Interview With Pedro Luis Ferrer: May 2010

TA: the first thing I want to know about is this idea of ‘double Africanness’, which we have spoken about before. What does that mean?

PLF: What happens is that in Cuba, Africanness arrived even before the slaves came. Because it comes with Spain. Spain is not a country of white people as is thought. The Spain that arrived in Cuba is a mixed Spain. A geography dominated by the Moors for seven centuries no less. So the Spain that reaches us is not only that of the Galicians, of the Asturians, the Basque etcetera, but also the Moorish Spain, the Spain of the south, and with Spain arrived the free black man which is the ‘negro curro’; an Andalucian black man that became a free man there; a black man with economic independence and with different ways, that is, when I say that the mixed world comes to Cuba, I mean to say that ‘mestizaje’ [racial mixture] begins practically from the moment that Spanish arrived in Cuba for the first time. Therefore we are double African. It’s not like people think that Spain is a white country, that’s mostly the work of racism of the time and also sometimes out of ignorance. So here in Cuba, North Africa, whose influence comes through Spain, as I said before, meets with the Youroba and Bantu Africa which comes to us through this horrible process of slavery. It is not understood well that our Africanness comes from these two cultural worlds. Thus it is important to start seeing Spain as a source of African culture to be able to understand why certain rhythms, musical instruments and cultural traits are the way they are.

TA: can you give a couple of examples of how double Africanness is found in the music that you write? How is it expressed?

PLF:  it’s a bit difficult to give you examples of that because, for example, an instrument like the laúd [Cuban lute] is said to be Spanish in origin, but they speak of what is Spanish as if it wasn’t African. The laúd comes from the ‘oud’ and the oud is from Arabic origin, which came to Morocco, and came to Spain through Morocco, and thus to Cuba. Instruments that are considered Spanish have their origins in Africa. In the same light, you find the so-called ‘musica campesina’ [countryside music] which at many moments in history has been said to be the music of the whites in Cuba as if there hadn’t been any black people in the countryside or as if mestizaje hadn’t started with Spain. We need to start revising everything in this matter. This doesn’t mean that those elements of the indo-european culture that came to us with the Galicians and the Basque and the Asturians are not present, that’s another culture. But these two cultures [northern and southern Spain] are different when it comes to rhythm. In northern Spain, the so-called Celtic nations – which I think is a bit of an invention – the rhythmic concept is based on ‘amalgama’ [amalgamation] which are irregular time signatures and the music that comes from Africa – either the Yoruba or the Bantu – or the one that came through Spain is a music mostly based in syncopation. These two concepts are completely different. I always say that Galicians perceived the music that was being made in Cuba with that mixture differently because they interpret the syncopation as the strong beat – their musics are danced to like that and made like that. Musicology would also need to explore what happened in Cuba with the dialectics between ‘amalgada’ and syncopation – these two completely different concepts. But I cannot contribute much, because what I try to do is art with those elements and what I say, I say with art – that is trying to make a series of abstractions and put to the fore things that have been left behind or mixing things, taking their origins into account. In this new album, all these things are shown more. I am working with genres such as changüi[1] and others. I don’t do changüi per se, but based on it, I try to give some explanations regarding why changüi is the way it is. I think the more I create songs that take from all these sources, I will be able to explain more about these issues, because it’s still something I am investigating.

TA: how has your music changed through time – I’m thinking particularly about Natural and Rústico[2] and the new album. How has your music changed through these albums and why?

PLF: as I began to get more and more interested in music, and in music from an aesthetic perspective, I am not as interested as I was before in writing songs – I am more interested in making art. Each song used to have, for me, a soul of its own. But now, for me, songs come to fill in those spaces that I need to cover to express my aesthetic vision. When I record an album or when I do a concert or a recital etcetera. I do think my music has been changing from these concerns – from wanting to experiment with these ideas, from taking on seeds of Cuban music genres that I have found throughout the island, seeds that are either forgotten or not given importance, and I ‘redimensiono’ [take to another dimension] them and try to make a music that may at times not even seem Cuban, but I have knowledge that it is part of out culture. My problem is that I don’t have a musicological sense of music. I don’t feel like a scientist, I just feel like an artist. So, whilst a scientist tries to find an objective truth outside of his feelings, I, as an artist do the opposite. For me, the truth is found in the artistic work that I do and the success of my thesis is in my artwork. I sometimes try to fill in gaps that musicology doesn’t fill in for me. So I speculate a lot. I have my own speculations and what I cannot find through scientific investigation, I invent it and recreate it. So, that’s why I speak about some sort of artistic historicity. My vision is not as musicological, although I do work based on some musicological work, but this sometimes seems insufficient to me. I also take from what I find around, from my daily experience of my life in Cuba, so I work with that and I create my artwork, and in the process, I also find musics from other countries that share those seeds. In the end, we are a new country, a country that is still being made, even though it already has ‘cha cha cha’, ‘son’ and ‘mambo’, we still are a new born culture and we will continue growing, and many things will continue being Cuban in history but, for example, you cannot say that danzόn[3] is the national dance when nobody dances danzόn. I have a good relationship with tradition, but with some distance and detachment because I don’t think tradition has to behave like a dictatorship over what I have to do in the present. I also have the right to speculate and imagine things. I have found many seeds throughout the island that take me to cultures that came from abroad. Because in the end this is a country made with men that came from other continents, from millenary cultures. So in that sense I feel that by taking on tradition I am relating more and more with the world. Not only to I intend to experiment with those elements that I find here, but also with others that I find I am in tune with in other cultures, simply because I enjoy them. Sindo Garay[4], for example, wrote his music under the influx of Italian opera which was very popular in Cuba at the time. Take one of Sindo’s songs, such as ‘Perla Marina’, and you sing it in Italian, and it feels like it was an Italian song. So, he drank from those fountains which were of his time, which moved him and he re-elaborated them to make the songs he made, which are amazing – big songs. But again, he took influence from the world. So why if a man like Sindo was capable of taking from the world around him, why don’t I have the same rights? So we have to be very careful because traditions… I think that going deeper into and exploring traditions one can also free oneself of dogma that is born out of the institutionalisation of tradition. There are certain dogmas when people start saying ‘this is like this’, same as with stereotypes, when we say ‘Cubans are like this, Cubans are like that, Cubans are happy’ but Cubans are different in so many ways. Cubans are like Ñico Saquito[5] but also like Jose Marti[6] who never ever laughed. [laugh]. Yeah! Can you think of anything funny that Marti ever wrote in his books? But he’s Cuban as well! In music I simply use elements that are in tune with me, same as with food. Some people like cod, some people like rice, some like beans. Not all Cubans like black beans or pork. So, within this that makes us Cuban, each person chooses what each person likes or finds himself in tune with according to their sensibility. The music I make is, to a large extent, an abstraction of the cultural reality that surrounds me. That’s how I see it.

TA: how is your music perceived in other countries?

PLF: the issue here is that in the world, there is also a preconceived perception of what Cuba is due to commerce – what is commercialised, not only through the Buena vista social club, but also even before the revolution, the companies that traded or exploited Cuban music throughout the world were giving an image of what Cuba was. With the boom of chachacha and mambo etcetera. So there is a preconceived image of what Cuban music is. Later on, with nueva trova as well, with ‘filín[7]’. All these genres and elements integrated into what became the image – the photograph – of what Cuban music is and that has an impact – a weight. When people see me performing, people notice that I approximate that tradition of what Cuban music is, but that I am also step outside of it. So I explain this, and people find it very attractive because also people are bored of the same thing. At least in the stages where I have performed – which are not very big – sometimes they are big – so on those modern stages, you find an audience that is very interested in discovering new music from Cuba. They show interest when I tell them about changüi and this and that. I even tell them that my music is not representative of what traditional changüi is, because I don’t do changüi, I don’t do ‘coro de clave’[8]. Take changüi into account to create music, because my creation comes from there – changüi is not something that I made up. I feel that people see me as someone who is close to that fixed image of what Cuban music is, but also as someone who detaches themselves from it and can step out of it. And also someone who sometimes has nothing to do with that image at all [laugh]. So I find this very interesting. Sometimes I speak about traditions that are unknown within Cuba; local traditions. When I speak about the ‘sones de güiron’. These were things I used to see in Yaguajay[9] when I was a child, I never imagined they would be of any use. Then one day I realised I could do something with them and so you start working with them – they are experiments. Sometimes reconstructing things that you keep safe in your imagination, things that aren’t exactly as you think they are. Because these are things that happened a long time ago, they are fragments of my childhood, so you don’t remember them very well, but they are still in your mind. I saw them, I give them a name and I say that these things are part of a tradition, which is true – I saw them there, I didn’t invent them – but if you go there [Yaguajay] now, they don’t exist anymore. Maybe someone remembers that in the neighbourhood ‘sansaria’ that those Sones used to be played. But they come across as more of a circumstantial experience of the time because although many towns do generate traditions that are artistic in essence, if they are not commercialised or documented – written down – they disappear. If there is not an artist that recreates them, they disappear. So that’s what I do. And I perceive that the audience I relate to knows this, because I tell them as well. Not only do I tell my audience about existing known traditions, but I’m also telling them about things that were traditional in the past and have disappeared – that are almost non-existent. I was lucky to have lived and seen a lot of these lost traditions in Yaguajay thus I have seen in Cuba things that have been circumstantial that afterwards I have gone to find out more about them and they have vanished. That’s why I believe so much in the importance of the artist as a creator or re-creator of these almost lost traditions. As he somehow documents them, albeit from his own, personal vision. Changüi, for example, has been developed a bit more as a dance, but little has been done with it when it comes to song. Returning to your question, I try to say two things to the audiences I work with. One, that I work with traditions – with what I would like traditions to be and with my imagination most of all to make music that is somehow still Cuban but is, at the same time, universal and at the same time that contributes new things to those existing traditions. In that way, I try to be as free as I can. I think the European audiences – which are the audiences I have worked with the most in the last few years – understand this and they assimilate it very well, they enjoy it a lot.

TA: reading academic articles about Cuban music, the one word that keeps appearing Cubanía[10]. And it is used to describe something very narrow – very specific. What does it mean? Is it applicable to the music you make?

PLF: I don’t have a defined sense of what Cubanía is. I think somehow people tend to define me as Cuban because I take influence from certain sources that are historically given in Cuba that I like and that somehow make up my sensibility. I’m going to speak like this because I’m going to try and see if, by talking to myself out loud for the first time about these things, I can come to an approximation about what I think Cubanía is. But there are many things about Cuban culture that I don’t like, things that I don’t identify with. And there are things that I would like to change – to transform. Because behind all these concepts, there is a philosophy and sometimes even some kind of fundamentalism in relation to things such as the national symbols, rituals such as saluting the flag, singing the anthems. Curiously, the national anthem has no Cuban music in it! [sings the opening fanfare of the Cuban anthem] because if only it went [sings the same part, but with syncopation]. Then it becomes a conga. By moving a crotchet, the national anthem becomes a conga! Sometimes, to make things serious in official issues and events, even before the triumph of the revolution, we do things that we do not identify with – things that distance us from our own idiosyncrasies as people. As people we are considered happy, ‘choteadores’ [self-deprecating and mocking of others in a light-hearted way], rumberos [people who dance rumba, natural dancers] and all that. But at the same time, we have a national anthem that is marching music – a war song – which doesn’t register with us, unlike what happens with other African countries whose anthems have the rhythms that they dance to and the songs that they make on a daily basis. So, see what a curious thing, that our national anthem, which is Cuban inasmuch as it identifies our nation, but its music is not Cuban. Its not a son, its not a mambo, its not even representative of any regional rhythmic traditions. Rhythmically, it is a rancid anthem in the most European, old fashioned manner. That’s our national anthem. So there are many things that are considered Cuban and they might be Cuban for some reasons, but not for others, like in this case. Cubanness is also a series of customs; a way of defining ourselves as a people and in that sense it is no different for the same concept would be for England. How would you call it?

