A Cuban Aleph


The first time I met Gorki in May 2010, we sat drinking coffee on his balcony; the setting sanguine sun still playing fiercely on the potholed pavement below. Taking a sip, Gorki leaned out over the balcony and sighed heavily. Turning to me, he said “see those two men in suits sitting in the park; the one reading the newspaper and the one standing by the road? They’re police. They follow me everywhere since I got back to Cuba.” He wasn’t angry, and spoke of his ubiquitous escort in a matter of fact manner. It was a part of his daily routine now; one more sign of the oppression that has hung heavily around him in the eleven years of fronting punk band Porno Para Ricardo. One of the besuited men glanced up from his paper at the balcony. Even at this distance, I could see a facial expression that invited paranoia. Gorki drained his small coffee cup and said “let’s go inside to do the interview.”

Inside the sparsely furnished flat – a threadbare leather sofa, a single chair and a work bench swamped with the innards of a Fender Jaguar guitar the only items in the living room, save for the lengths of timber; remnants of the refurbishment of the band’s home recording studio/ rehearsal space – we sat and talked about a Cuban prog. rock/bolero band from the 70s; ‘5U4’. In mid-sentence, the front door flung open and Ciro, guitarist and co-songwriter, burst in, promptly peeled off his t-shirt to reveal a thick covering of chest hair, excaliming “pinga, que calor”. Gorki, turning his head slightly replied

“oye, we’re doing an interview”.

“oh; do you need me to put on a shirt?”

“no, it’s just audio”

and with that, I switched on the recording device.

*          *          *

As many theorist working on all aspects of Cuba have noted, the desire to define Cuban identity has long occupied political social and cultural discourse on the island and abroad. Antoni Kapcia writes that “one dominant, and overwhelming, feature of Cuban political culture [is] the obsession with identity, which dominates politics and dissidence from late in the colonial period until the present day” (2000:24). Arturo Arango similarly suggests “even for those who… continue to be bitterly opposed to the Revolution, whatever is Cuba remains a near pathological obsession” (1997:123). While more nuanced and detailed accounts of the many aspects of this national identity exist (see, for example, Perez, 1999, Kapcia, 2005), sufficed to say here that notions of an holistic, all encompassing Cuban identity have been constructed to describe not only essential aspects of Cuban identity but to demonstrate that threads of this identity have run throughout the island’s history.

The notion of ‘national culture’ is key in expressing elements of this collective identity (Arango, 1997). A tacit, though surprisingly potent and widely understood, framework of ‘authentically Cuban’ music, musicality and musicians pervades much of the discourse on Cuban music. Descriptions of autochthonous, isolated creation, with affiliation to some form of traditional ‘root’ in ‘Africa’ abound, observable in comments such as Raúl Fernandez’s assertion that aspects of Cuban music “have proved difficult to handle for North American as well as Latin American musicians and audiences” (1994:109) and in Fidel Castro’s own bombastic rallying cry “we should tell the Yankees that they should never forget… we are an Afro-Latin country… the blood of Africa runs abundantly through our veins” (in Pacini Hernandez, 1998:114)

oweverHHowever, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the consequent special period[1] – a traumatic time of famine, scarcity and more mass exodus – led to a fracturing of this (imagined) unity and communal identity. Kapcia claims the special period led to “Cuban culture [becoming] ‘un archipiélago’ of individualism” (2005:191). Into this archipelago flooded a wealth of alternative genres of music, and with them burgeoning subcultural movements in Cuba encompassing “every imaginable sub-genre of rock” (Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, 2004:65)[2]. Though these musical influences were often “fragmentary… and highly de-contextualised” (Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, 1999:19), akin more to “smoke seeping under a closed door” than a free ‘flow’ (Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, 2004:44), their appropriation by Cuban youth put paid to the notion of an isolated and exclusively Cuban soundworld defining and describing the Cuban identity.

It is into a schismatic Cuba of tradition and innovation, tourists and familial exiles, dollars and pesos, Miami and Havana, boleristas and frikis, that Porno Para Ricardo emerged, their often anarchic punk music speaking frankly to the contemporary Cuban condition. They have been cast in a position as the “most censored band on the island” (Cuomo and de Nooij, 2009); often describes as ‘dissidents’ (cf. MLC interview, 2008 and Maza, 2010), a project of “social resistance” (Garcia-Freyre, 2008:559), or in terms that ignore, or subjugate the musical and Cuban facets of the band’s identity. Rather than ‘choosing sides’ in the polemicising rhetoric of Cuban politics that thrives on the assumed binaries listed above, Porno Para Ricardo exist (deliberately) somewhere between these spaces of ‘Cuban’/‘foreign’ musically, and ‘Communist’/‘pro-American’ politically. While the band’s overt criticisms of Fidel Castro and the lingering dogmatism, bureaucracy and persecution of the Revolutionary government are well documented, much less studies is the band’s critique of this wave of friki culture, which Gorki claims “offered no communication” (Gorki, 2010).

Such a positioning tends to place the band as something of an ‘Other’ to all others; caught in between the schisms that define Cuban identity. This feeling of isolation is perhaps not helped by the fact that the band are prohibited from performing live – directly in Cuba, and vicariously abroad due to visa restrictions[3] – and have their music banned from all forms of media. The band are[4] deeply confrontational, critical of nationalism, Revolutionary rhetoric and inaction among the populace. Yet they are simultaneously vociferous in their right to claim for themselves a space as ‘authentic Cuban musicians’; or perhaps more accurately musicians with the authenticity to speak of the Cuban condition, and to have the right of ownership of at least some part of Cuba’s rich musical history. They demonstrate if not ‘pride’ in place, then at least a recognition of its importance in their music and in the formation and contextualisation of their constructed collective identity. They engage in much memory work, and though they eschew many of the symbols connected with traditional Cuban music, they play with the paradigm, recognising and reflecting many other identifiers of Cuban heritage and identity.

