“Yo Me Paso De La Rayo”: Porno Para Prague

Man Alone

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 Gorki 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 Cuban money and 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’.

*          *          *

The trip to Prague had, until this cathartic moment of performance, been less that celebratory, it seems, for Gorki and band manager Laura Garcia Freyre. Disappointingly, though unsurprisingly, the three band members permanently based in Havana were denied exit visas by the Cuban authorities[1], forcing Gorki, now living in Mexico, to perform with a “Lithuanian ‘Mantracore’ band from Prague” called Alaverdi[2]. Between intensive rehearsals with the band, Gorki has had to endure the usual barrage of interviews and invitations to denounce the political regime in Cuba.

There is a strain in having to do this alone. The collective identity so intricately constructed, and fiercely defended, through the band’s oeuvre is unpicked by this enforced solo concert; it renders ‘the band’ (that is the unified group, the collective) ‘a man’. Perhaps there is method in the seeming capriciousness of the Cuban authorities’ decision to deny the rest of the band whilst the concert continues; they are making an individual out of a group. I had, on hearing that only Gorki would be able to attend the concert, initially been very disappointed (I still am, and would have loved to have seen the full band perform), and believed that the ‘true identity’ of the band would not (and could not) be fully expressed by a single member alone.

However, then I was reminded of another phantom appearance made by Porno Para Ricardo; that in the 2005 film ‘Habana Blues’. Though the rest of the band appear, rehearsing in a cramped garage with corrugated iron roof, surrounded by friends, Gorki is played by Ismael de Diego. Diego wears Gorki’s infamous ‘hammer and sickle logo’ vest, he plays his hollow bodies Russian guitar, and mimes to Gorki’s voce. But Gorki, who was in jail at the time of filming[3], is not there. Or is he?

*          *          *

The gig has stretched past it’s climactic moment, beginning to dissolve into spent emotion. Gorki is instrumentless, but his band continue on. He introduces them. “Edgar[4] es Ciro. Ciro esta en Cuba, luchando por la liberdad.” There is a delay in response from the crowd as the Czech translator is called into action, struggles to turn on his microphone, and relays the message to the crowd “Ciro is in Cuba, fighting for freedom”. Gorki repeats the same message for bass player and drummer. The Czech musicians are made manifestations of their Cuban counterparts. The Cuban musicians are invoked as currently fighting, as if they were simultaneously engaged in some performance running concurrently and symbiotically with Gorki’s own. The final chords ring out, the bass plays an improvised riff, and Gorki leaves the stage to be replaced by the Czech MC and several impatient, burly roadies (the gig has inevitably run over by quite some time), who begin rapidly dismantling the drum kit.

*          *          *

The above invocation of members not present was an intriguing part of the concert, one that shed some light on my pre-emptive assumptions about the gig. For I was caught between two positions concerning the potential performance of the band’s identity: could the gig be said to be a demonstration of Porno Para Ricardo in absentia, or would the other band members physical presence be required?

On the one hand, I imagined that the band would be ‘present’ without actually being present; that the gig, the message delivered by Gorki, and the billing as a band – as Porno Para Ricardo – would all serve as symbolic invocations of the band; that it is these symbols create the band; that the band themselves are a symbol. Having been confined for the most part to a liminal position within Cuba’s music scene and society more generally, the band have forged an identity through myriad symbols discussed throughout the body of this work; by symbolically performing gigs through their albums, by symbolically representing the ‘home’ in their soundworld, by entering into an authentication loop with certain physical places within Cuba, symbolically tying themselves to Cuban places. As such, the band’s identity exists as this series of interconnected symbols, and by displaying them, the identity is given over to the audience, is recognisable and intelligible.

Perhaps one could even say that the supporting musicians playing with Gorki were as avatars for the band members in Cuba, who, through their simultaneous ‘struggles for liberty’ were ‘controlling’ them; the musicians on stage incapable of making music without the vicarious (even non-musical) actions of their Cuban counterparts. Gorki’s invocation of the absent members makes them further symbols in the network of identity construction; they too are symbolically represented, and so the message and the identity, though warped, is still intact. Just as the band have had to be resourceful in reconfiguring aspects of their identity (turning ‘the album’ into ‘the gig’ for example) perhaps the lack of actual members on stage is another hurdle to performing their identity that the band have had to jump over, that Ciro, Herbert and Renay have had to be reconfigured symbolically, but that this does not lesser their importance, their ‘presence’ as part of the overall identity, and their impact upon the performed identity.