TA: Englishness

PLF: I think in the end it’s just a way nations and peoples have to define themselves, to name the characteristics that define their collective selves. Although each conglomerate has a large variety of people in it. Not all English people are the way English people are said to be. That’s why I don’t have a generalised sense of what Cubanness is. I have always had a sense of approximation with this conglomerate, but also a detachment, because within this society, I relate to some and not to others. I am not friends with everyone, not everyone is my friend. I have my affiliates. I have a better idea of what Cubanía is said to be than about what it really is. Sometimes what Cubanía is said to be, I feel as some sort of dictatorship forced upon my way of being and there are many elements within it with which I don’t relate at all; I just don’t identify with some elements. So I try many times to create a new sense of Cubanness for myself. A way of feeling well with those values that I feel an affinity with and somehow to discard those that I don’t. In that sense I can be a Cuban man with a sense of Cubanness with whom part of the Cuban society doesn’t identify, but others do. It’s a risk, but to tell the truth there are not said parameters to define Cubanness. We have influences from all over the world. For example, find a ‘trovador’ [troubadour] that writes songs using elements of ‘amalgama’, irregular tempos etcetera. Kind of Celtic. And then someone tells you ‘that’s not Cuban’ and you say ‘why not, if the Gallicians came here and we are their inheritors as well?’ and then some other musician uses elements of the Arab culture. ‘why not?’ I say if we also come from the Moorish. And when the Batas [African sacred drums] are used, it’s also justified because we come from the Yorouba culture and from the Bantus. So we are a new country and we come from everywhere. The most important thing is that there are certain things that we start to establish as Cuban. Such is the case with chachacha. But there is a musical work, for example, composed by Haydn that if you listen to it, you will notice it is a chachacha. All the basic musical traits of chachacha are found there. But that of course does not mean that he created chachacha. Chachacha as a genre was born here for other reasons. Stop here to see for a moment what’s happening [PLF goes to shout at his dog]. The same thing that happens with Cubanness happens with love. What is love? [shouts at barking dog again]. I tried to sing to this conglomerate. I try to take into account the elements that conglomerate is familiar with and also to suggest other things. So, Cubanness – to conclude this part – is, for me, in a way, a proposal that I make to people so that they identify with what we are and have been, but also so that we are a little bit different. In that sense, it is no different from how this process happens in any culture.

T: moving on to songwriting and specifically your songs – are there any particular cultural aspects to which your music relates. What is the aim of your music?

PLF: that has changed through the years. First I started singing because I liked it. Singing was, when I was younger, a way of getting people to know me – a way of becoming known. What I sang didn’t matter that much. I liked a song, then I didn’t like it anymore. But then you begin to fall in love with art and you start to discover it and you start to feel like an artist. So you start to develop a different relationship with music. At some point I was doing chronicles of my own life, of love. Songs sometimes don’t even attempt to say anything at all – they are simply a kind of roar. Even if you use words and try to put a message across, what the songs were at some earlier stages of my life was not entirely clear to me. It wasn’t clear to me what I wanted to say in them. So, what came out was a roar perhaps, like a lion’s. here’s a story. I saw this woman passing by in ‘la rampa’[11] and there was a man looking at her and he wanted to tell her a ‘piropo’[12], but nothing came out, so all he did was [roars, then laughs]. So my songs in the beginning were a bit like that. Still, these days, one has to return to some earlier stages, in which cases one only feels like roaring and simple express through music. There are many reasons why one sings. Sometimes you indent to communicate, sometimes you want to have an influence in the collective social consciousness and thus create some sort of consensus or simply just participate in the social and political life of the country. I have been through many stages in life, so like I said at an earlier stage, I was very interested in chronicles and mainly the kind of chronicles that try to show contradictions in the official way of thinking. The thinking process of those allegedly in power. So I have used many musical resources, from irony to double meaning because there is no place where you can say everything you want to and also because you have to find the appropriate ways to get into people’s conscience to communicate and say the things which cannot be said openly. Because either people get offended, or… but all those things can also be left behind. With time, I have been refining certain concepts in the sense that, for example, poetry – I am more interested in it as poetry and I am more interested in music as music. The song, in me, as a musical form, is starting to dissolve itself and to disappear. I am still writing songs, but when I want to write good lyrics, I just write a poem. So I am increasingly more interested in music as music. I don’t think there has been a general way of defining my musical work throughout my life. I have gone through many stages. I am not interested in chronicles anymore because before I used to think I understood my reality better – which wasn’t true, I was just more interested in it. I think today I understand it less. I think we are all more confused [laughs]. But within that confusion, one thing is clear to me, and I am increasingly more interesting in making art and to invite people to participate in and to make art make people happier. I think society needs art. Hauser[13] said that art doesn’t say anything to people who don’t ask questions. And many people don’t ask any questions to art, or if they do, they don’t ask the same questions I ask. And there are many people that have been educated in a way that they don’t like the same art that I like. Today this is a moment like any other in my life. I am very focussed on my personal perception, which goes beyond philosophical reasoning and is based on the need to express my feelings, where sometimes words serve a purpose or not. Words are not necessarily needed to express yourself in music, unlike poetry which does need words to be an expressive form.

[1] Changüi is a musical genre from the east of Cuba. It is traditionally considered a ‘countryside’ form. Interestingly, PLF claims to play a ‘more feminine’ style of Changüi, which Ferrer calls ‘Changüisa’.

[2] The two albums Natural and Rústico were released in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

[3] The Danzόn is a ‘Cubanised’ dance form, incorporating elements from European dances and Cuban forms such as the Hanbanera, Danzόn was popular in Cuba from the mid 19th Century.

[4] Sindo Garay is called one of the four greats of Trova (Cuban folk song).

[5] Another Trova composer, famed for his wit and humour.

[6] Jose Marti is a Cuban hero from the independence war with Spain, famed for his seriousness!

[7] ‘filín’ – a Cubanised pronunciation of the English word ‘feeling’ – is a musical genre from 1940s Cuba.

[8] coro de clave is another genre of Cuabn music

[9] Yaguajay is a town in central Cuba


[11] La rampa is a busy high street in central Havana.

[12] piropo – flirtatious complement – similar to a chat-up line

[13] I think he is referencing the art historian Arnold Hauser

‘The Unwaved Flag’: Havana, John Lennon, Ice

"Hola, la"

{I decided to write up this short anecdote from my last trip to Havana in May 2010 now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I re-found a note book I have taken to Cuba, in which were a couple of pages of notes on a little scene that I had found pretty funny, but not really worth pursuing; just a few short sentences and descriptions; “skin like creased, brown leather”, “woman with crimson chest” etc that I later dismissed as a bit silly in the face of having to complete my MA thesis. Secondly, the trip was exactly one year ago. I went to Havana, firstly to visit my wife’s family, but also to interview a couple of musicians, so it seems like a fitting time for reflection.

But most importantly, I have been enthused as to the potential of such seemingly insignificant vignettes by theories I have recently read from Tim Edensor (2002) and Rafael Billig (1995). Both are concerned with the concept and constructions of national identity, yet eschew the more ‘spectacular’ representations and ‘historic’ (histrionic?) moments identified as expressing a national consciousness (a pleasing antidote to the recent royal wedding hysteria) for the everyday; the sites of ‘banal nationalism’ (the title of Billig’s book). Though I don’t agree with certain of Edensor’s assertions – such as the idea that “’traditional’ cultural forms and practices of the nation are… increasingly replaced in their affective power by meanings, images, and activities drawn from popular culture” (20002:12), or that ‘the state’ has little or no control over the production and usage of these popular forms – this idea of the national identity being forged not in ‘evental’ bluster, but in the workings of the everyday is a perceptive one; and a particularly apposite and interesting way of looking at a nation (and national identity) such as Cuba which is steeped in momentous hyperbole and singular moments of creation. The metaphor Billig gives to this unceremonious national identity construction is that of the “unwaved flag of the nation”, as opposed to a flag displayed prominently in overt celebrations (or proclamations) of national identity.

I don’t claim to have uncovered the secret of Cuban identity in this brief little story, but reading Billig and Edensor has reminded me of the salience of recounting these banal moments as they can help illuminate, albeit minutely, a sense of a ‘lived identity’.

Also, I have a nagging feeling I have written this story out in full somewhere else, but I can’t find it!}

*          *          *

All we’d had to do was get a couple of bags of ice and some bread buns for the family party that night. A ten minute job, I was told. Me, my father-in-law Jose and my wife’s cousin, Rafael. However, by the time we had been to four disparate locations – none of which looked like it was likely to have either ice or bread – we found ourselves walking through a desolate expanse of concrete towards a large, non-descript factory in the shadow of two monolithic tower blocks.

I say ‘we found ourselves’, what I mean is ‘I found myself’, for presumably Rafael and Jose knew exactly where they were going and had anticipated this prolonged mission. Despite having visited Havana several times, and even with both Jose and Rafael speaking competent English, (and me knowing slightly more Spanish than previous visits), I still found myself in something of a haze of misunderstandings and confusions most of the time. {I point this out, as does Edensor when recounting an anecdote of his first visit to India, not to promote the image of the intrepid adventurer in an incomprehensible ‘land of the other’, but to highlight how integral a knowledge of the everyday can be to an identity. It is not ‘otherness’ that gives a disconcerting confusion when in a foreign country as much as having to readjust to a different (and often tacit) set of everyday conventions}

Outside the imposing sheet metal gates of the factory – emanating a truly unwelcome wave of heat themselves on top of the still-potent late-afternoon sun – sat the ubiquitous old man ‘keeping guard’. Everywhere I go in Havana, there always seems to be an old man ‘guarding’; at the statue of Jose Martí, at every money-change[1] kiosk, ration card shops, even at fruit-and-veg stalls. These legion old men always have the same set of accoutrements: a faded pale blue guayabera shirt, a small transistor radio, a packet of cigarettes, and a deckchair in varying states of disrepair. They always seem to be pernickety and vocal in asserting some grievance, yet they look as though they would be entirely ineffective were their guardianship ever severely tested. Following a brief exchange between Jose and this old man, presumably concerning the potential presence of ice (or bread) within this factory, he reluctantly rose from his deckchair, the seat of which looked as though it was constructed from plastic washing line threaded back and forth, waddled into the small wooden cabin he was perched in front of, and re-emerged moments later carrying the transistor radio and a large bone and water bowl. He made a theatrical show of turning off the radio, tossing it onto the deckchair, before reaching into the pocket of his shirt, pulling out a filter-less cigarette and unlocking the padlock on the gate.