Rather than attempt to demonstrate the veracity in Porno Para Ricardo’s claim to an ‘authentically Cuban identity’, or to illuminate the ways in which they ‘fit’ into the complex hagiography of ‘traditional Cubanness’, I suggest that the band can be viewed as a model for dissecting and understanding some of the myriad composite themes of a complex and often contradictory ‘Cubanness’. I tentatively suggest that Porno Para Ricardo can be regarded as a ‘Cuban Aleph’, following both the original novel of Jorge Luis Borges and the subsequent theorising of Edward Soja. Borges writes of this fictional Aleph:

What eternity is to time, the Aleph is to space. In eternity, all time – past, present and future – coexists simultaneously. In the Aleph, the sum total of the spatial universe is to be found in a tiny shining sphere barely over an inch across. (Borges, [1949] 2004:189)

Soja uses this literary device to describe “thirdspace”:

the space where all places are capable of being seen from every angle, each standing clear; but also a secret and conjectured object, filled with illusions and allusions, a space that is common to all of us yet never able to be completely seen or understood. (Soja, 1996:56)

Rather than see Porno Para Ricardo as a constituent part of Cubanness (or not), it is perhaps more apposite to examine the ways in which the faces of Cubanness are expressed through Porno Para Ricardo, albeit in a recontextualised and partial (in both senses of the word) manner.

In the band’s lyrics, genre, soundworld and (rare) performances one can detect the ‘fence posts’ of identity that surround a space of identity construction. These identity markers serve to outline a personal identity, a space which is fluid and never singular (in the sense that it can be defined entirely by a single term such as ‘punk’ or ‘Cuban’). However, in the context of a band, these markers can become as gateways in the construction of a collective identity, allowing access to some, and excluding others. Collective identities are created as a Venn diagram of overlapping aspects of individual identity, an assertion that follows Barry Shank’s finding on subcultures in Austin, Texas in which he states:

Motivated by desire, wound through the desires of every other member of the scene, each participant in the rock’n’roll scene constructs a self-image, an instantaneous (mis)recognised identity, formed out of the knots of these intertwined desires (1994:131)

Or, as one participant in the Austin rock scene put it:

We always felt like we were going towards this one big happy tormented family, but we never got there (ibid.)

The same knots of intertwined desire can perhaps be seen in the construction of a recontextualised Cuban identity in the work of Porno Para Ricardo; striving for collectivity and unity, but never really getting there, as opposed to nationalistic Cuban identity which espouses a view that a Cuban unity is always already present and must be preserved.

Part One: Lyrics

We have a song dedicated to our commander in chief[5], which mentions his full name and says quite clearly that he is a son of a bitch. All the art that is produced in this country in some way is masked with a double meaning, and I am tired now of these poetic lyrics, which are full of indirect insinuation. The time has come to call things by their true name. What we want to say in our lyrics is that the hell we live in has a name and a surname: Fidel Castro Ruz. I don’t need any poetic resources to say that. (Gorki, in Petr Placák, 2006)

This lyrical manifesto has garnered for the band a lot of attention, yet it has perhaps been overemphasised by many commentators in the desire to uncover uninhibited ‘political dissidence’ emanating from within Cuba. This overemphasis on the political has overshadowed other lyrical themes which are equally present and equally important in recognising a more complete picture of a band who are, first and foremost, musicians, not political activists:

I say that the band is not a political band. People always try to say the opposite, but because you make a stand against the system, that doesn’t make you political, you’re simply adopting a civic position. You criticise what bothers you. That’s it really. PPR are not a political band… If people interpret you [that way]… that’s unavoidable. You cannot avoid the consequences that your music generates. It’s impossible. You create from you as an individual. From then on, you don’t know which path your music will take. (Gorki, 2010)

Aspects of memory and of naming geographical places within Cuba (and specifically within Havana city) are both oft overlooked themes in the band’s oeuvre, helping to locate and authenticate Porno Para Ricardo, thus imbuing them with the legitimacy to speak so vociferously against the communist regime. Gorki claims that the band’s “lyrics [say] what many people think but are incapable of expressing because of fear” (MLC, 2008), but alongside (or as part of) this martyrological political stance, the band take on the role of remembering what others are afraid to, and they do so by placing themselves and their identity physically within Havana.

One of the cornerstones of Porno Para Ricardo’s remembrances appears to be a constant return to images of the Soviet Union. The way in which certain previously ubiquitous representations of Soviet culture have been reclaimed by the band in constructing their identity is interesting in that it treads a precarious line between nostalgia, parody and criticism; the band appear to be simultaneously fondly remembering and lambasting the Soviet cultural and political rhetoric enforced upon the island at the behest of a government requiring Soviet subsidies to keep afloat.

However, as the crisis of the special period worsened throught the early 90s, there seems to have been a deliberate move to disallow this ‘Russian’ thread of Cuban identity. It exists now as a tacit palimpsest; written over, rubbed out, or, in Orwellian terms ‘never having existed’. It is in this cultural and political space that Porno Para Ricardo make their visible stand to ‘remember’ the Russian strand of their identity.

Remembrances of Soviet culture are woven throughout the band’s work; in their provocative band logo – a hammer-and-sickle-made-phallic – in their strangely tender punk cover version of the theme tune to Soviet cartoon ‘Los Musicos de Bremen[6]’ and in their erstwhile destruction of Soviet guitars as part of their live shows[7]. But often these remembrances do not stem (exclusively) from a political motivation as much as from a remembrance of childhood, of which Soviet culture was a quotidian, not political, constituent part.

The act of childhood remembrance is made overt in the song ‘Te Acuerdas De…[8]. Gorki talks directly to his audience, asking them to remember certain specific elements, to identify with the memories of the band, to foster some sort of collective past, bringing to mind the narrative device used by Joe Brainard in ‘I Remember’ (1970). Remembrances flit from the familiar to the familial, from the specific to the grand, from the personal to the potentially unifiable. Though while Brainard prefixes each remembrance with the personal ‘I’, encouraging the reader to remember his/her own personal memories, Gorki prefixes his remembrances with ‘you’. In places this takes on an accusatory, interrogative, tone; ‘do you remember this…’ (if not, why not?); almost questioning the authenticity of the listener, their ‘right’ to the term ‘Cuban’ as part of their identity. In other places, it creates a desire for a reconstructed collective remembrance; not of heroic struggle and grand gestures, but of the everyday and the personal:

¿Te acuerdas de los muñequitos?                                                                                                     Los que ponían to´ los días igualitos.