*          *          *

I hand Gorki the fridge magnet and postcard I have just bought for him from the Communism museum. The museum was little more than a ramshackle array of Soviet paraphernalia from the 50s and 60s, most of which would not look out of place in contemporary Cuba, situated above a McDonalds in Prague’s city centre. The fridge magnet shows a friendly look teddy bear holding a Kalashnikov rifle, the postcard is of a Stalin look-alike in a silk smoking jacket, two scantily dressed women draped over him. Gorki turns to his guitar case, rummages about, and turns back wearing a pair of thick-rimmed tortoise shell reading glasses. He studies the fridge magnet for a moment, then smiles. He examines the postcard. “Ño. Que Rico[5]!”

We are sitting in a bar eating soup. Gorki looks exhausted, Laura even more so. Gorki has been recounting some of his anecdotes since last we met; signing albums for lines of geriatric Miami-Cubans (his most numerous ‘fans’ in the US), of meeting Stephen Stills and being told to ‘relax’ (as a command rather than a suggestion) by Jeff Beck’s authoritative security guard. Gorki rubs his face with both hands and takes a sip of Czech beer, and tells us of working in his sister’s restaurant in Xalapa. Though many of these stories are humorous, and Gorki tells them with verve (and plenty of swearing), many begin with “we were tired” or “we had just arrived, carrying all our luggage” and deal with miscommunication, misunderstanding and agitation.

Only when we begin to talk of Cuba does Gorki become truly animated. He swallows the remaining beer and begins to detail the exact specifications of the now completed home recording studio[6]; the vibration-absorbing rubber, the ‘room-within-a-room’ construction, the absolute sound-proofing, the numerous types of wood are all of integral importance to Gorki. He then tells of Ciro’s endeavours to start their proposed record label[7] and of his desire to join him in setting up the label when he returns to Cuba. When I ask him when that may be, he cackles. “Well, that’s a very good question!”

*          *          *

It is clear that having to face the burden of being ‘the band’ on his own weighs heavy upon Gorki. The camaraderie that would turn the above tales of confusion potentially into further examples of ‘us against the world’, as with the band’s derisory treatment of the AHS, is missing in ever increasing instances, as Gorki is forced to represent the band alone in recent trips to the US (promoting ‘El Disco Rojo’) and now in Prague. Though symbolically the identity performed was perhaps ‘complete’ at this gig, I can’t help wondering if there is a danger that the identity of the band is being replaced by, or confused with, the identity of ‘Gorki’; that Gorki is the band for many. Often in interviews, Gorki is the only member of the band asked questions. In the MLC interview quoted throughout this work, his voice is labelled as being ‘PPR’. In the documentary ‘Cuba Rebelión’ (again cited throughout), Gorki is the only member of the band, though all appear to be present, who is given screen time and, apart from the occasional overlapping (brief) interjection from band members, Gorki’s is the only voice heard. This is not an uncommon trait for the lead singer of a band, and even less so with a ‘front man’ as charismatic and outspoken as Gorki. His profile as a former ‘prisoner of conscience[8]’ makes him an easy centrepiece for journalists and fans alike, and with the rest of the band languishing in Havana, unable to travel, he is easily the most prominent member of the band.

The danger of this is in the identity of the group so important to Porno Para Ricardo being replaced by an over-emphasised identity of an individual; a martyr or a dissident, a spokesman or a renegade, but crucially not a band. Politically this is an important distinction because it converts a burgeoning subculture with shared, maybe even ‘naturally occurring’ (or concurrently occurring), ideologies into a manifesto of an individual, to which ‘followers’ ascribe. This is not the case with Porno Para Ricardo, and I think Gorki would be the first to attest to the fact that he is not the ‘leader’ and sole progenitor of this particular brand of ‘anti-Castroism’ (if such an epithet is even applicable) and the thought of being regarded as such would be anathema to him. So to see Gorki presented as Porno Para Ricardo is potentially disconcerting; an embattled, symbolic leader of a struggle, standing defiant alone is, in my opinion, a disingenuous and dangerous portrayal of what the band stand for. I think shades of such a rhetoric was present at this festival performance.

From a musical perspective, damage is potentially done also. For my representing the band as a single person, the musical aspects of the band’s identity can be forgotten, glossed over, or relegated to a secondary position behind their (perceived) political messages. The band become a band of political dissidents, not musicians, or worse; a political dissident. Reading the United Islands promotional pamphlet, though accompanied by a picture of the four members of the band, Gorki is the only member referenced by name as ‘the founder’ of the band. The short paragraph on the band goes on to describe the band as “endowed [by Gorki himself]… with rebelliousness, political and sexual provocation” (United Islands, 2011:7) before describing the band’s “radicalization” on Gorki’s return from prison (his sentence being described in more detail than any aspect of the band’s sound) (ibid.).