Bending down out of sight behind the gate, he produced a bright yellow bucket, and proceeded to fill the water bowl which he placed in the now visible factory courtyard behind the gate. He hurled the bone down on the ground, cast us one last ‘this really is an extreme inconvenience to me’ look and waddled out of sight, leaving the gate open.

A worryingly skinny dog languidly wandered into the rhomboid of baking light remaining in the courtyard from the sinking sun. He took a few lazy laps at the water, picked up the bone, and flopped down in the shade.

Time passed. Impossible to know how much. Hours, mere minutes? Longer than it could reasonably have been expected of the ancient guardian to ascertain whether whoever he had gone to consult with had ice or not. I was beginning to wilt. Again. I rested hands on hips, put all my weight onto one leg and jutted out my stomach in a pose that, though the most comfortable in this oppressive heat, was less than flattering. Having gone through the photos from our last trip to Cuba, I seemed to have adopted this as my default stance; I look like a flustered pregnant woman. Jose has usurped the old man’s vacant deckchair, Rafael paces alone the crumbling factory wall, running his hand over the rough surface. He lights a cigarette, turns and walks back towards us, kicking a small lump of concrete that has dislodged itself. I turn to look at the two giant towerblocks, now casting long shadows our way (though not quite reaching us) across the fractured concrete. There is something grandiose and monumental about these twin buildings. But their degradation in alarming; they appear to be slowly dissolving under the Cuban sun. Water pours from a pipe two-thirds of the way up one of the buildings, and a wide green line of moss or mould has established itself along this vertical river. I turn again to look for our ice-bearing guard (it was immediately obvious when the old man had left that he would not be coming back with ice; we were now just waiting for him to get back inevitably empty-handed). Rafael had become quite agitated now, muttering something under his breath. He looked up at me, and with the exasperation of someone who has experienced exactly this sensation an uncountable amount of times, said “Cuba… it’s the perfect place to waste time!”

More time passes. As I begin to forget why exactly we were are here, and what it will take to leave, the old man returns. He begins to voice his lack of success from across the courtyard, so by the time he reaches us, all that is left is a shrug of the shoulders. He falls back into deckchair, shorts hitching up to mid-thigh, and begins to tenderly massage the impressive topography of varicose veins on his calves, wincing slightly. We walk back across the cracked concrete to the car.

*          *          *

John Lennon Park: As Advertised by Ben Elton and Burt Kwouk (Apparently)

Later, Rafael and I are in ‘Parque Lennon’. Jose has gone to a ‘place’ that is guaranteed to have both bread and ice, though it is best if we don’t go with him (for some reason). The park is fairly unremarkable; there are perhaps more people milling around than in other municipal areas. And there is a bronze statue of John Lennon sitting nonchalantly on a park bench. The incongruity of erecting a life-size statue of someone whose music was outright banned for several decades seems to have been glossed over, helped by the solitary fact repeated by everyone in relation to this statue: “his trademark circular-lens glasses keep getting stolen, so they have to have a guard who looks after them”. Now, given that everything in Cuba seems to have a guard, this doesn’t really strike me as odd anymore.

As I approach the statue, a party of tourists (worse: British tourists) pull up to the side of the park in a convoy of polished 1950s Cadillacs, Plymouths and Chevrolets. As their pale legs, red faces and newly acquired straw hats make a beeline for the statue, their drivers congregate around the bonnet of the lead car, all light up cigarettes, and watch this new batch of ‘yumas’ react exactly like the last lot. I wonder to myself if any of these drivers are, like me, thinking “why have they come half way around the world to look at a statue of someone from Liverpool?” But I’m here too. I don’t like seeing tourists in Havana. No. I don’t like being reminded that I am a tourist. My family connections allow me to imagine myself if not as Cuban – that could never be – but at least as something in between ‘Cuban’ and ‘estranjero’. But the familiar accents and patent shared discomfort in the heat drag me back; this is more my everyday.

There is a volley of photographs from the herd of tourists; an unnecessary plethora of snaps. Some of the more curious Cuban children skirting the perimeter of the park, knowing to keep in the shade, begin to amble towards the centre of the square and the newly assembled crowd. One girl on rollerskates glides past a fat English woman in pedal-pushers who has begun to take more ‘arty’ snaps of the rest of the park. “Oh come here again” the fat woman calls, in English. The rollerskater knows, maybe instinctively, what is being asked, and she turns and glides back towards the woman, giggling and striking the perfect pose. The woman smiles, and takes the picture. The rollerskate girl sails away.

I ask Rafael why there is a statue of John Lennon in a park in Havana.

“Because there is an annual festival in Havana to celebrate the music of the Beatles. It has been going for ten years” he replies.

“But weren’t the Beatles banned?” I ask.

A wry smile. “Welcome to Cuba”.

Just as the volley of photographs has begun to dry up, and the tourists are checking pamphlets to see what the next destination on their nickel tour is, the fabled John-Lennon-glasses-guard makes himself known. An old, bothered looking man with skin like creased brown leather pulls himself up from a small wooden stool underneath a tree and hobbles towards the statue, pushing his way unceremoniously through the throng. He reaches into the inside pocket of a faded waistcoat and pulls out the bronze glasses. He shows them quickly and efficiently to the crowd, and, equally unceremoniously, shoves them onto the statues face. He takes a step back, and makes an exaggerated (and to my mind patronisingly overemphasised) mime of taking a photograph, then thrusts a gnarled finger towards the newly bespectacled statue.

“Oh look, he’s got glasses now” a woman with crimson chest exclaims delightedly. Another round of photos. (“This was him without glasses” [next photo] “then this was him with glasses”.) The guard stood patiently to one side. When he had determined enough time ‘with glasses’ had passed, he once more bustled through the crowd, snatched back the glasses and hobbled back to the shade of his chair. The tourists, now sweating profusely (I was actually past the point of sweating now: saturated) took this as a definitive sign that their time with John Lennon was over, and they sauntered back to the convoy of Cadillacs, Plymouths and Chevrolets. On cue, Jose returned carrying some five large bags of ice and two carrier bags full of bread; obviously this clandestine new location had come up with the goods! We piled back into the car, and went back to join the party.

[1] These kiosks are more than just a bureau de change for foreign currency. They are also where Cubans go to convert between the national Peso and dollar-equivalent ‘cuco’ monies.

“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”.

[14] See MLC, Cuba Rebelion, Maza

[15] “I hate the Castros”

Destruction as Remembrance: A Cuban Punk Identity Played Out

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’.

[Play Video]

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’.

Electric Guitar

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)

In Cuba

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’ 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


“Y en eso Llego…”: Porno Para Ricardo

It is precisely into the gaps ‘between’ Cuba’s slabs of history that Porno Para Ricardo reside. In the tumult of the Special Period, lead singer and founder Gorki Águila Carrasco[1] would listen (with some chagrin) to the mimetism of Cuban heavy metal bands singing in English; before that he had pored over Led Zepplin records and absorbed the ubiquitous radio boleros. In 1999, as the immediacy of the Special Period had died down somewhat, Gorki endeavoured to form his own band; one that would not compromise in delivering their message, one that would endeavour to say what others are thinking[2]. The result was the highly controversial punk band Porno Para Ricardo.

The band’s first album (‘Rock Para Las Masas… Cárnicas[3]) garnered some begrudging notoriety and limited exposure from the Cuban media. The band performed on the alternative music show ‘Cuerda Viva’ in 2002 and occupied a position certainly not of acceptance , but certainly not of the outright censure that has dogged the band in recent  years. They were perhaps not taken seriously – not even considered ‘proper musicians’ by the conservatory trained musician who occupy even the popular music realm in Cuba (see Kapcia, 2005:198). However, the band’s history contains within it something of its own ‘event’; a trauma that produced a sea change in identity for the band. In 2003 Porno Para Ricardo played at a rock festival in the islands most Westerly province, Pinar del Rio. Following their performance, Gorki claims to have been approached by a woman insisting on buying drugs from him. The exact details of the encounter are spurious, and to even attempt to describe them here would be to pledge an allegiance too assertively, and to enter into the murky world of political activism[4]. Sufficed to say that the upshot was that Gorki was arrested for drug possession and intent to supply; a charge that he vehemently denies, and which he asserts was a deliberate case of police entrapment due to heavy-handed governmental attempts to censor an increasingly popular counterculture figure (Maza, 2010). Gorki was sentenced to four years in jail. He served two under desperate conditions[5], and it is no surprise that such treatment imbued Gorki, and the band, with a fierce sense of injustice and a need to vociferously voice their opinion.

Yet on release from prison, Gorki found that the punishment visited upon him was far from over. The band were stripped of their membership to the ‘Asociación Hermanos Saíz’ (AHS[6]) and as such are effectively banned from all live performance; both directly in Cuba, and indirectly outside of Cuba through visa restrictions. The band, and particularly Gorki, endure constant harassment and monitoring from the authorities, making even the most mundane bending of stringent regulations (a de rigueur part of the Cuban everyday) an unnecessary chore. The band’s CDs – two simultaneously (self) released in 2006 (‘Soy Porno, Soy Popular’ and ‘A Mí No Me Gusta La Políticas Pero Yo Le Gusta a Ella, Compañeros’) and one in 2008 (‘El Diso Rojo’) – are unavailable for purchase within Cuba[7]. It goes almost without saying that their music receives absolutely no airplay on any of Cuba’s media outlets. The band are essentially forced not to exist in any aspect “within the Revolution”, showing Castro’s emblematic maxim at its most potent and pugnacious: “within the Revolution, everything; against it, nothing[8]”. The band have existed for most of their career in the hinterland of Cuba’s music scene and, tarnished with the black mark of being ‘dissidents’, they have been similarly marginalised within Cuban society.

That they do still exist is telling. Despite this wilful campaign to silence the band, they have continued to make noise from the sidelines. Though they are not well heard, they are certainly well known, both within Cuba and outside. However, perhaps because of the imbalance between the notoriety of the band and the comparative lack of exposure to their music, Porno Para Ricardo have tended to be discussed in political, rather than musical, discourses surrounding Cuba. They have come to occupy a position as the “most censored band on the island” (Cuba Rebelión, 2009) often describes as “dissidents” (cf. MLC interview 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. Their lyrics openly ridiculing and castigating the anachronisms of the Revolution and calling out, “by name and surname” (Gorki, in Petr Placák, 2006), those responsible are pored over; the continued police harassment visited upon Gorki is constantly and diligently reported. Gorki is celebrated as a face of in-island rebellion when visiting the US. Yet in all these reports, in all these documents and all these ‘fans’, the music is often ‘left out’ of the story; forgotten in the towering waves of indignation (on both sides of this fifty-year-old political schism) that engulf so much of what is Cuban.

This work, aside from anything else, attempts to write the music back into the story of Porno Para Ricardo. It attempts to demonstrate the identity they construct for themselves through music, and only then does it suggest the ramifications such identity constructions may have politically and socially in addressing the state of contemporary Cubanness.