¿Te acuerdas de nuestra merienda?                                                                                                 La mantequilla y los panes cangrejitos[9]

Do you remember the cartoons?                                                                                                           They put on exactly the same ones every day

Do you remember our afternoon snacks?                                                                                           Butter with ‘cangrejito’ breads

The primary school snacks, the cartoons on television (alluding here once more to a Soviet presence) are memories shared by a generation. These memories are designed, I believe, to foster a sort of pan-generational identity; to assert that there are some characteristics upon which, or through which, Cubans can find some notion of a shared past, and comparable present. Such a relocation of the Cuban identity brings to mind Michael Billig’s notion of the “unwaved flag” (1995) of national identity construction, in which ““the whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices (1995:6) which (re)produce national identity are reproduced in the banal realm of the everyday” (Tim Edensor, 2002:11).

There are also remembrances that take geographical locations in Havana as their anchor:

¿Te acuerdas del Coparum?                                                                                                              Era la playa de los frikis por entero…

¿Te acuerdas del Patio e´  María?                                                                                                      Pa´l rock el único singao lugar que había.

Do you remember the ‘Coparum’                                                                                                              It was all the beach of the ‘frikis’…

Do you remember the Patio de Maria?                                                                                                For rock, it was the only fucking place we had

Two places here – the coparum beach, favoured by the frikis and el Patio De Maria, a venue which became an “emblematic places for Cuban rock [and] a meeting place for young frikis” (Garcia-Freyre, 2008:556) – are invoked by the band again in a manner that attempts to construct a common past; albeit one vastly narrowed from the generational nostalgia discussed above. Significant in these remembrances is the allying of place, identity and authenticity. The band become tied to place, and their identity as ‘authentically Cuban’ legitimised by the specificity of the memory. In the process, places themselves are authenticated, becoming sites of authenticity which are both revered and made integral to the band’s own ‘identity space’.

The concept of authentic places referenced in song is one that is well rehearsed in popular music. Numerous places around the world are considered somehow authentic sites of musical expression (in one genre or another). Sara Cohen’s work on Liverpool’s “Rock Culture” talks of “Liverpool’s popular music… [being] particular to Liverpool, reflecting a range of social, economic and political factors peculiar to the city.” (1994:117) and of “major record companies based in London view[ing] some areas, such as Liverpool, as more culturally significant than others” (118). Similarly, Barry Shank notes that “many talented individuals now come to Austin simple because so many others already have… Often young people move to town simply “Because it is where music is”” (1994:118). These places ‘become’ authentic through musicians paying homage to them.

However as Martin Stokes notes “Music… do[es] not simply ‘reflect’. Rather, [it] provide[s] the means by which the hierarchies of place are negotiated and transformed… Music does not then simply provide a marker in a prestructured social space, but the means by which this space can be transformed.” (1994:4). What Stokes’ assertion suggests is that this authenticating relationship of place and music is actually reversed. Rather than paying deference to always already authentic places in song, musicians naming places are in fact complicit in the act of creating the authenticity for those same places. Thus by staking a claim to ‘being from’ an ostensibly self-evidently authentic place, the musician is afforded something of a ‘quick access’, or at least a recognisable point of reference, into the muddied waters of authenticity work that still swirl around popular music.

Not content with simply espousing a list of their own ‘authentic places’, Porno Para Ricardo are also keen to point out the disingenuousness that such a process of geographical alliance to identity can produce. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the band’s parodic references to the central place of friki culture in Havana: ‘Parque G[10]. In the song ‘Black Metal[11]’, Ciro utilises his fantastically faux-sincere falsetto voice to portray a self-consciously ‘hip’ friki, giddy with delight at the opportunity to ‘frikiar[12] at ‘G’. In the more down-to-earth ‘Vamanos Pa G[13]’, Gorki relays a more cynical reasoning behind the park’s rise to subcultural significance:

Vamanos Pa G porque no hay nada de hacer

Let’s Go to G because there’s nothing else to do

The reification of Park G as an authentic meeting place is explained by Laura Garcia-Freyre:

G as a public space was first conquered by the frikis, but now, as a reflection of the very few options available to young people for fun, it has been taken over by young people regardless of their musical identity (2008:555).

Porno Para Ricardo demonstrate a cynicism then to this very process of naming and entering into an authentication loop with place, portraying ‘G’ as inauthentic precisely because it has been so authenticated by the friki movement; fostering a belief (perhaps held only by the band members themselves about frikis[14]) that simple being in (or from) a place is enough to warrant automatic authenticity.

Part Two: Genre and Subculture

The only thing we have in Cuba is a wrongly named “rock movement” which is even directed by a governmental agency… It is a total aberration of what rock is. When did rock ever have to be institutionalised? The saddest thing is that some people believe that they need the state to support their creativity and are not conscious of the ‘do it yourself’ spirit that has always been the standard of rock and roll. (Gorki, MLC interview, 2008)

Whilst critiques of ‘traditional’ Cuban signifiers might be expectesd from a Cuban punk band, much more surprising is their criticism of Cuba’s rock music subcultures. Indeed, Gorki defiantly states that there is “no such thing as a Cuban rock scene” (Gorki, 2010). Such a stance places the band’s identity somewhere outside two well defined and delineated spaces of identity; on the one hand ‘Cuban traditional music’ and the other a ‘new wave’ of American-influence rock subcultures. Though they may have a foot in both these they are entirely defined by neither.