Though it is perhaps unrealistic to expect such a brief blurb to contain intricate details of the musical output of the band, I was struck by the fact that there were almost no references the music at all. Whilst the band are described as ‘punk’, and one could suggest the word ‘rebelliousness’ invokes some tenuous musical associations, no other aural description are offered. Contrast this with the (much shorter) paragraph on the previous page for headline artists ‘Audio Bullies’, which contains words such as “electronica and dance”, “ecclecticism”, “…not afraid to spice their house style with hip-hop, punk, or funky” (ibid.:6) as well as offering information ‘Audio Bullies’ band members and albums. Similarly, the following description of ‘Russkaja’ is full of musical language, their sound being described as “far from the lonesome Russian ballads with the balalaika”, referencing “ska lovers”, “mixture of.. East-European folk music, heavy-metal riffs, jazz precision, and Zappa-esque rock improvisations”, further likening the band to “Gogol Bordello… Pink Floyd and Boney M” (ibid.:10). Such descriptions may lead one to moot that perhaps the quality of Porno Para Ricardo’s music was not the predominant factor in booking the band for the festival organisers. Similarly, though the festival made a great deal of the fact that the other members of the band were denied visas to attend, the consternation was almost exclusively with the Cuban government, not with the effect on the gig; there was seemingly no problem with hiring a backing band to fill in in the minds of the organisers[9]

What Others Daren’t

 “a bajo del permisso de salida[10]!”. A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. A laugh from Gorki.

“a bajo de Fidel Castro[11]!”. A pause. A translation. A cheer from the audience. A laugh from Gorki.

“que rico la liberdad[12]!” 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, his face 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’.  

*          *          *

Gorki’s onstage persona is nothing if not confident. He is a showman. His svelte frame darting across the stage; words, aided by vigorous actions, transcending the language barrier between artist and audience. A message of some significance is being relayed to the audience; and a distinct sense of some meaningful happening descends upon the crowd. This is more than just an ageing punk rocker, more than just a political band, more than a vaguely exotic musical juxtaposition – Cuban plus punk – more than just a festival performance. It is identity that is being performed.

But whose identity? Gorki’s? Porno Para Ricardo’s? Cuban rockers’? Cuba’s? The 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 final 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 (using Jorge Luis Borges’ literary device) 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; thus can be all identities, because it requires a viewer to interpret and view 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 question becomes not ‘whose identity is being performed’, but rather ‘who is finding themselves in the performance’?

*          *          *

Walking through the airport in Miami, begins another of Gorki’s anecdotes, he is accosted by a Miami Cuban with sharply defined facial features, and sizable gut. “Gorki, Gorki, you have to come to my place for lunch” the man intimates as Gorki lugs his baggage through another airport. Gorki doesn’t know this new generous assailant. But he’s jet-lagged; maybe he does? Gorki is not committal, trying to brush the request (made as a demand) off in as polite a manner as he can, but the man is insistent. “You have to come to my place” he leans in closer “I have a plan”. The emphasis on this final word draws Gorki nearer, not so much in a desire to collude, but to plumb the depths of this new character’s audaciousness. “what kind of plan?” asks Gorki tiredly. The man, silently draws a thumb across his own neck, then strokes an imaginary beard. The colloquial sign language is understood; a plan to kill Castro. Gorki walks away, another tale of hysteria collected.

*          *          *

That this Miami Cuban would feel compelled to divulge such an intimate plan to a person he had never met speaks quite potently of the ‘type’ of Cubanness that is often thrust upon Porno Para Ricardo – and particularly upon Gorki – by those with a vested interest in authenticating, or legitimising their own radical political position. In the polemicised world of Cuban politics, to have a vocal critic of Castro present upon the island is a useful soundboard for many in the US, and I wonder if the band, irrespective of the value placed in their actual musical endeavours, are used almost as a poster child for the growing dissent towards the ‘crumbling regime’ that is sprouting on the island. The anti-Castro factions in Miami want vitriol, bile, a venomous castigation of all things Revolutionary, and I wonder if this is an identity that is in a sense thrust upon the band from without; that it is accentuated in accounts of the band – and once again particularly of Gorki – as a purely political activist; someone who can justify this diasporic group’s decision to leave their homes, to ‘report back’ of the failings and brutality of the regime, to strengthen and legitimise their ongoing endeavour to ‘kill Castro’, either literally or politically.