Rather than ‘choosing sides’ in the polemicising rhetoric of Cuban politics that thrives on assumingly nontraversable binaries, Porno Para Ricardo exist (deliberately) somewhere between these spaces; they are an apposite example of the Cuban identity that exists in the cracks between narratives; the would-be silenced and would-be (anti)Revolutionaries that are never either entirely, but never quite neither, at every turn seem to confound and contradict. While the band’s criticisms of Fidel Castro and the lingering dogmatism, bureaucracy and persecution of the Revolutionary government are as overt as they are well documented, much less studies is the band’s penchant for remembrance of childhood and constant commentary on life in Cuba which reveals some warmth, and certainly a deeply profound attachment to, the nation. Though sonically they set themselves up as a punk band, there is a running critique throughout their oeuvre of this generation of Cubans who defined themselves by recourse to US rock music; the so-called friki[9] culture, which Gorki claims “offered no communication” (Gorki, 2010). Similarly, lying almost ‘beneath the surface’ of a brash and brazen punk soundworld, are the subtle (and not always so) inflections of Cuban tradition; though the band may lambast the political institutions that claim them as a “banner of patriotism” (Masvidal, 2008), it seems negating the musics themselves comes a little less easily.  

These enforced definitions outline Porno Para Ricardo as something of an ‘Other’ to all others; a cavalcade of binary-defying contradictions. Opposed to both the lingering dogmatism, censorship and persecution of the Revolutionary government but, crucially, rife with a cynicism towards the ‘frikis’, who Porno Para Ricardo see as having adopted the pose of rock music, without necessarily ‘understanding it’. The band are[10] deeply confrontational, critical of nationalism, Revolutionary rhetoric and inaction among the populace, yet somehow strangely nostalgic and adamant in their right to claim themselves if not as ‘authentic Cuban musicians’ then certainly as ‘authentically Cuban’. They demonstrate if not ‘pride’ in place, then at least a recognition of its importance in their music. Though they play punk, a genre not known for its remembrances of the past (see Pinkus, 1996) they engage in much memory work. In all, the band present a contradictory set of binaries – insisting on positioning themselves often in a liminal space between (or outside) each set.  It is the analysis of these contradictions that may help illuminate some of the complexities surrounding individual identity construction of the band members, their smaller ‘subcultural’ network, their identities within Cuban music, and the wider concept of ‘Cubanness’ more generally.    

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’, this thesis seeks to flip perspective in presenting the band as one potential site of synecdoche for Cubanness; as a model for dissecting and understanding some of the myriad composite themes of the complex and often contradictory whole. 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, 1971:189)

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 secrert 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), I will illuminate the ways in which the faces of Cubanness are expressed through Porno Para Ricardo. From microethnographic readings of single songs, moments, ‘events’ in the band’s career; to a more holistic look at themes, style, ethos and reception; from the minutiae of the ‘everyday’ Cuban experience, to the wider socio-political and historical framework in which the band operate, I aim to pull out some of the themes that permeate and contest the space of Cubanness as it exists in contemporary Cuban music making, asserting that it is a much more complex, complicated and confused space than either the Firstspace of ‘tradition’ or Secondspace of ‘creation’ give it credit for.

The terms ‘Firstspace’, ‘Secondspace’ and, most prominently, ‘Thirdspace’ are critical in understanding any contestation with hegemony, and for this work, Edward Soja’s definitions prove most useful. Soja describes the malleable ‘trialectic’ between these three thus:

Thirdspace… can be described as a creative recombination and extension, one that builds upon a Firstspace perspective that is focussed on the “real” material world and a Secondspace perspective that interprets this reality through “imagined” representations of spatiality. (Soja, 1996:6)

If, for a moment, we allow ourselves to present the hegemonic ‘narrow’ definition of Cubanness as the (imagined, projected) Firstspace of Cuban identity; how things ‘really’ are, and take the Special Period ‘archipielagoism’ Kapcia invoked as something of a Secondspace; where one could imagine for oneself an individualised and individualistic Cubanness, then Porno Para Ricardo’s identity is truly a Thirdspace Cubanness; one that engages with both these spaces, yet seeks to transcend them, to ridicule their isolating dialogue, yet seeks to embellish and embrace both into a trialectic that is always in search of more, is always in search of more accurate description, and is always looking deliberately for the tangents, gaps and omissions from either of these self-contained first two spaces.

Soja defines such a praxis as “Thirding as Othering”, a process that can “open up our spatial imaginaries to ways of thinking and acting politically that respond to all binarisms, to any attempt to confine thought and political action to only two alternatives, by interjecting an-Other set of choices” (ibid.:5). Porno Para Ricardo address and negotiating a litany of politically conceived binaries – ‘Miami and Havana’, ‘capitalism and socialism’, ‘before and after the Revolution’, ‘within and outside the Revolution’, ‘before and after the Special Period’, ‘within and outside Cuba’ ‘tradition and innovation’, ‘the countryside and the city’, ‘gusanos y revolucionarios’, ‘patria o muerte[11]’ – that dog Cuban society and politics. Yet they approach the similar raft of binaries that exist musically[12] – ‘authentic and inauthentic’, ‘traditional and non-traditional’, ‘autochthonous and borrowed’, ‘bolero, rumba, son and hip hop, rock, timba, ‘within and outside the music industry’, ‘for Cubans and for tourists’, ‘trained musician and self-taught’, ‘authentic musical template and authentic self-expression’ – in much the same way; by attempting to find ‘an-Other’ option.     Ultimately, what constitutes Cubanness, both contemporaneously and historically, is an often winding, tangential path; its identity exists in the gaps between narratives, in the overlapping, liminal areas of competing and contrasting definitions. What Porno Para Ricardo offer is a portrait of Cuba that is often hard to fathom, precisely because – as the Aleph – it contains within it fragments of many different Cubannesses. It is a Thirdspace reclamation of Cubanness; one that always seeks to add, to parody, to reject and to recontextualise, elements of itself.

*          *          *

The main body of this work will focus upon examining how a number of facets central to the notion of Cubanness outlined above have been addressed by Porno Para Ricardo, and how their representation of these elements may afford speculation on their pertinence to a contemporary construction of Cuban identity. In keeping with the assertion above that the band’s music be brought to the forefront of discussion, I will divide the main body into three main parts which correlate to three central aspects of musicianship: lyrics, genre and soundworld. A fourth part – presented here as a conclusion – will address a further integral aspect of identity presentation in popular music; that of performance. Under ‘conventional circumstances’, this topic would require (demand) its own discrete chapter. However, for a band who are singularly forbidden from performing live, this particular avenue of identity construction and dissemination has been compromised. In this conclusion I will address a rare performance that took place in the summer of 2011 in Prague, which will focus on the ways in which the identity construction ruminated in the three earlier parts of the thesis were presented to an audience, and the mediation of the message that this inevitable entailed.

The three parts of this work will further be divided into two chapters each. Part one (chapters one and two) focuses upon memory and remembrance as represented in lyrics, and the referencing of certain ‘authentic’ geographical places. Part two (chapters three and four) will examine the direct appropriations of generic material from Cuban tradition and US rock sources, and the relationships the band have with subcultural scenes in Havana. Part three (chapters five and six) will examine the paramusical aspects of the band’s recordings, focussing on examples of laughter found in recordings, and the use of ‘noise’ more generally in those recordings. In each chapter, I use musical case studies to assess how Porno Para Ricardo represents aspects of Cubanness, and how those expressions may illuminate the (process of) construction of so-called ‘orthodox’ expressions of Cubanness. I suggest that Porno Para Ricardo often do not seek to negate or deny the presence of ‘authentic Cuban traits’, nor are they unconcerned with the Cubanness of their identity. Rather, they subvert, invert, or make overt, many of the tacitly held ‘authentic Cuban elements’ in a manner that allows, or even forces, one to question the often tacitly-formed and ostensibly ubiquitous markers of authentic Cuban identity.

[1] The following, though not direct quotes, details Gorki’s own words in an interview that will be heavily cited throughout the work, and can be found in full in the appendix (Gorki, 2010).

[2] Again this assertion is taken from an interview (MLC, 2008), though not a direct quote.

[3] The title of this record is somewhat difficult to translate, owing to the double meaning of the word ‘masas’ – ‘masses’ and ‘meat’ in English. Thus the album title is something like ‘Rock for the Masses/Meat… Carnivores’

[4] There are copious articles which plough this exact furrow on the freemuse website here:

[5] Again another source is invoked in this description, one which will be referred to more explicitly throughout the work; the documentary film ‘Cuba Rebelión’ (2009)

[6] The AHS is the government-funded agency to which musicians must belong to be afforded rehearsal space and concerts (Garcia-Freyre, 2008:556). The band’s contestation with the agency is discussed in chapters 4 and 5.

[7] The band also released an EP containing selected tracks from their first album with Mexican record label Discos Antídotos. This EP is only available in Mexico.

[8] The phrase was part of one of Castro’s speeches in the early days of the Revolution – 1961 – at Havana’s Biblioteca Nacional. Nick Miroff (2010) addressed the pertinence of this enduring legacy of Castro here:

[9] The term friki is a Hispanic rendering of the English word ‘freaky’. In Cuba it pertains to a conglomeration of broadly alternative (rock inflected) musics as an umbrella term to define members of many otherwise disparate sub-cultures. Punks, goths, metal-heads and hippies (such as these terms are applicable in Cuba) may all fall under this broad rubric.

[10] 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.

[11]Patria o Muerte” – “Fatherland or Death” – is one of the typically bombastic political slogans to be found on billboards around Cuba.

[12] The distinction between musical and political binaries is perhaps something of a false dichotomy. This musical set certainly owe their construction to political (and Political) doctrines.

The Special Period: An Evental Moment, and a Splintered Island

The 'camello' bus has become a symbol for the various crises of the Special Period

It was Cuba’s links with the ‘Colossus to the East’[1] that was to herald the end of this epoch of fixedness, and herald a new era in Cuba’s history. Much of the discourse surrounding Cuban studies focuses on apportioning the island’s history into distinct epochs, and in doing so tends to focus primarily upon the Revolution of 1959 as the beginning of a ‘new chapter’. However, a second significant temporal dichotomy arose with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ‘período especial en el tiempo de paz’ (‘the Special Period in times of peace’, or ‘Special Period’ in colloquial Cuban discourse) was a time of near-famine, scarcity in all consumer goods, economic collapse and tremendous social upheaval beginning in the very late 1980s, and continuing in earnest throughout at least the first half of the 1990s. The traumatic upheaval devastated Cuba, rupturing established frameworks and impacting upon every aspect of Cuban life, from the most quotidian acts to the most profound level of identity. Louis A. Perez Jr. sums up the significance of the Special Period when writing it:

will no doubt be remembered as one of those temporal divides by which people experience the momentous transitions of a historical epoch. The período especial has served to demarcate the life of a generation, to persist hereafter as the reference point by which people often make those profoundly personal distinctions about their lives as ‘before’ and ‘after’. (Perez, 2006:xi)

The Special Period impacted not only the Cuban populace, but also the highest echelons of the Cuban government. The vast political, social and economic upheavals forced the hand of an increasingly desperate and reactionary government. “Ideological rigidity yielded to pragmatic improvisations” (Perez, 2006:303) as previous sacred cows of Cuban political ideology were torn asunder in radical contingency plans that questioned the socialist rigidity of the political landscape, and thus certain tenets of this tightly defined Cuban identity (see Perez, 2006, Betancourt, 1991), forcing Castro himself to concede:

Today we cannot speak of the pure, ideal, perfect socialism of which we dream because life forces us into concessions (Castro speech, 26th July 1993, in Perez, 2006:305)

The result was the desire, perhaps even the need, for a new narrative of Cuban identity, one which could help make sense of the traumatic changes the island was experiencing. As Berg points out:

The rapid changes in the economy and social structure made the socialist narrative appear inadequate to many Cubans. It no longer held the appeal it used to, its explanatory powers in the present diminished… As Edward Bruner argues, new narratives emerge “when there is a new reality to be explained, when the social arrangements are so different that the old narrative no longer seems adequate” (Bruner, 1986:181-2) (Berg, 2005:133)

The Special Period, for many Cubans, made the old narrative of what constituted Cuban identity insufficient. In this sense I would argue the Special Period can be seen as constituting an ‘event’ in Badiouian terms, “compelling the subject[s] to invent a new way of being” (Badiou, 2001:42), one that perhaps bookends that other Cuban ‘event’; the Revolution of 1959[2]. By highlighting the lack of fidelity in the ‘old event’, and exacting “traumatogenic change” (Sztompka, 2004) upon all aspects of Cuban life, the Special Period forced Cubans to adapt in ingenious, often illegal, and occasionally drastic ways to survive, but also forced many Cubans to redefine their relationship with, and the identity of, their nation.