But their relationship to these two spaces is more complex that simply ‘rejecting’ either (or both) as inauthentic outright. Nor do they attempt to forge a ‘thirdspace’ (Bhabha, 1994, Soja, 1996) between the two. Rather, through their appropriation of both spaces, there seems to be an attempt at “reterritorialization”. Gavin Carfoot, using the work of Deleuze and Guattari, defines the process thus:

it begins with the use of noise to destroy pre-existing musical territories; noise is then able to de-territorialize the culturally constructed notion of musical sound, and this noise is in turn re-territorialized into a new definition of what constitutes musical sound. (Carfoot, 2006:37)

What Porno Para Ricardo are seeking is to re-authenticate both genre spaces which they feel as constituent parts of their own identity by ‘reterritorializing’ them to include themselves.

Lead guitarist Ciro Díaz takes on the mantle of ‘front man’ as the band cover one of rock’s classics: ‘Don’t Cry’ by ‘Guns n Roses’. From the moment the distorted bass plays its descending pattern, heralding a howl of guitar feedback (albeit much less restrained and ‘controlled’ than in the original) it is obvious what song is being performed; one of the gods of the pantheon of rock is being invoked, being claimed and adulated.

But as Ciro begins to sing, something sounds wrong. His voice attempts a studied imitation of Axl Rose’s intimate, confessional style, but it is embellished by an almost child-like eagerness and barely contained excitement, revelling in the task (the duty? The responsibility?) of recreation. The words are hyper-pronounced to the point of unintelligibility; Ciro seemingly emphasising each and every letter, such is the importance of the text.

Of course this isn’t the ‘real’ Ciro singing. It is the same character who espouses his own coolness in ‘Black Metal’; having proved himself a member of the frikis at Parque G, this character has now formed a band and is further proving his authenticity by paying homage to a innately authentic musical source. It is a telling characterisation, one that invokes D.C. Muecke’s sense of “self disparaging irony”:

The ironist is presented not simply as an impersonal voice, but, in disguise, as a person with certain characteristics. And the sort of person the ironist presents himself as being is our guide to his real opinion… But his disguise is meant to be penetrated, and our judgement is directed not against the ignorance of the speaker but against the object of the irony. (Muecke, 1969:87, in Steve Bailey, 2003:144)

The object of irony in ‘Don Cri’ is the friki culture and their appropriation of American rock music as always already authentic and able to define a Cuban identity without any mediation whatsoever, despite the incomprehensibility of the lyrics.

So this cover version of an American rock ‘classic’ firstly attempts to burst this bubble of pre-ordained authenticity; attempting, to “deconstruct the original… removing and/or exaggerating the pretty, the pompous, and the pop” (Deena Weinstein 1998:144). It also provides, through this ironic voice, a commentary on the friki culture to assert, as does John Shepherd, that music “does not ‘carry’ its meaning and ‘give it’ to participants and listeners. Affect and meaning have to be created anew in the specific social and historical circumstances of music’s creation and use” (1993:138). Porno Para Ricardo suggest that by taking English-language rock music at ‘face value’ and using it unmediated in collective identity construction, the friki movement are failing to construct an identity that ‘speaks’ to their surroundings; that fails to communicate their ‘true’ identity. Both Gorki and Ciro assert the necessity of local linguistic communication (that is speaking of Cuba by speaking in ‘Cuban’):

The band wouldn’t work in another country as it could work here it’s made for the people that live in this country. Not by intention, but by disgrace fatalism – because it was given to us, and so we talk about what happens to us and around us. (Gorki, 2010)

I think that singing in Spanish about issues surrounding you makes you a part of that environment. You can call it ‘Cubanness’, you can call it a Cuban environment, or anything you like. I think creative people create from their experience. Individual experience comes from the environment the person is raised in. the environment that surrounds us is this one, so we create and take on elements from this environment. (Ciro, 2010)

There is an attempt here at ‘reterritorialzation’ of what is considered ‘authentic rock identity’ within Cuba; a deconstruction of the characteristics of the ‘authentic’ voice, which further lays the groundwork for the band to present their own identity within the space of authentic rock discourse.

But as with so much of Porno Para Ricardo’s oeuvre, contradiction is never far away, and this authenticity template of singing in one’s ‘own voice’ is somewhat confused on the opening track on ‘El Disco Rojo’; a ‘straight’ cover version of a bolero standard ‘Mucho Corazón’. Gorki explains this (re)location of bolero:

I love bolero and Cuban music in general just as much as I like rock and roll – well I like rock and roll a bit more, but I like Cuban music just as much… In fact, in the latest album, we’ve recorded a bolero. We start the album with a bolero, to give people what they’re not expecting… Of course this is a bolero that somehow sets up the band’s position… contextualising that bolero within a rock album, and even more so with the characteristics of our band, has a special meaning. (Gorki, 2010)

This interpolating bolero voice is far from the ironic mask of ‘Don Cri’; it is sincere and faithful. Two acoustic guitars, perfectly tuned, intertwine and complement each other, paying close attention to the rhythm. There is a slight fluidity, a tentative uncertainness; a struggle and deep concentration with the material perhaps. Most surprising is Gorki’s voice. Usually strained, gravelly in its acerbity, wilfully distorted and imprecise, here it is presented as that of an alarmingly good ‘bolerista’. The powerful and rich mid-range tenor, the measured tremolo accents at the end of each line, the never-ostentatious-but-patently-‘felt’ emotional connection to the words being sung. It is, as Gorki intends it to be, something unexpected at the beginning of a rock album.