Perhaps for Cubans themselves ‘exiled’ from the island, Porno Para Ricardo become an emblem of veracity in the (often unseen) assumption that the Socialist experiment in Cuba irredeemably   moribund? If the band truly are a symbol of some form of contemporary Cuban identity, perhaps those Cubans living outside the island have interpreted that symbol as a justification of their hatred of the governance of their homeland, as a denouncement of all (or many) of the ‘traditional’ signposts of Cuban identity as illegitimate, thus freeing the path to forge a new Cuban identity; to reclaim the Cubanness of their own identity whilst divorced from the physical location.

*          *          *

“This song is called ‘do you know how to fuck a communist?’”. Gorki waits for the translator, laughing at the delayed reaction of the crowd; a hearty cheer goes up. “Well, I don’t need to tell you. The Czechs are experts in fucking communists!” Another delay. An even louder cheer.

*          *          *

In the context of a post-soviet city such as Prague, where much violence, repression and hardship was visited upon the citizens by the crumbling Soviet Regime through the Velvet Revolution, I wonder if there is a similar transference of anti-Communist rhetoric onto the band. Did the organisers, I keep wondering, select Porno Para Ricardo to play exclusively on their musical merits, on their already established notoriety and popularity within the Czech Republic, or because of their (anticipated) political message? Were the organisers hoping for a total denouncement of communism, even when ‘chosen’ by the Cuban people as opposed to being enforced upon them[13], thus serving as evidence of the total ineptitude of a political philosophy which had left a large residual scar on the nation? Are they hoping, as with the lines of old Miami Cubans who queue to get their Porno Para Ricardo CDs signed, for a collective justification from the exterior of the city’s fight against communism and their subsequent embrace of tourism, consumerism, western fashion and culture.

Gorki’s words to the audience might have been a way to foster a connection between performer and audience. It may have been a justification of his own position as headline artist, a way of introducing himself in terms that the audience could relate to. It may have been an acquiescence to this tacit desire for mutual validation of political paths chosen and of identities now chosen. The defiant citizen against a brutal repressive regime and a reflection of a desire for a nation free of communism; performances of a national and an individual identity the Prague audience would relate favourably to.

*          *          *

The four of us – Gorki, Laura, my wife and I – are sitting outside a small tourist bar, watching the trams trundle down the centre of another spectacular archaic avenue in Prague. Gorki has just finished another interview with a Cuban journalist (“self appointed and untrained”) in which the same litany of questions has been rehearsed. We’re each drinking espressos, and I’m supposed to be interviewing Gorki, but by the look on his face its clear it’s the last thing he want to do, with only a few hours to go before the gig.

I tell him I don’t need an interview, that we can just chat, and he looks relieved. He was up until 4am doing interviews yesterday, and has come from a gruelling series of events in the US, which didn’t even contain the succouring respite of playing music.

I ask casually when the band last played together and the black eyes glint again, through sips of coffee. Gorki recounts a story of a hastily arranged guerrilla concert the band attempted to play at a friend’s house in Havana. They kept it secret until a couple of hours before the gig, then went to Park G to hand out flyers to select ‘frikis’. However, on the way to the house, the van in which the four band members were travelling (with all their equipment) was flanked by police cars and forced to the side of the road (“the police in Cuba have all been watching CSI and American police shows, and they think that is the way to deal with situations now”, jokes Gorki with a tinge of bitterness). A secret agent Gorki knows well (he has been present at the last attempted arrest and Gorki’s recent harassment both attempting to enter and leave Cuba), steps out of one of the police vehicles, separates Gorki from the other band members and seizes their equipment. After a long delay, having ensured that the band can no longer play the intended gig, the tension is allowed slowly evaporate, and the band are ‘allowed’ to go… this time. Gorki concludes the story with the recalcitrant maxim that could end many of the stories of heavy-handed treatment at the hands of the Cuban authorities: “it just goes to show that the system must be really insecure if they cause such a fuss over four skinny lads trying to play some rock music at a friend’s house!”