However, as well as being defined as a more proactive ‘event’, the Special Period was certainly traumatic, with all the debilitating and destabilising issues that such a term carries with it. Kai Erikson’s assertion that “’trauma’ has to be understood as resulting from a constellation of life experiences as well as from a discrete happening, from a persisting condition as well as from an acute event” (1995:184, emphasis original) provides an apposite model for understanding the grinding hardship of scarcity of almost all goods, punctuated by individual crises in the guise of political repression or familial exodus that constituted the Special Period. In a more abstract manner, the trauma of a severely shaken confidence in the established identity of a nation loomed. The Special Period, splintered the homogenous definition of ‘authentic’ Cubanness as both the notion of national unity, and the fervent ideological rigidity of the Revolution began to disintegrate.

If concessions and traumatic events led to the necessity to re-narrated both Cuba’s history and identity, then one demonstrable avenue in which this ‘new Cubanness’ found expression was through a shift in both the listening and playing habits of Cuban musicians. As Vincenzo Perna attests in his work on ‘timba’ music[3], “the fall of the Soviet Union had unleashed in Cuba changes that have created a totally new social and musical environment” (2005:2). There was a noticeable rise in popularity (or at least a rise in prominence) of foreign musics as heard, but crucially, as played in Cuba (Sujatha Fernandes, 2003 and 2006). While there has perennially been a ‘foreign’ (notably United States) presence influencing Cuban music (Perez, 1999), by the mid-90s foreign musics began to be understood and co-opted as distinct ‘genres’. This move towards distinct genres understood in their entirely contrasts with previous manifestations of American music in Cuba which were, as Pacini-Hernandez and Garofalo state “fragmentary… and highly de-contextualised” (1999:19). Hip-hop and various sub-genres of ‘rock’ music (punk, heavy metal, thrash metal) began to rapidly mushroom in popularity[4] (Sujatha Fernandes, 2003, Pacini-Hernandez and Garofalo, 1999 and 2004). New genres of music which staked a claim at being authentic interpretations of contemporary Cuba also began to emerge. Perna suggests that ‘timba’ began to incorporate “issues of race, class and gender that rarely surface in official discourses” into the narrative of Cuban society (2005:3), whilst musicians in other genres (such as Pedro Luis Ferrer) ‘revived’ “forgotten” genres from Cuba’s rich heritage to provide social commentary and thinly-veiled social criticism.

However, alongside these radical reinterpretations of Cuban music and identity, there came a distinctly nostalgic reimagining of a golden past, indicated most overtly (and most popularly) by the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ project. Cuba simultaneously reverted to the quasi-colonial image of itself; one at least partially defined from without (Perez, 1999) in an attempt to coax and reconfirm the benign, hedonistic stereotype of Cubanness to the huge influx of tourists now propping up the beleaguered Cuban economy. Finally, and with yet another wave – perhaps the most condensed – of migrants, the perennial boundary-made-geographical of Cuban identity – the Straits of Florida – was called into question. Not only Miami, but the very act of crossing that liminal oceanic space itself began to be written into the narrative of Cuban identity. The Special Period made that act of crossing part of Cuban identity; one which every Cuban had at least some personal knowledge of.

However, although many have sought to emphasise the fractures, temporal and cultural, that occurred as a result of this traumatic time, others have begun to tease out the social and political threads that weave their way through the supposed clean breaks. Antoni Kapcia highlights the apparent paradox, and the necessity, of speaking of continuity in change when addressing Cuba’s history:

To talk of continuity, in the context of an apparently ever-changing Revolution, is inevitably to invite surprise among lay observers, used to seeing the process portrayed as a zigzag trajectory… the ‘history by phases’ approach has also been tempting because it becomes easier to explain the contradictions that have characterized the whole process by categorising periods, hegemonies and directions. (2000:221)

Kapcia further notes that most significant of socio-political continuity of the Special Period: that it “proved not to be the end of the [Revolutionary] system but its nadir” (2005:180). Despite the trauma of the Special Period, Castro, and the Revolution, remained a central tenet of the Cuban identity, in discourse within and outside Cuba. Perhaps then a more moderate approach to the Special Period is required; one that treats it with the eventual magnitude it clearly had (and still has) in the national psyche, but also searches for the continued facets of this ‘narrow’ definition of Cuban identity. So, as Stephen Fay assesses Cuban identity through a framework “where the schism between antes and después is softened and the frontier between dentro and fuera becomes blurred.[5]”, I aim here to treat of the Special Period with a similarly liminal approach; between, or perhaps simultaneously, a schism and a continuum to blur the boundary between antes and después (before and after). Cuban identity was not rewritten, but reinterpreted in the confusion of the Special Period. In the following section, I address some of these points of contestation and the way in which they impacted upon and renegotiated the above described version of Cuban identity, concluding by addressing the state of Cuban identity at the moment – the beginning of a new millennium – that Porno Para Ricardo formed.

Traumatogenic change: The Negation of an Ally

Although the Special Period is officially the name given to the series of contingency plans drawn up by the Revolutionary government, in colloquial discourse, the name evokes more immediately a force (or more precisely a removal of a force) from without; the withdrawal of economic and political support, and the eventual collapse of, the Soviet Union. The Special Period was, in many senses, done unto Cuba. The disintegration of one of the two world superpowers, fulfilled the four criteria of Piotr Sztompka’s definition of “traumatogenic change” (2004) in a number of locations around the world:

The traumatogenic change seems to exhibit four traits. First, it is characterised by specific speed. The obvious case is that the change is sudden and rapid, occurring within a span of time relatively short for a given kind of process… The second trait of traumatogenic change has to do with its scope. It is usually wide, comprehensive, either in that it touches many aspects of life – be it social or personal life – or that it affects many actors and many actions…

Third, traumatogenic change is marked by specific context, particularly substance, either in the sense that it is radical, deep, fundamental – that is, it touches the core aspects of social life or personal fate – or that it affects universal experience…

The fourth feature… has to do with the specific mental frame with which it is encountered by the people. It is faced with an unbelieving mood; it is at least to some extent unexpected, surprising, precisely “shocking” in the literal sense of the word (2004:158-9).

These four elements – sudden, comprehensive, radical and shocking – sum up a Cuban experience whereby its sole link to global discourse and trade – the one pipeline through the US blockade – was rapidly and irrecoverably severed. Yet, where Soviet collapse may have been a celebrated form of traumatogenic change in many of the bloc countries of Eastern Eurpoe – that is, fulfilling the four characteristics laid down by Sztompka, but met in broadly positive terms – the trauma in Cuba took on a unique nuance, as Ernesto Betancourt notes:

We must remember that Cuba joined the Soviet Bloc of its own volition. The Soviet Army did not conquer Cuba as it did conquer Eastern Europe. Therefore, the analogy being advanced that the collapse of Communism there is a predictor of what may happen in Cuba is spurious. Nationalism is not working against Communism in Cuba, quite to the contrary nationalism works in Castro’s favour. (1991)

As a result, the eventual collapse of the U.S.S.R. was met in Cuba by a confusing concoction of nationalist fervour which sought to reassert the previous omniscience the Cuban government had covered itself in, and often previously unthinkable concessions, made out of a basic need to survive, which led inevitably to the questioning of the rigidity and ubiquity of Castro’s government, (indeed, of Castro himself).

Though the economic and political changes wrought by the removal (and disappearance) of this world-power ally were profound, as traumatic were the cultural ramifications. For Cuba’s relationship, and identification, with the vast reams of imported Soviet culture was suddenly severed. What had been an ubiquitous cultural marker for a whole generation of Cubans, was suddenly, in adulthood, expunged not only from the contemporary landscape, but an effort was made to ‘forget’ this slice of Cuba’s history. ‘Russia’ was a clear and present influence and referent within Cuba throughout the 1970s, not only politically, but culturally. Soviet cartoons were a staple of Cuban television, as were Russian lessons in school. Though these factors may seem facile in the face of vast economic subsidies and staunchly defiant ideological alliance against the United States, they were significant for the generation of children who would reach adulthood during the Special Period, and as such must be considered a (potential) constituent part of a national Cuban identity. Soviet culture became a branch of Cuban culture for this generation; ‘Bolek and Lolek[6] are as nostalgic a memory for Cubans as they are for Eastern Europeans of the same generation.

However, even before the Iron Curtain was fully torn down, Castro was already seeking to distance the country from its former patron. As Ernesto Betnacourt notes, “Castro foresaw the present [i.e. 1991] situation in the Soviet Union. In his speech on July 26, 1989, Castro predicted that, as a result of the trends there, the Soviet Union could eventually disintegrate.” (1991). Thus began the policy of “the “Zero Option”, which [sought] to adjust consumption to a level of zero Soviet supplies” (ibid.) which ran parallel to the increasing crisis of the Special Period. As well as economic reduction, the policy, either deliberately or vicariously, endeavoured to excise cultural imports and the place ‘Russianness’ had within the Cuban identity; denying its legitimacy as a fragment of an identity on the island. It is true that, despite the proliferation of Moskovich and Lada cars still traversing the potholed roads, seldom can any reference to Russia or its legacy be found within Cuba. Culturally speaking, the Soviet Union was ‘written out’ of governmentally defined ‘authentic’ Cuban identity. This is more than just a matter of ‘moving on’ from a now defunct past; there seems to be a deliberate move to disallow this thread of Cuban identity. It existed only as a tacit palimpsest; written over, rubbed out, or, in Orwellian terms ‘never having existed’.

This is one aspect of the Cuban identity that was not (could not be) recontextualised, reinterpreted or renegotiated in the eventual tumult of the Special Period. There was no chance of doing so, as the cultural marker itself – the Soviet Union – ceased to be. So, while Castro it seems had foreseen such traumatogentic change in the policy of ‘Zero Option’, the Cuban populace were not quite so prepared, and the excision, the denial, and enforced illegitimacy of what had been a significant remembrance of childhood for many Cubans, was a culturally traumatic experience. Jeffrey Alexander writes specifically of cultural trauma, suggesting it occurs:

When members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways (2004:1)

Not wishing to overstate the impact of the denial as authentically Cuban of this singular facet of childhood remembrance, it is perhaps indicative of a broader series of cultural traumas experienced in the Special Period. Indeed it is worth remembering that Soviet culture in many of its imported guises were not selectively and actively ‘chosen’ by Cubans[7]; they were in many senses ‘enforced’ upon them as more of a political by-product. However, once engrained into remembrance, to have them suddenly removed – forcefully in the present, and surreptitiously from the past – could represent something of a cultural trauma, most notably as the ability to reclaim and recontextualise these cultural elements was denied. Unlike the other aspects of Cuban identity renegotiated throughout the Special Period, notions of ‘Russianness’, it would appear, lay dormant and silent.