But the tension created by this interpolating bolero is never ruptured; the ‘noisy’ reterritorialization of the space of stereotypical Cubanness (Mario Masvidal, 2007) one expects never takes place. The bolero remains faithfully rendered. Certainly there is a social commentary in the song selection; it is a bolero that “sets up the band’s position” and gives a personal nuance to the opening line:

Dicen que no es vida, esta que yo vivo

They say it is not life estthat I live

The ‘they’ is this case could be any of the band’s detractors; the AHS who deny them legitimacy as musicians, the government who deny their legitimacy as Cubans, the professionalised rock music fraternity who acquiesce to self-censorship (Perna, 2005, Moses, 2000). The ‘life’ being denied is the right to claim a space within the boundary of ‘Cubanness’. But as important as this appropriated lyric is the preservation of the sonic. Musically speaking, the band appear to be recreating, rather than reterritorializing. Such a process brings with it the shock of recontextualisation; placing bolero alongside punk not to create a ‘thirdspace’ hybrid[15] but in attempt to recognise that both these musics may constitute fragments of a composite and contemporary Cuban identity; that a Cuban may find aspects of themselves in both soundworlds; that the two are not mutually exclusive spaces of identity that define the individual totally.

In their adoption of bolero, Porno Para Ricardo are claiming ownership of Cuba’s celebrated catalogue of music, presenting themselves as custodians and thus as authentic Cuban musicians. They are attempting to expand this pantheon of ‘Cuban Greats’ if not to include themselves specifically, then to at least allow the potential to include new definitions of Cuban music. Bolero is not being reterritorialized in the same way that rock music is; but by faithfully recreating bolero, the band are reterritorializing the space of who is deemed able to adopt bolero as a signifier of their individual identity construction. They claim the space of bolero (seen as a synecdoche for Cubanness by many) not as sacrosanct, holistic and ‘finished’, but as partial, malleable and available.

Part Three: Soundworld

Such disperate selectivity leads to a deliberately ‘noisy’ soundworld, not only in the sense of distorted guitars, anarchic, disintegrating endings to songs and between-song ‘skits’, but also in the somewhat confused signal being delivered to listeners; a signal that will incorporate and subvert musical and cultural symbols from many disparate sources to produce something of a cacophonous and multifaceted identity.

For Porno Para Ricardo, the laughter that peppers their soundworld could be said to act as a “meta communicative marker” (Gervais and Wilson 2005:400), embellishing the ‘message’ of identity being transmitted, and as such is integral in deciphering, and giving meaning to their soundworld, and thus to their collective and individual identities.

But what is noise? If, as Simon Reynolds suggests, noise itself is the point at which sound becomes unknowable; the herald of “obliteration of meaning and identity” (2004:56), then how can ‘noise’ be useful in describing identity? As Ian Biddle has suggested, the distinction between ‘noise’ and ‘music’ is far from clear cut, and far from fixed:

As a system by which the conceptual territories noise/music/silence are mapped and managed, the political ontology of sound is also a political theory of relationships… Class, ideology, race and gender are all visitors to this process of naming, of holding apart, and holding in mutually exclusive relation the three territories. (2009:2)

So, if aspects of one’s identity – race, class, gender, ideology etc – are all visitors in individual definitions of what constitutes noise, perhaps one may switch perspectives to suggest that how one uses, and what one considers as, ‘noise’ can be visitors in providing insight into one’s identity. Identity shapes the space delineated as ‘noise’, and thus noise becomes a mirror reflecting identity. In this sense, noise can serve as one of the many fence posts (or perhaps a gateway) into the constructed space of identity; at once either an exclusionary barrier, or an inclusive shared line of demarcation. Laughter exists as an example of a fragment of identity that can be both exclusionary and inclusionary simultaneously.

Both these ‘types’ of laughter can be found in Porno Para Ricardo’s work, and can be found doing much the same work; providing exclusionary and inclusionary points around a constructed identity space. In the song “Peste a Ratas[16]”, Gorki can be heard cackling in a non-Duchenne fashion through the ascerbic chorus which asks:

Como no me voy a reír de la Associación (ha-ha) Hermanos Saíz? (ha-ha)

Como no me voy a reír de la Associación Hermanos Saíz? (ha-ha)

How can I not laugh at the Associación Hermanos Saíz[17]?

How can I not laugh at the Associación Hermanos Saíz?

The chorus clearly pays homage to Carlos Puebla’s similarly rhetorical question “como no me voy a reír de la OEA[18]”, though Gorki’s defiant laugh is much more maniacal. And as with Puebla’s laughter there are shades Baudelaire’s notion of laughter at the grotesque; “beings whose authority and raison d’être cannot be drawn from the code of common sense” (Baudelaire, 1995:156-7), albeit in a much more overtly politicised manner; the grotesque beings in each case being political organisations from which the respective laughers have been banished[19]. So here is a laughter that is exclusionary in the sense that it is laughter at something; an enemy, an ‘opposite’, an ‘Other’ against which to define oneself.

However in many of the between-song ‘skits’, one may find a more ‘natural’ (though no less deliberately included) type of laughter. In tracks such as ‘La Princesa Azul Del Mar Azul’, ‘Vete de Una Vez[20] and ‘Vamanos Pa G[21], the members of the band can be heard ‘naturally’ laughing at no specific ‘target’. This laughter is used as a marker of identity; attempting to rekindle the feeling of a live performance, to “make up somehow for the lack of being able to have a direct contact with the audiences” (Gorki, 2010) and to forge a space in which some sense of group (subcultural) identity can be expressed. Clearly laughter is used here as an inclusive identity marker; one which listeners are encouraged to join in with; to ‘get’ the joke and laugh along, thus sharing in at least some aspect of the identity transmitted by the band.

Conclusion… Or, Part Four: Performance

 As the guitarist strike up the first power chords, the bass reverberating through my chest, the cymbals giving off waves of sound, Gorki – wanting to make a dramatic delayed entrance, yet anxious to view the pensive vista he has created for himself – raises his head above the parapet of the ‘backstage’ area. Finally he runs out, to cheers from the crowd. He is wearing tight red trousers with the word ‘Anal-cia’ written down the right leg and an even tighter white shirt with ‘pionero’ neckerchief. His wild, dishevelled perm is tinted with a deep red colour. When I had met him last in Cuba over one year ago, it was peppered with grey hairs. With a grimace of concentration, he picks up his cream coloured Fender Stratocaster emblazoned with a message written in crude green paint: ‘Yo Me Paso De La Rayo’ – ‘I Cross the Line’. With legs apart, he leans up into the downturned microphone, small black eyes shining, and launches into the song ‘Porno Para Ricardo’.

