This paper concerns itself with minutiae, and deliberately so. Whittled down to one part of one band’s repertoire, representing one face of contemporary Cuban music making: The event is the destruction of an electric guitar at concerts in Havana in the early 2000s, the band are Porno Para Ricardo, the genre punk.
That a punk band exists in Cuba is not particularly shocking – as Pacini-Hernandez and Garofalo have noted, “there are dozens, if not hundreds, of rock groups in Cuba, playing every imaginable sub-genre of rock, from grunge to death metal, to punk, each with a devoted fanbase” (2004:65). However, that Porno Para Ricardo continues to exist, despite total censorship in the media, a prison sentence visited upon lead singer Gorki Águila, and persistent monitoring from the authorities, is perhaps of some note.
Yet the conventional binaries that exist in the paradigm of ‘Cuban music’, dichotomising ‘traditional’ and ‘foreign inflected’ musics, are not, I believe, adequate in analysing such a band. For while they may be vehemently opposed to the dogmatic rigidity of the Revolution, they are equally disparaging of so-called ‘friki’ culture in Cuba– which clubs together all participants of alternative rock genres under one rubric. One is left with the nagging questions ‘where do they fit?’ ‘What is their identity?’
Through this micro-ethnographic reading of a single event, I endeavour to illuminate some of the complexity that can be found in attempting to identify facets of identity; the incongruities that a simultaneous attachment to a place and rejection of the politicised ‘official view’ of that same place can incur. I also wish to demonstrate the myriad layers of significance that one may find in even the smallest of acts, and the potential danger of glossing over key meanings in the search for comprehendible definitions of identity.
Destroying a Guitar
In the nascent days of Porno Para Ricardo’s career, when the band were permitted to perform live, Gorki would frequently engage in a quite visceral act of remembrance through ‘auto-destructive performance art’.
Here we see lead singer Gorki– dressed in schoolgirl uniform and heavy work boots (a punk outfit if ever there was one!) – holding aloft a Russian-made guitar to the audience before unceremoniously dropping it to the stage floor. He jumps on the instrument twice with typically dramatic verve, before picking up the already battered guitar and smashing it repeatedly on the floor, perilously close to the faces of the near-silent audience. As the drums pound on unabated and oblivious, the only discernable reaction from the audience comes as Gorki’s back is turned – the act of destruction complete. A topless young man snatches a part of the shattered guitar from off the stage and battles his way quickly through the throng. Was he eager to claim a fragment as memorabilia, or did he recognise a potential use for the discarded components?
A thin description of this act makes quite light reading. A punk smashing a guitar. A vaguely anarchic sentiment, rebellion against… something. A cliché of rock excess. Yet the ‘thicker’ one makes the description, the wider the contextual field becomes, the more meaning one uncovers.
Russianness: A Break From the Past.
In a recent interview, Gorki spoke candidly about his recollections of destroying Russian guitars on stage, and act which seemingly constituted a regular part of the band’s live repertoire:
The most enjoyable parts [of performing live] were the breaking of guitars because we gave a meaning to breaking a guitar – that is the Russian guitar. In rock music you break a guitar with the intention of an exorcism, or as a catharsis, but we gave it a local meaning for our country that is to break with Russian colonialism. (Águila, 2010)
A local meaning that contests both the non-localness of the instrument and the route it took in making its way to the island. A symbolic representation of the Soviet Union can be read into this performance as – night after night – Gorki would make physical not only the destruction of ‘Russia’, but also the inevitable severing of enforced political and essential economic ties between the two nations.
But this act does more than just represent the actual collapse, it converts in into art, makes it personal. Laura Garcia Freyre suggests that “Gorki Águila broke Russian guitars as a way to break with the past” (2008:550) and Gorki’s choice of words in expressing this act – to “break with Russian colonialism” – would tend to bear out such an interpretation. The ‘past’ here represented is both ‘collective’ and ‘individual’; the cultural, political and economic policies, forged through the 60s, 70s and 80s, that ostensibly bound the two nations inextricably (and unequally) together, and also the individual memories of Russian food, electronic products, cars, cartoons, that pepper this generation of Cubans’ memories of youth.
Perhaps one could suggest that the band are disavowing as illegitimate from inception the presence of Russian culture within the Cuban sphere of potential influences. Perhaps the act of destroying a Russian guitar was designed to expunge ‘Russia’ from the band’s collective identity; to render it obsolete, to highlight its perpetual falsehood, to remove it from the melting pot of ‘Cubanía’.
Perhaps. But there is a deeper representation of ‘Russia’ in the band’s work. The band seems to keep returning to images of Russia as an idée fixe; always parodied, it seems, but never forgotten. They sing strangely tender cover versions of theme songs from Russian cartoons, they take the hammer-and-sickle flag as their logo, albeit a shockingly bastardised representation thereof. Their images of Russia speak of ‘remembrance’: if not fondness, then recognition of significance..