Los Hijos de Guillermo Tell”: Social Commentary and Political Critique

As the crisis in all aspects of Cuban life increased throughout the early 90s, the “pure, ideal perfect socialism” Fidel Castro claimed was the Revolution (in Perez, 2006:305) had been necessarily compromised by the often drastic concessions enforced upon it, leading to the previously omnipotent vision of the Castro regime being questioned. Although the role of musicians as cultural and political commentators was apparent in Cuba before this period – Carlos Puebla’s acerbic pro-Revolution (and anti-United States) songs a case in point – unlike previous generations engaged in political music, the subject of criticism for this new vanguard of Special Period musicians was not overseas – it was not the ‘foreign goliath’ but much closer to home. The Cuban government itself was called into question, as was the tacit assumption, held since the 1960s, that the ‘Cuban way’ (significantly a singular way), both culturally and politically, was the ‘right way’, or the only way. The fact that Cuba now “found itself virtually alone and isolated, with few political friends” (Perez, ibid:292) made some question the previously unquestionable. Nowhere is this better demonstrated musically than in Carlos Varela’s ‘Guillermo Tell’ from the 1989 album Jalisco Park.

The song ‘Guillermo Tell’ is well known and well loved among many in Cuba. It provides an example of protest against the ageing government; a regime that young Cubans had experienced nothing but throughout their lives. Whilst the lyrics to the song may be poetic, couched in metaphor and allegory, listening to the live version of this song[8] shatters the illusion that these lyrics are a personal, hidden protests. The song itself is superficially about the tale of William Tell and his desire to shoot an apple from the head of his son. However, Varela adds a potent twist to this familiar tale. At the climactic middle point of the song, Varela sings, with a buttoned-down calm that belies the significance and anger of the words:

Y se asustó cuando dijo el pequeño, 

Ahora le toca al padre la manzana en la cabeza

And it surprised him [William Tell] when the little one said,

“Now it’s time for the father to put the apple on his head”

The subtextual message is clear; it is time for the overbearing ‘father’ (read either Fidel Castro, or the wider regime) to step aside and let the younger generation assume the reins of power. Such a message, even one so disguised in metaphor would have been hard to imagine at the beginning of the 1980s, and it was in no small part due to the questioned omnipotence of the government that this message found its way into a Cuban dialogue.

What is so important about this case study is that even though the lyrics of this song are couched in allegory – nothing overtly critical is said of the regime – there is an implied message delivered to the audience that is well understood; the veil of metaphor here is all but transparent. Also of note is the strong and irrefutable personal voice utilised here; the synergy of speaker and message; this is Carlos Varela’s song, his message, his critique. There is no attempt made here to obfuscate the singer. Perhaps this trope is indicative of a paradigm shift in Cuban musical practice, one in which singers themselves ceased the (enforced) self-censorship many theorists have noted exists in Cuba:

[band leader Giraldo Piloto suggests] that, in Cuba, singing a ‘problematic’ song in public, in theory, is not forbidden. What happens, rather, is that the media, by banning specific songs and marginalising certain artists on the airwaves, pressurize musicians into self-censorship. (Perna, 2005:92)

Artists found that in many instances [in the Quinquenio Gris] they could no longer voice their true opinions; as a result they began to censor themselves, avoiding controversial issues and choosing ‘safer’ subjects in order to avoid scrutiny. (Robin Moore, 2003:17-8)

Catherine Moses makes the same point of Cuban society in general, evoking the authoritarian omniscience the government purported to have, and suggesting that this trope of self-censorship is indicative of Cuban society in general, not just its music:

The Castro regime effectively uses blackmail to create fear and keep people from acting against the regime. If there is something that the state can take from an individual – a professional opportunity, a child’s position in a good school, permission to leave the country, a dollar earning job – it has power over that person. It is to that power that Cubans succumb. (Moses, 2000:18-9)

However, what Carlos Varela’s song shows is a negation of this self-censorship, a radical alignment of singer and song, and an unabashed, albeit poetic and thus ostensibly ambiguous, social critique of the stagnation and rigidity of Cuba’s political regime.

The power of the message is certainly not lost upon the audience in this live recording. Indeed, in many respects, the potency of the message is increased by the reaction and en masse singing of the assembled audience. As the above quoted line is delivered by Varela, there is an eerie, almost spectral, surge of noise from the crowd. Some whistle, others sing, others shout the lyrics back to Varela, still others simply scream, as if unable to voice coherently their emotion. This collective voicing of accord and outpouring of emotion dies down as quickly as it begins. It sounds hesitant, yet uncontrollable, as if the sentiment had been on the tip of the audience’s collective tongue, yet never voiced. As soon as it emerged, it is checked, self-regulated and suppressed in fear of retaliation from some unseen force, indicative perhaps of the lingering self-censorship at this early stage of the Special Period.

So the Special Period witnessed something of a negation of the self-censorship implicitly imposed by the omnipotence of the state, and led to more overtly critical social commentaries in song. These commentaries were often voiced by single figures, who asserted that these were personal opinions and refused to shy away from their “true opinions” (Moore, 2003:17). It is a trait that lends further evidence to the notion of reinterpreting and renegotiating the notion of Cuban identity; one that took its cues from established tropes of Cuban identity, and renovated them to speak of Special Period Cuban society.

“Like Smoke Under a Door”: Tourism, Balseros and Musical Dissemination”

One mechanism facilitating this bricolage of global cultural sources was the opening up of channels of musical dissemination within Cuba. Although foreign musics had permeated the relocated iron curtain of blockade and political recalcitrance in Cuba’s post-Revolution-pre-special-period epoch, as many commentators have noted, these foreign sources were often “fragmentary, intermittent, and highly decontextualised” (Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, 1999:19) and often considered ‘problematic’, or even as “enemy propaganda” by officialdom (Moses, 2000:14). However, these rivulets of cultural information, described by Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo as akin to “smoke seeming under a closed door” (2004:44) were to expand rapidly in the Special Period; swept up on the tide of human movements that both traumatised the nation and effectively saved the economy. For the Special Period saw mass human/cultural influx as well as exodus. As Cubans left in their droves, so tourists flooded in.

Those Who Came: Tourism

The cessation of Soviet subsidised trade to and from Cuba in the Special Period left a chasm in the Cuban economy that the government needed to fill. One of the central elements Castro opted for was tourism. Opening Cuba up as a tourist resort (albeit one still denied to US citizens[9]) and promoting joint ventures with international businesses to construct luxury hotels provided much needed revenue. “Foreign tourists were to become Cuba’s principle source of foreign currency” (Gott, 2004:290) throughout the Special Period, and Louis Perez provides some interesting figures that demonstrate the rapid increase in tourism, numbers rocketing “from 350,000 in 1990 to more than 500,000 in 1992, and 620,000 in 1994 to 740,000 in 1995” (Perez, 2006:309).

However, the terms under which these tourists came to the island were more problematic. With their much needed investment came a new wealth of problems for the Cuban government. As Richard Gott notes, “the economic policy makers… wanted and ‘isolated enclave of foreign investment and tourism’ that would provide the hard currency needed to maintain the social structure without changes” (Gott, 2004:290). It was the intention of the Cuban government to keep tourists and Cubans as separate as possible, keeping tourists within the luxury resorts and exclusive hotels, whilst keeping Cubans out. “Virtually all Cubans were denied access to most dollar tourist hotels” (Perez, 2006:309), a theme picked up by Pedro Luis Ferrer in the song ‘100% Cubano’. Although recent changes to the country’s law now permits Cubans to stay in many of these hotels, this amendment was only passed in 2008 by Raul Castro[10]. Cubans still have to pay the extortionate (relative to national salaries) rates to stay at these hotels, meaning that, in reality, one is still unlikely to see Cubans staying in these hotels. The movements of tourists are similarly restricted by bureaucracy when visiting Cuba. Tourists need to apply, at the Cuban consulate, for a specific visa (at additional cost) to visit a Cuban house for example.

Yet, as Richard Gott details, this philosophy of inviting tourism but attempting to keep tourists and Cubans apart was “soon revealed to be wishful thinking” (2004, p.290). As many Cubans took (relatively) lucrative jobs working in tourist resorts, and with tourists desiring to visit ‘the authentic Cuba’, it proved impossible to prevent contact between these two groups. And the “arrival of many tens of thousands of foreign visitors during a time of economic crisis served to set in relief the sharp contrast between deteriorating national standards and affluent tourists” (Perez, 2006:309). Thus it could be argued that this influx of wealthy tourists demonstrated, particularly to young Cubans who had not seen first-hand the benefits of the nascent years of Revolutionary society, the sharp relief between their lives of austerity and others’ lives of luxury. Jaime Suchlichi suggest as much in noting that “foreign remittances and tourism have accentuated the differences in society between those with dollars and those without, and have increased racial tensions, since most dollars are received by Cuba’s white population.” (2000:58). This disparity in dollar acquisition may have also contributed to the recognition of racism still endemic in Cuba, and to the reaffirmation of a separate, ‘black’, identity in the Special Period, as noted above. That this contributed to a feeling of resentment towards the Cuban government is undeniable and is, in part, a cause of the surge of critical music aimed at the government that the Special Period heralded.

However, I would like to posit yet another critical influence that came from this influx of tourist to the island. For with them, these tourists brought their own culture, their own music and, in many cases, fuelled by the desire to experience foreign culture on the part of the Cubans they met, tourists were instrumental in helping to disseminate foreign music across Cuba. Tourism increased the wealth of foreign musics available on the island, and helped to facilitate the dissemination of that music. As one example, the Cuban singer/songwriter Mariley Reinoso Olivera[11] spoke of her experiences of the ‘cultural tourist’ groups who would visit her university and of her experiences of working as a hotel entertainer in the Special Period. She remembers that these groups of tourists:

On special cultural tours, tourists would come into our university classes and talk to us for a while and give us books and CDs. Then you would make friends with them, many came back the next year and you could ask them to bring you certain music. That’s how I heard ‘The Cranberries’ and many, many rock bands (2010)

Perhaps the ‘gifts’ of CDs and other cultural items helped to piece together the otherwise “fragmentary” shards of foreign cultures that made their way into the island. These tourist-brought CDs would become the raw materials around which mix tapes and, later, burnt CDs were forged and passed around friendship groups, cementing smaller-group identities with common musical networks. Speculatively speaking (as much more research on this period of covert musical dissemination is needed), whilst the knowledge of ‘traditional’ Cuban musical material was almost inescapably ubiquitous, searching out and ‘knowing’ these foreign imports became an active process; one garnering prestige[12].