*          *          *

Certainly the band are outspoken critics of the Cuban government. They deliberately and dramatically highlight failings and inequalities in the socialist system, they rally against the bureaucracy and censorship visited upon many of Cuba’s artists, and they parody and ridicule many of Cuba’s ‘sacred cows’; both persons and slogans held in quasi-sacrosanctity. Yet often the band do this in very personal ways; they address the inequalities and hardship experienced personally (and undoubtedly there is a wealth of material to draw upon). Yet this often very personal (individualised even) voice is often contrasted with the notion that the band ‘speak for the people’. In numerous interviews[14] Gorki reasserts the motivation of the band as saying for ordinary Cubans that which they are too afraid to say for themselves. The band position themselves almost as martyrs, perhaps; performing a role where they say the unsayable, voice the taboo on behalf of others. However, the counterweight to such a position is that ‘on behalf of…’ can become ‘at the behest of…’. Perhaps in a sense the band are not performing some kind of holistic defiant Cuban identity, but have myriad oppositional points of view tagged onto them as symbols of opposition by numerous individuals. They become the opposition to whatever the audience wants them to be opposed to. So for the audience in Prague, they are opposed to all forms of communism, and particularly the spectre of the Soviet Union. However, as mentioned in chapter one, the Soviet Union plays something of a recurring role in the band’s songs, and it is not always as the villain. Similarly, for the fat man in Miami airport, Gorki is so vehemently opposed to the erstwhile ‘comandante’ that he would be prepared to collude in murder! To what extent either of these oppositional identities could be said to be indicative of the band’s ‘true’ or personal identity is questionable. Perhaps that is the point of symbolic performance; that it opens itself up to interpretation; that individuals can hang their own significances upon the hooks. Porno Para Ricardo say for others what they dare not say for themselves by saying that they say for other what they daren’t say for themselves. In other words, by opening their own identity out to personal interpretation; the listener is allowed to colour the identity performed with their own ideals and values; the opposition, and thus the ‘self’ is individually defined in a band whose identity, I think above any finite political stance, is an identity of opposition; of existing ‘between’ the trenches of ideology that has forged a political and geographical schism through the notion of Cuban identity; a recalcitrant presence; the other to all others.

*          *          *

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’. When I visited him at his home in Cuba last year, we sat for a moment on the balcony. With the same wistful point, he picked out two men sitting in the park opposite his flat, wearing short sleeved shirts and reading the Granma newspaper. “see those two?” he said with a slight air of resignation infused with the usual defiant mirth “they’re secret police. They follow me everywhere”.

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”.

*          *          *

But to present oneself in this light is not only dangerous, but tiresome. The martyrdom of being the ‘voice of the voiceless’ is clearly weighing heavy on Gorki, and not just because of the incessant repression. Have the lack of opportunities to perform their identity as a band led to a less precisely defined identity for the band themselves?

In a sense, I detect something of a contempt for many aspects of Cuban life; the acquiescence of the ‘rock scene’ with the bureaucracy of the state, the timorousness of many in the face of political repression, the overbearing and simplistic rhetoric emanating from Miami.

Are the band ‘angry’ at Cuba? Are they presenting themselves as Cuban, or is the epithet bound to attach itself to them is they flout ‘conventional’ descriptions of their nation’s cultural identity?

*          *          *

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 Gorki, though the authorities have endeavoured to dissuade him from returning, is adamant that he will return to Cuba and continue to live there. I think 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 possibly externally set) conventions. 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.

Do the band ‘love’ Cuba? No. But it is integral to their existence.

*          *          *

The band play their final song, Gorki jumps from the stage and begins hugging a group of exuberant fans (who have brought their own banners with Porno Para Ricardo lyrics) at the front. He is accosted by the young man who had taken such offence to the previous extolment of capitalism. The young man continued bellowing, wagging a finger at Gorki. Again, I catch the word ‘capitalist’. Suddenly, in a gesture that is half aggressive, half passionate, Gorki grabs the man, slapping both hands around the man’s cheeks and back of neck, cradling his head. Gorki’s eyes are glinting, his face a masked contortion of fear (maybe), resentment (possibly), confusion (certainly; the young man is speaking Czech), and elation (absolutely; the cacophonous cheers are still ringing around the audience, long after the show is over). Gorki draws in near. For a moment, I think he is going to headbutt the young bellowing man. Instead, he plants a firm kiss upon the man’s forehead, and releases him theatrically from his double-handed grasp. The young man walks disconsolately away, plaintively shaking his head again.