*          *          *

In the spring of 2010, ‘Porno Para Ricardo’ played their first gig in years at an international music festival in Prague. Though three members of the band – Ciro, Herbert and Renay – were denied exit visas by the Cuban government and were thus not present, the gig went ahead anyway, providing, for Gorki at least, a rare opportunity to do what he, on the evidence of his effervescent stage presence, was born to do: perform. But it was a performance not only of the band’s music, but a rare chance for ‘the band’ to perform their identity, adding a fourth plinth on which to construct and disseminate their identity.

*          *          *

“a bajo del permisso de salida[22]!”. A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. A laugh from Gorki.

“a bajo de Fidel Castro[23]!”. A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. A laugh from Gorki.

“que rico la liberdad[24]!” A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. Gorki accidentally swings the neck of his guitar into the microphone stand and it crashes to the floor.

“turn up the mic, so the communists back in Cuba can hear!” Gorki shouts both to audience and sound man at the side of the stage. The bass player walks over to the man behind the mixing desk and relays the message.

 “To the communists and socialists and leftists around the world [pause] Capitalism is much better!” A young man who has been pogoing quite voraciously next to me since the start of the gig suddenly stops, crestfallen. He shakes his head, then with all the vigour of his previous pogo, he climbs on the metal barrier and beings to bellow something towards Gorki. I catch only the word ‘capitalist’. 

*          *          *

But whose identity? Gorki’s? Porno Para Ricardo’s? Friki? Cuba’s? The Prague audience’s own as ‘survivors’ of communism? Perhaps all of these.

Held within the notion of ‘performing an identity’ is the need of an audience; someone to perform that identity to. As such the performance, in some sense, becomes a mirror, reflecting to each viewer aspects of identity that they each wish to find. To the middle-aged Czech man carrying his young daughter on his shoulders, perhaps it is an anti-communist identity. To the smattering of ‘exiled’ Cubans in this Prague audience, maybe it is an Anti-Castro identity. To the Czech students waiving home-made banners at the front, perhaps an anti-repression identity. To my wife, ceaselessly photographing the event beside me, perhaps it is a representation of her youth. To me…?

The snippet of on-stage conversation (and subsequent crowd reaction) presented above demonstrates the disappointment that can occur when the identity reflection given to one by the performer is warped irreconcilably away from the desired image. Like a fun-house mirror, we are suddenly left unable to recognise the reflection of ourselves we are present with; or else we are given a cruel and grotesque rendering. Like the man in the audience, all we can do is shake our heads and leave, to find a new mirror in which we might find an image of ourselves.

I suggested in the introduction of this work that Porno Para Ricardo may be seen as an Aleph for a Cuban identity. I repeat here Borges’ definition of the Aleph:

What eternity is to time, the Aleph is to space. In eternity, all time – past, present and future – coexists simultaneously. In the Aleph, the sum total of the spatial universe is to be found in a tiny shining sphere barely over an inch across. (Borges, 1971:189)

Perhaps when I suggest that Porno Para Ricardo are an Aleph of Cubanness; a site in which (or through which) the myriad facets of Cuban identity are expressed, what I mean is that they construct a space which ‘emits’ (performs) an identity that can take on (almost) any characteristics, because it requires a viewer to interpret the performance through his or her own lens, imbue it with their own significances, ideals and personality. The performed identity becomes a reflection of our own identity. The Aleph, in showing all space, will reflect back ourselves – the space of our own identity – and perhaps this identity will colour everything else that it viewed. If Porno Para Ricardo are an Aleph of Cubanness, then the Cuba each of us sees through them will be dependent on our own identity; the Cuba we see will always be different. There is something of Roland Barthes ‘death of the author’ in such a reading; of the performance of identity as a text which is dependent upon interpretation by the audience for its meaning. Barthes’ asserts that “a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimentional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (1977:146). Such a description of a text can be applied to the workings of performed identity expressed herein. A tissue of quotes from multifarious sources (spatial and temporal) – punk, Cuban tradition, Soviet culture, from youth, from adulthood, from the home space, from the public space, from politics – are assembled (though not definitively), but there is no single identity to be read; no message from the ‘Author-God’. There is a mirror, a template, a partially finished construction which demands completion from the recipient. If, as Shepherd notes, music “does not ‘carry’ its meaning and ‘give it’ to participants and listeners (1993:138), then the same is true of the performance of identity. Thus, in this performance in Prague, a new identity was constructed and collectivised. The question becomes not ‘whose identity is being performed’, but rather ‘who is finding themselves in the performance’?

*          *          *

Gorki and I are standing on an island in the middle of the Moldava river, looking out at a Soviet tank painted bright pink with a large middle finger sprouting from its roof floating in the centre of the river. A group of tourists on pedalos clamber onto the tank’s floating island and begin taking pictures. We turn our attention back to the stage, bathed in a warm afternoon sunshine, on which Gorki will be appearing in less than one hour.

Suddenly Gorki appears to stiffen, and keeps glancing surreptitiously over his shoulder. Over the next ten minutes or so, he tries to shake off this visible disturbance, yet seems incapable of resisting the compulsion to keep glancing behind him. Eventually, clearly agitated, Gorki suggests to our small group that we look at another part of the island on which the festival is taking place.

Standing on the other side of the narrow island, Gorki makes apparent the subject of his agitation. “see that man over there” he points through the flowing crowd and dappled foliage at an innocuous, though admittedly uncomfortable looking, middle-aged man who was standing stock still near where we had been. I hadn’t noticed him. There was nothing to notice. He was balding, with wisps of blonde-grey hair around his temples. He wore an uncomfortably tight denim jacket and jeans. “I think he might be a chivatón; a spy. He fits the type”. Gorki more than anyone would ‘know the type’.

