of people and their interesting hi story.
The rock scene here has one of the most peculiar musical hi stories in Cuba. To get a deeper in sight into the genre's background, there is no better source than Humberto Manduley's book Rock in Cuba. Manduley is a journalist, radio program director, and a specialist on Cuban rock.
Rock and roll in Cuba began in the late 1950's with artists covering American songs translated into Spanish. Most of the bands created during the 1960's and 70's had a short-lived existence, especially due to the lack of support and the country's constant changes.
Then came the golden 1980's and early 90's. Many Cuban bands, influenced mainly by American and Briti sh bands, recreated their sty les for their fan s. These musicians planted the seed for future generations of Rockeros with the help of radio DJ's who worked hard on spreading this not always welcomed sound.
Rock lovers of the time gathered at parties where bands could play since there were few venues that would host them. One exception was the unforgettable Patio de Maria, a cultural centre in Vedado that promoted rock and helped musicians whenever possible.
In the early 1990's Cuba was suffering through a profound economic crisis which was affecting all levels of society. Rock was also hurt but the flow of music information was kept alive. Worn-out copies of magazines like Melal Hammer, Kerrang, and Spin slowly made the rounds among friends and aspiring Rockeros until the pages wore out and covers fell off.
Today, Rockeros have a better chance of survival. Since playing rock music in Cuba continues to be associated with a bit of rebelliousness and many bands' lyrics contain social criticism, rock, together with genres like rap, have found more space for development and the Rockeros crowd grows larger with each passing day.
Who are these Rockeros? I talk to them and they told me some of their stories. One girl, dressed all in black, said she sta11ed listening to rock when her brother would take her to concerts because their parents would not let them go out at night alone. Then you realize the vast majority of them, if not all, are university students sitting on the grass with their college books in worn out backpacks.
These are not delinquents but educated young people who are striving to achieve their goals while trying to enjoy life on the way.
But where do these people get their music from? Cuba is an island suffering an almost five-decade long embargo established by the US government. So most Cubans just exchange music the "democratic" way - by borrowing, trading, sharing, and copying music onto blank CD's whenever possible. There is no doubt that rock has finally found its roots in Cuban society. The third Cayman Rock Festival, the most important of its kind in Cuba, was held this past July for three days to promote rock music.
Cuban Rock bands including, Hipnosis and Chlover, played at the Jose Marti amphitheatre on the Malecón, the same venue where Australia's Air Supply and the U.S.'s Audioslave have performed in the past.
Factor VIII from Panama and Crocell from Venezuela also played at the festival at prestigious venues such as at the Ministry of Culture and the famed Salon Rosado de la Tropical.
Even more important was the presentation of the Cuban Rock Agency, a government institution in charge of promoting and organizing concerts as well as producing rock bands. The newly created agency is governed by the Ministry of Culture and the Hermanos Saiz Youth Association, the Festival's organizing institution.
I guess the times when Rockeros had no place to go are finally ending and we may be seeing the last bunch of youngsters hanging around at 23 and G Streets instead of going to rock concerts every Saturday night.