With that, Gorki is carried atop a hulking roadie’s shoulders through the crowd towards a scaffolding erected at the back of the crowd, where a photographer is waiting. The whole audience turn their back on the stage and hold aloft the pink cards handed out before the gig. Just in case, the MC on stage throws handfuls more of the pink rectangles over the audience, and the elevated photographer does the same. The photo is impressive (see appendix), and is apparently to be sent to Fidel Castro as a political message.    

Cubanness Performed and Destroyed in an “Amorous Act”  

Gorki is returned to the stage on the shoulders of the roadie. He bathes in applause for a moment, before picking up a new guitar. Slaking towards the microphone, he tells the crowd “this guitar signifies the tyranny [pause for translation] and I’m going to perform an amorous act with her”. The band launch into a rock version of ‘Chan Chan’, the ubiquitous Buena Vista Social Club song; the definition of Cuban music. Gorki manages only one half of a chorus, before adlibbing “ay ay ay, detesto la tyranía” and ripping the guitar off. With a mischievous smile to the audience he bangs the now howling guitar off his crotch before hurling it up in the air. He picks it up and throws the guitar, almost playfully, up once more. The act thus far has an air of joviality about it – of play. Suddenly, on the guitar’s third return to earth, the relationship between guitarist and guitar turns acrimonious. With urgency, Gorki snatches the guitar from the floor and runs to the stage edge. With a mighty swing he smashed the guitar’s body off the corner of the stage. The noise of splintering wood is deep and profound, with overtones of swirling feedback. A rapid second blow, even harder, severs the guitar cable clean and the squeals cut out dead. Another blow. Gorki runs to the other side of the stage and repeats the act; the blows now becoming industrial, workmanlike, bereft of knowing glances to audience, entirely and exclusively engaged in this violent act. On the second blow at this new location, the guitar finally yields and explodes into pieces. Gorki brings the fragmented remains, still clinging together by the guitar strings, into the centre of the stage, the bastardised chords of ‘Chan Chan’ still being repeated over and over my the band. With bear hands he rips the electronics from the body of the guitar, and pummels the remains once more into the floor. A hollow, dead crash rings out, greeted by cheers from the audience. The body of the guitar splinters into mere shards, the neck split sheer in two, wires hang in confused clumps to remaining islands of wood.

Gorki takes this handful of detritus; the remains of an act of total destruction, and holds them out over the audience. A forest of clamouring hands sprouts, eager to subsume these scant remains. Gorki tosses the destroyed guitar carefully into the crowd. A tussle ensues – the guitar’s fractured carcass is even more entirely devoured – and the tumultuous crowd is stilled. Gorki, egged on by this, rushes to the back of the stage, produces a t-shirt with the words “Yo Odio Los Castros[15]” on. He holds it aloft to the audience. The forest of hands re-emerges as Gorki balls up the shirt and hurls it into the crowd. Again, another localised bout of movement where the t-shirt lands, before it is dragged to the depths and claimed by the strongest, most forceful hands. Gorki repeats the act with CDs, with another t-shirt, with anything he can find to throw. ‘Chan Chan’ loops over and over.

*          *          *

“this song is for the frikis back in Cuba!”

 


[1] See United Islands festival news letter.

[2] Description taken from the band’s facebook page.

[3] Apparently, the film’s director contacted the Cuban government to allow Gorki’s temporary release from prison to appear in the film. The request was denied.

[4] The recording I mad is not precisely clear at this moment, but I think he says ‘Edgar’, or at least references the name of Alaverdi guitarist Edgaras Vasilias.

[5] A distinctly Cuban phrase, difficult to translate exactly, meaning “Wow. Fantastic!”

[6] When I visited Gorki in May 2010, he was overseeing the delivery of timber to refurbish the studio, a process he felt sure would attract the attention of, and eventually reprimands from, the ever-watchful authorities.

[7] Again, this was a proposed idea back in May 2010 (see interview).

[8] Accurately speaking, he was incarcerated for drug possession, but many believe this to be a spurious charge, and the punishment politically motivated.

[9] I recognise that there was very little the event organisers could have done. With all promotional material promoting Porno Para Ricardo, replacing the band outright seems to have been impossible, and the use of a backing band was a conciliatory measure.

[10] “Down with the exit permit!”

[11] “Down with Fidel Castro!”

[12] “How fantastic, this freedom!”

[13] I refer here to Ernest Betancourt’s distinction (1991) between “Cuba join[ing] the Soviet Bloc of its own volition” as opposed to “conquer[ed] Eastern Eurpoe”. http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/cb/cuba/asce/cuba1/panel.html

[14] See MLC, Cuba Rebelion, Maza

[15] “I hate the Castros”

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