Here in Prague, the three of us try to reassure Gorki “why would they send someone all the way here?” “look, he’s talking to that woman” “he’s wearing one of the official passes”. But Gorki – either made paranoid by nerves about the impending gig, or well-versed in the duplicitous and extensive lengths the Cuban government will go to – has an answer for every reassurance. “they often bring their wives” “anyone could have got one of those passes” “he just looks like the type”.

*          *          *

On stage, bravado – fuelled by adrenaline – has kicked in, and Gorki is his defiant, outspoken self. “Hands up if you’re Cuban” he shouts to the audience. He doesn’t wait for the translator this time; he’s speaking to a fraction of the audience who understands. “Nobody understands? Come on, put your hands up if you’re Cuban” a few shouts of ‘aqui’ ring out weakly from the crowd. “A few then” smiles Gorki, ready for the punch line. “So keep your hand up if you’re a chivatón, because I think there are a few chivatónes Cubanas here today”. He looks around half smiling, half menacing. “aqui, aqui” he mocks in high-pitch squeal.

*          *          *

Maybe the notion of a Cuba identity, either reclaimed or recontextualised is a misnomer for Porno Para Ricardo. Certainly their professed hatred of nationalism; of the notion of superior, autochthonous Cuban culture would tend to suggest that the idea of ‘representing Cuba’ is not something on the band’s agenda?

Yet the paradox is that despite the outright anger at many of the islands less than perfect aspects, ‘Cuba’ is an omnipotent and omniscient force in the band’s work, and will continue to be so for as long as they continue to make music.

Do they conform to Arturo Arango’s depiction of the ‘Cuban artist’ for whom the nation is a “near-pathological obsession” (1997:123), or is the nation an unavoidable foundation upon which their individual identities are build, combined and played out? Certainly they do not ‘perform’ Cubanness in quite the same deliberate and contrived way as, for example, the Buena Vista Social Club may have (see Barker and Taylor, 2007); as a set of predetermined (and ‘timeless’) conventions which must be stringently adhered to. But Cubanness is an integral ingredient to Porno Para Ricardo’s collective identity; it is the stage on which the performance is set, the context which helps make it intelligible.

I think the contribution they most readily make to the ongoing cultural maelstrom surrounding the Cuban identity is their implied description of an overlapping network of individuals constituting a loosely conglomerated collective. United at points by shared aspects of individual identity, this group identity can display vastly different characteristics, and no-one trope (or one person for that matter) can either be defined holistically by it, or be made to stand as the all-encompassing definition of Cubanness. Nor can this ever-fluid map be permanently pinned down; it is destined and designed to melt, meld, reassemble and redefine itself. Many of the examples of identity markers given herein – references to place in lyrics, ‘reterritorialization’ of traditional Cuban music or of rock music – are coterminous, or mutually reinforce one another, but that is the way in which identity is constructed; by the layering and overlapping of concepts, sounds, relationships (between self and others, objects, time etc) to sculpt a complex topography of the self.


Águila, Gorki and Ciro Díaz (2010) Interview with the author. Havana. May 20th

Arango, Arturo (1997) ‘To Write in Cuba, Today’ South Atlantic Quarterly Duke University Press

Bailey, Steve (2003) ‘Faithful or Foolish: The Emergence of the ‘Ironic Cover Album’ and Rock Culture’ Popular Music and Society pp. 141-159

Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor (2007) ‘Faking it: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music’ New York: W.W. Norton and co.

Barthes, Roland (1977) ‘Image, Music, Text’ London: Fontana Press

Baudelaire, Charles (1995) ‘On the Essence of Laughter’ in ‘The Painter of Life and Other Essays’ London: Phaidon (translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne)

Bennett, Andy (2000) ‘Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity and Place’ London: Macmillan

Bhabha, Homi (1994) ‘The Location of Culture’ London and New York: Roudledge

Biddle, Ian (2009) ‘Visitors, or the Political Ontology of Noise’ Radical Musicology 4

Borges, Jorge Luis ([1949] 2004) ‘The Aleph’ in ‘The Aleph and Other Stories’ London: Penguin

Brainard, Joe (1970) ‘I Remember’ New York: Angel Hair

Carfoot, Gavin (2006) ‘Acoustic, Electric and Virtual Noise: The Cultural Identity of the Guitar’ Leonardo Music Journal 16 pp. 35-39

Cohen, Sara (1994) ‘Identity, Place and the ‘Liverpool Sound’’ in Stokes, Martin (ed.) ‘Ethnicity, Identity and Music The Musical Construction of Place’ Oxford: Berg

Cuoma, Alessio and de Nooij, Sander (2008) ¡Cuba Rebeliόn! Column Films

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (1987) ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ (translated by Brian Massumi) Minneaapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Fernandez, Raúl A (1994) ‘The Course of U.S. Cuban Music: Margin and Mainstream’ in ‘Cuban Studies 24’ Santí, Enrico Mario (Ed.) Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press

Fernandes, Sujatha (2003) ‘Fear of a Black Nation: Local Rappers, Transnational Crossings and State Power in Contemporary Cuba’ in ‘Anthropology Quarterly’, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Autumn 2003) pp. 575 – 608 Washington DC: George Washington University Press

García Freyre, Laura (2008) ‘Porno Para Ricardo: Rock, “Analchy” and Transition’ in Changing Cuba/Changing World March 13-15, 2008 New York: City University of New York

Gervais, Matthew and David Sloan Wilson (2005) ‘The Evolution and Function of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach’ in The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Dec. 2005) pp. 395-430

Kapcia, Antoni (2000) ‘Cuba: Island of Dreams’ Oxford and new York: Berg

Kapcia, Antoni (2005) ‘Havana: The Making of Cuban Culture’ Oxford and New York: Berg

Masvidal, Mario (2007) ‘Freemuse Interview, Jan. 2007’: www.freemuse.org/sw16482.asp (accessed 12/10/10)

Maza, Eric (2010) ‘Cuban Punk Rockers Gorki and Gill Used Music to Take on Castro’ Miami New Times, 24/06/10. http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2010-06-24/music/cuban-punk-rockers-gorki-and-gil-used-music-to-take-on-castro/ (accessed 03/03/11)

Medhurst, Andy (1999) ‘What Did I Get? Punk, Memory and Autobiography’ in Roger Sabin (ed.) ‘Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk’ London and New York: Routledge

Moses, Catherine (2000) ‘Real Life in Castro’s Cuba’ Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc.