Those Who Left: Emigration

The cultural flow was not only one way in the Special Period, as yet another vast wave of migration – the so-called ‘balseros’ (‘rafters’) – left Cuba in droves throughout the Special Period: “467 in 1990, 2,203 in 1991, 2,548 in 1992, and 3,656 in 1993” (Gott, 2004:299). The vast numbers of Cubans leaving the island – some 17,000 by the end of August 1994 (Maria Cristina Garcia, 1996:79)- were traumatic enough, as traumatic certainly as the two other incidences of mass migration Richard Gott suggests are the first ‘two exoduses[13]’ in Cuba’s post-Revolution history; 1965 and the 1980 Mariel boat life. But to compound the trauma was the apparent acquiescence of the Cuban government in allowing this new “vintage” (to use Silvia Pedraza-Bailey’s adoption of Egon Kunz’s 1973 term) of migrants to leave. Amid seething discontent and riots in Havana, Castro effectively gave free reign to his dissenters to leave unhindered, as Richard Gott writes:

In the wake of the August riot Castro declared that his government would now officially relax its migration controls. Anyone who wished to leave would be allowed to do so… Hundreds flocked to the island shores, to embark of boats and rafts. (Gott, 2004:299)

The result was a devastating haemorrhaging of population that compounded the effects of the earlier Mariel exodus in driving Cuba’s younger generations from the island. It was a process that touched every family in Cuba in some manner. The exodus ceased “on September 9, [when] the [Cuban and United States] governments reached an agreement: the U.S. would accept a minimum of twenty thousand new immigrants each year… and in turn the Cuban government agreed to restrict illegal emigration. (García, 1996:80), but by that time, another of Cuba’s young generations had been dealt a severe blow to its physical location and sense of collective identity.

However, this ‘vintage’ of refugees arguably differed from its forbears – certainly from the politically motivated emigration of the 1960s (Pedraza-Bailey, 1985). For this instance of physical relocation didn’t demand as necessary the relinquishing of a claim to some form of ‘Cuban’ identity, as previous bouts of migration tended to. In the immediate aftermath of Revolution, those that left the island were, according to Pedraza-Bailey, predominantly those from the “upper and upper middle class” in Cuba (ibid.:9), to whom the Revolution was abhorrent. Pedraza-Bailey speaks of these first two moments of mass emigration from Cuba as “distinct refugee “vintages”, alike only in their final rejection of Cuba” (ibid.:4). In these vintages of ‘exiles’, Cuba existed only in a pre-Revolutionary nostalgic haze, becoming more nostalgic (and more hazy) as time passed. The contemporary Cuba was wiped from the collective memory, becoming only an epoch removed, which would have to be waited out until the nation, and thus its place within their identity, could be reclaimed. Such omissions from collective memory and identity are lamented by Ricardo Pau-Llosa:

Nowhere is the death of this once great nation [“precatastrophe Cuba”] more painfully evident that when talking to young Cuban Americans in Miami, the so-called capital de exilio. These children of exile seemed to have received little or no information about Cuba from their parents. Typically Cuban Americans have no idea who key figures in Cuban history and culture were… Cuban American ignorance of Cuba mirrors that of North Americans, for whom Cuban history began with the communist takeover in 1959… Like their North American counterparts, Cuban Americans latch onto talk about the embargo – regardless of the position they take on the issue – as an unconscious way of announcing that they know nothing (else) about Cuba. (Ricardo Pau-Llosa, in O’Reilly Herrera, 2001:221)

In these previous moments of refugee/ exile/ emigration, there is a distinct motif of severing all ties – geographical, and ideological – with Cuba, expressed by the writer Herberto Padilla as both a physical dislocation, but also by being physically dislocated, one’s identity being necessarily compromised and confused:

When I arrived in New York March 17, 1980, I knew that I would be separated from Cuba forever. I no longer hoped that there would be substantial or immediate change. (Heberto Padilla, in O’Reilly Herrera, 2001:211)

In my opinion, exile is one of the biggest catastrophes of any age; however, it is worse for writers. You are disconnected for your natural environment or milieu and from your native tongue, and thus you are never the same again. (ibid.:213)

Yet heralded by the dramatic events of the Mariel, the Special Period emigrations saw a distinctly different ‘vintage’ of emigrant. They were, by and large, younger, less politically ‘pushed’ from Cuba and more, Pedraza-Bailey argues, economically ‘pulled’ to the US. Talking of these later vintages, Pedraza-Bailey asserts that:

“increasingly, the emigration ceases to be a political act and becomes an economic act” (Amaro and Portes, 1972:13). Although de jure the new immigrants were considered political immigrants, Amaro and Portes affirm that de facto they increasingly came to resemble “the classic immigrant”. (Pedraza_Bailey, 1985:17)

Also salient in the 1980s immigrants is their youth. Most of the immigrants were young male adults, single or heads of families who left their wives and children behind. (ibid.:26)

These trends continued in 1994, with younger generations of Cubans seeking economic opportunities in the US. Such narratives abound in the poignant documentary ‘Balseros’ (Bosch and  Domènech, 2002) in which the rafters themselves, though clearly frustrated by the social inequality and hardship in Cuba, tend to be more economically motivated that politically. This, of course is something of a false dichotomy; as has been seen throughout this work, all manner of social and economic practises in Cuba are at some level controlled and facilitated by the Revolution, thus legitimate complaints about economic hardship necessarily are vicarious critiques of Revolutionary policy. However, I would tend to argue that unlike the distinctly political migration immediately following the Revolution, the Special Period balseros demonstrated less umbrage with the Revolutionary usurpation of Cuban identity, and more with individual economic circumstances. Certainly they felt that their innate Cuban identity would not be compromised by leaving the island; ‘left behind’ by the process of emigration. Thus once in the US, their vision of Cuba, and the place it perhaps played in their newly contextualised identity was significantly different from these older vintages. Pedraza-Bailey again provides apposite evidence for such an assertion, suggesting both a rift in the Cuban-American community based around generational and ideological differences in approach to Cuba:

Among other splits, such as social class and wave of migration, the Cuban community [in Miami] is certainly cleft by age, by generation… This gap represents more than [a generational gap]; it is the difference between political generations (Pedraza-Bailey, 1985:21)

and also differences in the remembrances of Cuba:

The early refugees’ nostalgia attached them to the Cuba they knew, that was. The Mariel refugees’ is for the Cuba that is. (Pedraza-Bailey, 1985:29)

These assertions would tend to suggest that there was less of an inclination to relinquish the Cuban aspects of identity upon reaching the US; that links not only of communication but also of identity stretched more easily across the Straits of Florida for this Special Period vintage. As a result, perhaps Special Period conceptions of the physical space of Cuba began to expand. Those who left were no longer written off as dissidents, gusanos, and, by virtue of their emigration, ‘non-Cuban’. Perhaps nationality as part of identity travelled with this vintage of Cubans in more applicable and pragmatic terms than it had before? ‘Cuba’ was the Cuban people, wherever they moved to.

The geographical expansion of the space of Cuban identity could be one of the composite factors in the globalising rhetoric seen in the above discussion of timba and hip hop. If autochthonous, isolated musical materials were seen as something of an obsolete concept, and the boundaries between local and global influences were deliberately being blurred in these new Cuban genres, then perhaps this wave of migration, though traumatic socially, provided a much-needed expansion of geographical and cultural horizons, without compromising the authenticity of the notion of Cuban music.

Of course this influx of Cubans to the US provided more than just an ideological expansion of musical horizons. Again, to reference Pedraza-Bailey, this new vintage was predominantly young, and it takes little conceptual leap to suggest that their knowledge of “the Cuba that is” would wish to translate to the “US that is”, and that this newly acquired cultural knowledge would be shared with friends and family via gifts sent ‘home’. Evidence for the importance of this avenue of musical dissemination is anecdotal – referenced in passing by Vincenzo Perna (2005) and Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo (2004) in their respective account of timba and Cuban hip hop – but the significance of ‘mix-tape’ culture; musics received through familial channels from the US[14] and then passed around friendship groups, is unquestionable. Such routes of musical dissemination question the imagery of ‘smoke under a door’ as voiced by Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, and throw up some fascinating questions about the renegotiation (and bypassing) of the conventional roles of musical and cultural ‘gatekeepers’, the establishing of channels of swapping potentially ‘problematic’ musical material, and the significance these new musical channels had in shaping the sound of ‘Cuban’ music. It is an area which requires discrete study, as it may shed much further light on the contestations, renegotiations and continuums of Cuban identity in this fractious period.

An ‘Archipelago of Individualism’? The Splintering and Re-coagulation of the ‘Cuban Voice’

The traumas and travails of the Special Period forced Cubans to redefine notions of Cuban identity on every level – from the grand, over-arching narratives of history, culture and politics, to the minutia of everyday life, to even the geographical boundaries of the nation. In concluding, I present the theory of Antoni Kapcia that in the Special Period, the notion of a unified Cuban voice; representative of the populace both spatially and temporally, with tendrils of authentic Cubanness reaching both through time and unifying space, was irrevocably fractured in the Special Period. “Cuban culture [became] ‘un archipiélago’ of individualism” (2005:191), claims Kapcia, in addition to which I would suggest that Cuban identity became a similar archipiélago; stemming from many of the same sources, but distinctly and individually defined and possibly even isolated from one another. Many commentators, Kapcia included (2000, 2005), have noted that participation in overt displays of national community diminished dramatically in the Special Period, and as Jaime Suchlichi notes, Cuban identity retreated back to the individual, familial scale (if ever it had existed in national(istic) terms):

Introduced by Castro in the 1960s, this concept [of the “new Cuban man”] called for a change in the values and attitudes of most Cubans. Allegiances would be transferred from the family to the party and the fatherland. The influence of the church would be eliminated. Devotion to the cause of communism would prevail. Man would consciously labour for the welfare of society, and the collective would supersede the individual one. (2000:78-9)

However, as has been demonstrated in this account of Cuban identity in the Special Period, many of these supposedly obsolete markers of identity were reclaimed and reused in a time of ideological and identity crisis; religion, the family and the needs of the individual were all facets of the Special Period, outweighing for many the rhetoric of socialism, the nation and the collective. “After forty years of education and indoctrination, the “new man” is nowhere to be found” claims Suchlichi (ibid.:57). Of course this is in part due to the very apparent economic and social crises of the Special Period which made scarcity an ever-present concern, and physically separated families. But in part, it represents a move away from the rigidified, collective definitions of Cubanness to more individually constructed definitions. Truly an archipiélago of ‘multiple Cubannesses’.

This retreat into individualism and fragmentation of the national voice, led Vázquez Montalbán to describe an environment in which “the newest Cuban art and literature ignore and sense of identification with the Revolution” (1998:359-360). Cuban art, it seems, ceased to show fidelity to the ‘event’ of the Revolution and national terms, and began to couch itself in the familial, the small-scale, the ‘everyday’ (removed from socialist idealisation), notions of hybridity and change, and the deeply personal. So in this traumatic era of uncertainty, mass exodus and fundamental changes to previously unchangeable signifiers of Cubanness, Arturo Arango’s assertion that Cuban ‘artists’ “have opted for [exile] far less than other sectors [of society]” (1997:122) takes on an added significance[15]. If Cuban culture had become individualistic, yet notions of Cubanness were still a central concern, then one must assume that there was a fundamental shift in what was seen as constituting ‘Cubanness’, at least in the world of the arts. In place of a singular ‘authentic Cubanness’ were smaller, distinct ‘authentic Cubannesses’, tentative steps towards subcultures even[16], which took their authenticity from the Cubanness of the individuals within them rather than some spurious historical lineage. Jennifer Hernández, keyboard player in heavy metal band ‘Escape’ perhaps sums up this sentiment best in the documentary ‘Cuba Rebelión’ (2009): “the media don’t pay attention to us, but they have to realise, the music we make is Cuban music too”.