Gorki is ‘keeping alive’ the memory of his Russian-tinged past in the act of negating it. I believe that at least part of the vitriol is aimed at the duplicity that sought to ‘write out’ Soviet cultural symbols from certain definitions of Cubanness; symbols that have clearly become – however lamentable and unwanted – an integral point on the band’s cultural map.
As the impending trauma of Soviet collapse was realised, it was seen as salient to reduce to zero (through the policy of ‘zero opción’) imports from the Soviet Union (Betancourt, 1991). However, as the ensuing Special Period unfolded, there appears to have been a move to reduce to nought the cultural legacy of Russia in the Cuban identity. For a generation such as Gorki’s, who grew up with a wealth of Soviet images, to have them removed in adulthood is an indication of duplicity; of a frankly Orwellian rhetoric: these cultural elements ‘never having existed’.
So the band return to Soviet symbols as a reminder, as an aide memoire almost of their collective past. Just as there is an anxiety of ‘loss’ only at the moment of ‘potential capture’; I would suggest that only when that loss is manifest can one feel the need – the importance – of remembering. In the destruction of the Russian guitar, there is preservation. There exists in this example a paradoxical, yet symbiotic, relationship to the Soviet Union; at once despised yet recognised as integral, destroyed yet preserved, ‘alien’ yet ‘personal’.
Zooming out from the national to the global, one can (must) analyse Gorki’s act in relation to rock’s other instances of destruction. From Pete Townshend, to Jimi Hendrix. From The Clash’s infamous album cover London Calling, to Nirvana, smashing a guitar has become the genre’s most nihilistic, most self-indulgent, and often most significant act. To what extent does Gorki’s representation of this act dovetail with these other examples?
Here, I refer to Gavin Carfoot’s work on the socio-cultural identity of the guitar, in which he claims “to smash and burn an instrument is an aggressive and transgressive act: it introduces a chaotic ‘sonic noise’, in addition to a ‘sociocultural noise’, into the aural-cultural landscape” (2006:37). Here then is another layer of significance; the addition of ‘noise’ into ‘music’.
Ian Biddle, in mapping the political ontology of sound, notes that “class, ideology, race and gender are all visitors to this process of naming, of holding apart, and holding in mutually exclusive relations the three territories [of noise, music and silence]” (2009:2). Certainly what constitutes ‘noise’, particularly in a contested space such as the one Porno Para Ricardo are operating in, is clearly an ideological construction; and one that owes its rigidity and conservativism as much to fastidious musical mores as to political beliefs.
As Antoni Kapcia (2005) has suggested, whilst the ‘profession’ of musician holds more credence in Cuba than in many countries, it does so because of its professionalization; to be a Cuban musician, one must attend music school from a young age and be well versed in the ‘traditional’ musics of the nation (and, one could cynically moot, be well versed in the tradition of extolling Cuban culture as both totally autochthonous and demonstrably ‘better’ that any of its imitating neighbours!). As a result, what constitutes ‘music’ in the Cuban context is quite rigidly defined; what constitutes a musician equally so. In both cases, what Porno Para Ricardo do sits distinctly outside the paradigm.
This is something Gorki is both aware of and unashamed of. He speaks of his total lack of musical education, he celebrates the ‘amateur’ DIY aesthetic, and revels in his band’s position ‘outside the system’ – both politically and musically speaking.
Yet the band are still vying for legitimacy in voicing a fragment of Cuban identity, and they are doing so via a concerted effort to ‘re-territorialize’ the social construction of ‘Cuban music’ – the signal – through the enforced addition of an ‘Other’ aesthetic – noise.
This assertion builds on Carfoot’s reading of Deleuzian ‘territorialization’, as he describes the process in musical terms:
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. (2006:37)
Bringing the binary terms ‘music’ and ‘noise’ to the specific Cuban soundscape as ‘traditional, authentic Cuban genres’ and ‘foreign, inauthentic rock’, one can map Carfoot’s re-territorialization of noise/music onto Gorki’s act of destroying the guitar. Part of the protest is toward these rigidly held definitions of what constitutes an authentic Cuban musical identity; definitions which singularly exclude Porno Para Ricardo. Perhaps, one may suggest, they are attempting to ‘open up’ – to re-territorialize – definitions of Cubanness to include themselves, to include rock music, to include any music made in Cuba.
The Wrong Kind of Guitar
There is a caveat to add to the above assertion, one which requires an examination of ‘space’ as theorised by Henri Lefebvre. For I think it would be unrepresentational to characterise Porno Para Ricardo as suggesting Cubanness can ‘be anything the protagonist wants it to be’.