Movimiento Libertario Cubano (MLC) (2008)  ‘Cuba: interview with Porno Para Ricardo (June 18th)’ http://www.indymediascotland.org/node/10779 (Accessed 18/11/09)

Muecke, D.C. (1969) ‘The Compass of Irony’ London: Methuen

Pacini Hernandez, Deborah (1998) ‘Dancing with the Enemy: Cuban Popular Music, Race, Authenticity and the World Music Landscape’ in ‘Latin American Perspectives’ Issue 100, Vol. 25 No.3 May 1998 pp. 110- 125 London: Sage

Pacini Hernandez, Deborah and Reebee Garofalo (1999) ‘Hip hop in Havana: Rap, Race and National Identity in Contemporary Cuba’ in ‘Journal of Popular Music Studies’ 11/12 (1999/2000) pp. 18 -47 Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Pacini Hernandez and Reebee Garofalo (2004) ‘Between Rock and a Hard Place: Negotiating Rock in Revolutionary Cuba 1960 – 1980’ in ‘Rockin’ Las Américas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America ’ Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Hector Fernández L’Hoeste and Eric Zolov (eds.) Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press

Perez, Louis A (1999) ‘On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality and Culture’ California: University of California Press

Perna, Vincenzo (2005) ‘Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis’ Aldershot: Ashgate

Placák, Petr (2006) “Llegó la hora de llamar las cosas por su nombre” (accessed 12/03/11) http://www.cubaencuentro.com/entrevistas/articulos/llego-la-hora-de-llamar-las-cosas-por-su-nombre-23885

Reynolds, Simon (2004) ‘Noise’ in  Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.) ‘Audio Cultures: Readings in Modern Music’ New York: Continuum

Shank, Barry (1994) ‘Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas’ Hanover: Wesleyan University Press

Shepherd, John (1993) ‘Value and Power in Music: An English Canadian Perspective’ in Blundell, Valda, John Shepherd and Ian Taylor (eds.) ‘Relocating Cultural Studies: Developments in Theory and Research’ London and New York: Routledge

Soja, Edward W. (1996) ‘Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places’ Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell

Stokes, Martin (1994) ‘Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place’ Oxford: Berg

Weinstein, Deena (1998) ‘The History of Rock’s Past Through Rock Covers’ in Herman, A. J.Sloop and T. Swiss (eds.) ‘Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory’ Malden, MA: Blackwell


[1]período especial en el tiempo de paz’ (the special period in times of peace).

[2] Hip hop music also became popular at the same time, and subcultural groups formed around that music also; see Sujatha Fernandes (2003) and Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo (2000)

[3] Although as the conclusion to this work shows, these restrictions on travel are being circumvented by the band; at least in spirit!

[4] Though grammatically incorrect, I find it necessary to discuss ‘the band’ in plural, rather than singular, terms. I intend to use the term, ‘the band’, herein as short hand for ‘the members of the band’ and to refer to the actions/ opinion of the members of the band. The reason for this is to incorporate all four members of the band, as Gorki appears to have been singled out as the band incarnate. This can be seen in interviews ‘with the band’ which patently only include the voice of Gorki. In using the plural, I endeavour to incorporate the voices of the other three band members, particularly guitarist Ciro Diaz, who I believe to be instrumental in the band’s musical ethos.

[5] It is clear that Gorki is talking here about the song ‘El Comandante (El Coma Andante)’ (‘The Walking Coma’). El Comandante is the epithet given to Fidel Castro.

[6] ‘Bremenskie Muzykanty’ (‘Los Musicos De Bremen’ in Spanish) is a twenty-minute re-telling of the Brothers Grimm tale made in the Soviet Union in 1969 and popular in Cuba throughout the 70s and 80s. Alongside many other Soviet cartoons, it occupies a strong nostalgic memory for Cubans of that generation.

[7] As a consequence of Gorki’s incarceration in 2004, the band are forbidden from performing live in Cuba (and via visa restrictions, effectively the rest of the world). Further issues surrounding performance are addressed in the concluding section of this paper.

[8] “Do You Remember When…”. Track 17 on ‘A Mi No Me Gusta…

[9] ‘panes cangrejitos’ (cangrejito being the diminutive form of the word ‘cangrejo’ crab) are crescent shaped bread, often filled with guava jam or cheese.

[10]Parque G’ is a park located on the corner of 23 and G avenues in the Vedado district of Havana.

[11]Black Metal’ is track 16 on ‘Soy Porno, Soy Popular

[12]Frikiar’ is a verb formed from the word ‘friki

[13]Vamanos Pa G’ (‘Let’s Go To G’) is track 20 on ‘Soy Porno, Soy Popular

[14] This relationship and opposition to the friki culture will be discussed in greater depth in the following part.

[15] As is possibly the case on the track ‘chachacha, que malo el basilón’ discussed below.

[16] “Stench of Rats”: Track 6 on ‘A Mi No Me Gusta La Politica…

[17] The ‘Associación Hermanos Saíz’ (AHS) is a government-affiliated organisation that operates effectively as a union for ‘rock’ and alternative musicians in Cuba. Membership is mandatory for those musicians wishing to be considered ‘professional’ and for those seeking gigs, rehearsal space, and any sense of governmental legitimacy (See Garcia-Freyre, 2008).

[18] The Organisation of American States (OAS) or Organisación de Estados Americanos (OEA) in Spanish.

[19] Gorki from the AHS and Puebla, as ‘representative’ of Cuba from the OEA.

[20] Both from the album ‘Rock Para Las Masas…

[21] On the album ‘Soy Porno…

[22] “Down with the exit permit!”

[23] “Down with Fidel Castro!”

[24] “How fantastic, this freedom!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s