In addressing the above quote, it is necessary to examine the ‘space’ that is being contested. For here we see played out a ‘Secondspace’ Cubanness, as theorised by Henri Lefebvre; a Cubanness that is “primarily produced through discursively devised representations of space, through the spatial working of the mind. In its purest form, Secondspace is entirely ideational, made up of projections into the empirical world from conceived or imagined geographies” (Edward Soja, 1996:78-9); a Cubanness that can sound however the individual imagined it to sound. As opposed to the previously (ostensibly) ubiquitous ‘Cubanness’ that encapsulated ‘all that is Cuban’ into ‘one voice’ (a ‘Firstspace Cubanness’, again to use Lefebvre’s definitions), the ‘Secondspace Cubanness’ that many musicians in the genres of rock, hip hop and timba of the Special Period imagined was individually defined and deliberately personal. More accurately, a series of Secondspaces were imagined, each one different, each one an island in the chain of Kapcia’s archipelago. Yet, paradoxically, accompanying the negotiation of multiple ‘Secondspace Cubanness’ in music, a return to a ‘Firstspace’, authentic ‘traditional’ Cuban music emerged. Spearheaded by the global popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club[17] and engorged by the mass influx of tourists, who brought with them their own perceptions of and desires for Cubanness, Cuban music began to be re-imagined in concession to these tourist perceptions (Barker and Taylor, 2007). The romantic image of 1950s Cadillacs and Buicks avoiding ocean spray on the pot-holed Malecón was recreated for this tourist market. With it, an ‘exotic other’ and a musical form to fit were re-imagined. Where many musicians were reconstructing their cultural identities to incorporate foreign musics, co-opting them to reflect a contemporary Cuba, the renewed pressure of tourist perception, and Cuba’s place within the world music circuit began to reshape a retro(gressive) Cuban identity that coincided with its own ideals. This Firstspace reimagining of Cubanness may have only represented one of the many Secondspace archipelagos – one of the potential definitions of Cuban cultural identity now – but it was certainly the most dominant on a global scale.

As the new millennium approached, and the nightmare of the Special Period receded, Cuban identity had been reclaimed by many, reshaped by some and changed by an epoch that made top-down, holistic authoritarian notions of what constituted a Cuban identity anachronistic and irrecoverable.

[1] As opposed to the “colossus to the north” (see Raul Fernandez, 1994:111)

[2] Revolution is used by Badiou as an example of an ‘event’.

[3] Timba is a genre of Cuban music, Perna argues, that grew out of, and thus represents, the Special Period and the impact it had upon Cuban identity.

[4] The logistics of such a mushrooming in popularity would, in itself, warrant its own discrete study. How rock and rap were heard and disseminated in a country in which all music is prohibitively expensive, and foreign music was illegal to own, speaks of a tacit communication across the Straits of Florida, and of hidden cassette-culture communities in Cuba. Sufficed to say here, Cuban rock musicians I have spoken to have all mentioned the importance of such avenues of music dissemination in the formation of their identity and the ‘rock scene’ in Cuba.

[6] Bolek and Lolek was a Polish cartoon running from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s which was televised in Cuba, and became very popular.

[7] Although the extent to which any generation of children in any country actively selects the cultural materials delivered to them as a generation is probably a moot point

[8] It is interesting to note that this live version of the song is the one Varela included on his ‘best of’ album ‘Los Hijos de Guillermo Tell’ (The Children of William Tell). It is clear that he too realises the power in the communality of this performance. The live performance also appears on the Luaka Bop Cuban compilation ‘Cuba Classics 3 – Diablo al Infierno!’ (Nasatir, 2008). It is no exaggeration to suggest the live version has become more popular, more recognisable than the ‘original’ studio recording.

[9] And indeed to Cuban citizens themselves.

[10] The details (albeit from a partisan perspective) of this amendment can be found at the following website:

[11] I should point out that Mariley Reinoso Olivera, as well as being a Cuban musician is also my wife.

[12] The process is discussed, albeit in parody, in the Porno Para Ricardo song ‘Black Metal’ (see chapter 4)

[13] Gott calls the 1994 balsero exodus the “third exodus” (2004:298), naming these two earlier events as the precursors to the Special Period migration.

[14] And, with increasing numbers, music from other locations important in the Cuban diaspora, such as Mexico, Spain and Venezuela.

[15] It is worth noting that Arango’s assertion here is not backed up by any analysis of Cuban migration statistics. For such analysis, I refer to Aguirre (1976), Aguirre and Bonilla Silva (2002) and Pedraza-Bailey (1985). However, that Arango would make such a claim, albeit anecdotally, is a telling face, and one worth exploring in its own right.

[16] The question of subcultural Cubanness will be addressed in chapter three.

[17] A group that Barker and Taylor claim were not well known within Cuba itself (2007).

The Buena Vista Social Club: A Representation of the Special Period?

The ‘re-opening’ of Cuba physically to the mass influx of tourists served not only to reintroduce foreign cultural influences into the vocabulary of Cuban musicians, but it also served to ‘reintroduce’ Cuban traditional music back into the market place, securing a prominent role within the burgeoning market of ‘world music’. As with the hedonistic pre-revolutionary closeness between the US and Cuba (Perez, 1999) in the special period, with the vast monetary advantages that came with playing (and appealing) to tourist audiences, Cuban musical identity began to be defined from without once more. This time it was nostalgic images of crumbling colonial edifices, 1950s Cadillacs and somehow ‘timeless’ yet forgotten musical masters plying the same wares unhampered and unhindered by the passing of traumatic time. This latter narrative was cemented (and even invented) by the unexpected, and colossus, global success of one band: The Buena Vista Social Club.

It is hardly necessary to revisit the global success of this band here, nor to provide a critique of their ‘authentic Cubanness’, or lack thereof. For a succinct account of these factors, I would refer the reader to the chapter dedicated to the Buena Vista Social Club in Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s “Faking it: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music” (2007) and to Vincenzo Perna’s discussion of the band in chapter nine of his work (2005). A brief account of the key moments will suffice here. In 1996, the end of the most severe part of the special period as Cuba had cemented its position as a world tourist destination, American guitarist Ry Cooder recorded a conglomerated mix of Cuban musicians and musics from different generations. In 1997, the album was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. In 1999, director Win Wendes travelled to Cuba to record a documentary featuring the members of the band, and in the same year, the Buena Vista Social Club performed in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall, further increasing the acclaim (and sales) of the original album. In the interim fourteen years, numerous projects have been sold utilising the epithet ‘Buena Vista Social Club’[1]. The band recently embarked on a European tour in which few of the original members performed. The name ‘Buena Vista’ now exists as something of a cultural short-hand for ‘authentic Cuban music’ rather than pertaining to that original recording or band. It has become a symbol of Cuba once more, partially at the behest of the tourist market, but partially as a response from Cuban musicians to what they believed tourists wished to find on their ‘return’ to the island.

When discussing the recording of ‘The Buena Vista Social Club’, Barker and Taylor provide a rather negative account of an unrepresentative musical fusion. “The ageing musicians’ natural styles came from various stages of the island’s past, and Cuban music had long since moved onto new styles” (2007:300), later adding “Cooder[2] was looking back to a golden age while disregarding more modern developments” (ibid.:304). Arguments surrounding ‘authenticity’ aside, these two quotes reveal something more pertinent to this discussion. The CD – and particularly Ry Cooder’s hand in it – represent perhaps the inevitable musical conclusion of the Cuban government’s partnership with private, foreign companies.

The Buena Vista Social Club could perhaps be represented as offering something of a musical equivalent to the opulent, colonial-esque grand hotels built by foreign firms to re-imagine a ‘golden’, hedonistic past in present day Cuba. It is not my intention to draw comparisons between Cuban builders hired onto hotel building projects at vastly reduced wages (as discussed by Berg, 2005) and the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club; such a comparison would perhaps be an unfair one. However, whilst Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer et al were the personalities, Cooder was always seen as the architect that made the project possible. It is worth noting that both the large hotels and this CD were manufactured by foreign hands and both were manufactured for foreign ‘use’. As Barker and Taylor suggest (rather contentiously) “most Cubans have never heard the record” (2007:302); they were never meant to. The project was designed as a projection of Cuba to the outside world, rather than a reflection of it to those within. It was music for the tourists. It is not surprising that both the tourist industry and Ry Cooder’s production wanted to look back to create their new visions of Cuba. Both looked to the 1940s, Cooder “deliberately replicating… Cuban recordings of the 1940s” (ibid.:300) as this was the last great age of global tourism to Cuba; before the iron door of political isolation slammed shut. Buena Vista represent the effect of the special period and its compromises. Cuba once more had to negotiate its position in global consciousness; it had to present, as all nations do, a succinct portrait of its cultural heritage and identity to represent itself in the necessarily reductivist arena of ‘world music’. As this image of ‘golden era’ Cuba still loomed large in globally constructed narratives (and also because the still continuing revolution was perhaps a much more controversial and divisive narrative to present), it became the backbone of this construction of Cuban identity from global consumption.

However,  if the Buena Vista Social Club were essentially a product aimed at the foreign market, seldom (if ever) heard by Cubans themselves, how do they represent an anathematic portrayal of Cuba to many of the island’s younger musicians? For the final time, I quote Barker and Taylor as they discuss the group’s final, joyous concert at Carnegie Hall in New York:

Old men often like to have fun. Looking back they sometimes like to simplify and parody their past, partly to remember what was best about it and party to tease the younger generation (ibid. p.314)

It goes without saying that young Cubans have had to endure the older generation ‘remembering what was best’ about a semi-mythical past that played itself out long before they were born. If the Buena Vista Social Club did indeed represent a backwards facing look at Cuba’s golden past, it rang hollow when viewed from the less than golden present it had created. What the reinvention of a nostalgic Cuba – one that had seemingly stood still or entirely circumvented the revolutionary epoch – again demonstrated was a definition of Cuban identity as defined from without, or certainly with ‘those from without’ in mind. It was a projection not of what Cuba wished to be, but what it perhaps thought ‘others’ wanted it to be, or what it needed to be to survive economically in the wake of the special period. Such definitions of Cuban music were, of course, anathematic and antithetical to the hybridised bricolage ‘global Cubanness’ young Cuban musicians were forging in the same period. It was seen as retrogressive, conservative and a deeply false projection of contemporary Cuban identity, denying the legitimacy of – indeed entirely excising – all that they had lived through, all that they had experienced. Once more, the old men were in charge, once more the father (or grandfather) was placing the apple atop Guillermo Tell’s head, once more Cuba’s youth were silenced, subjugated and denied entrance to the space ‘authentic Cuban identity’. 

[1] As Perna points out, the name is now a registered trade mark (2005: 241).

[2] Ry Cooder was the American producer and sometime slide guitar player on the record