Lefebvre points to the inadequacies of the binarism of physical and mental space (the First and Secondspaces respectively) in his ‘double illusion’. Where the “realistic illusion” overemphasises objectivity and materialism; real, tangible things, the “illusion of transparency” “makes space appear ‘luminous’… open to the free play of human agency… Reality is confined to ‘thought things’ (res cogito) and comprehended entirely through its representations” (Soja:1996:63)
This discourse is analogous to Gorki’s positioning ‘between’ these two spaces; the Firstspace ‘reality’ of an almost tangible Cuban tradition, and the Secondspace ‘imagination’ of those who assert Cuban music is any music made by anyone staking a claim to ‘being Cuban’. In the act of destroying a guitar, as outlined above, there is a contestation at the rigid hegemony of ‘official Cuban identity’, but there is, I believe, also a pointed reproach of this Secondspace mentality as well.
In many of Porno Para Ricardo’s songs (for example, the frankly hilarious ‘Black Metal’, or the world-weary cynicism of ‘Vamos pa’ G’) they are as disparaging towards the so-called ‘friki’ sub-culture as they are towards officialdom. Gorki is quick to point to the inauthenticity of Cuban bands singing in English, of offering “no communication” with their music (Gorki, 2010), or thinking the pose of the rocker is sufficient, without the active and vocal rebelliousness of rock.
I would suggest that in this act of destruction, Gorki is illustrating that ‘the electric guitar’ as symbol in and of itself, is not sufficient; indeed becomes self-defeating and retrogressive when not used ‘in anger’ as it were.
Gavin Carfoot again makes a saliently obvious point when suggesting “musicians often identify very personally with the existing cultural identities of their instrument” (2006:38) and this is certainly true of Gorki, who has written songs where the brand of guitar used is of such importance as to be incorporated into song titles (‘Trova con Ovation’, ‘Trova sin Ovation, con Jaguar’).
The cultural identity of ‘the electric guitar’ for Gorki demands reference to its brand, its quality, the spectrum of sonic possibilities, its playability, for want of a more profound words, it’s ‘coolness’. In further discussing his act of destroying the Russian guitar, Gorki recognised the dearth of these identifying qualities as significant in his destruction:
It was about breaking a Russian guitar that was really bad, almost useless – very bad instruments that the Russians sent down here. Any guitarist that had a Russian guitar suffered. (Águila, 2010)
Finally, I wish to zoom back in to the socio-historical context of post-Special Period Cuba; the epoch in which Gorki would destroy these guitars on stage.
It goes without saying that the Special Period of the 1990s brought traumatic times for all Cubans. A severe lack of food, rolling blackouts, loss of industry on the island, particularly sugar, and, perhaps most traumatic of all, another huge wave of migration across the Straits of Florida. The Balseros took to the waves on home-made rafts cobbled together from any materials available. There have been a number of accounts detailing the cultural trauma of this ‘vintage’, to use Egon Kunz’s (1973) terminology, and there is not space here to revisit them. Sufficed to say, that this exodus, along with the steady stream of migrants leaving the country since has led to a feeling of dislocation among ‘Generación Y’; a feeling of voicelessness, of apathy, impotence, of leaving the country as an advance in life.
Played out in Gorki’s destruction is a violent outburst – the antithesis of this staid apathy – a call to arms maybe? A reflection of the lack of power in the ‘real world’ (i.e. off the stage) of young Cuban? An aimless catharsis (or a catharsis of legion issues). A subversion (inversion) of the make-do-and-mend mentality that pervades Cuban society; an illustration of the lengths to which people will go to mend sub-standard goods. An act of destruction made shocking by the context of nursing obsolete equipment. All this and more is played out in these brief moments of destruction; the more one looks, the more layers of significance one may find, the more concomitant and contradictory facets of individual and collective identity present themselves.
Truly, this small event is a complex skein of significance.
Águila, Gorki (2010) Interview with author. Havana
Betancourt, Ernesto (1991) ‘The Current Economic Situation in Cuba: Panel Discussion’ http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/ca/cuba/asce/cuba1/ accessed 12/12/10
Biddle, Ian (2009) ‘Visitors, or The Political Ontology of Noise’ Radical Musicology, vol. 4
Carfoot, Gavin (2006) ‘Acoustic, Electric and Virtual Noise: The Cultural Identity of the Guitar’ Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 16 pp.35-39
Garcia Freyre, Laura (2008) ‘Porno Para Ricardo: Rock Analchy and Transition’ in Changing Cuba/ Changing World pp. 549-559
Kapcia, Antoni (2005) ‘Havana: The Making of Cuban Culture’ Oxford, New York: Berg
Kunz, Egon (1973) ‘The Refugee in Flight: Kinetic Models of Forms of Displacement’ International Migration Review no.7 pp.125-146
Lefebvre, Henri (1991) ‘The Production of Space’ Oxford: Blackwell
Pacini-Hernandez, Deborah and Garofalo, Reebee (2004) ‘Between Rock and a Hard Place: Negotiating Rock in Revolutionary Cuba 1960-1980’ in Pacini Hernandez, Deborah, Hector Fernandez L’Hoeste and Eric Zolov (eds.) ‘Rockin’ Las Americas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America’ Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press
Soja, Edward (1996) ‘Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places’ Oxford, Blackwell