Cuba & Costa Rica Blog
About this blog
Written by Cuba and Costa Rica expert Christopher P. Baker, this blog will update readers on life in these two diverse and exciting countries.
- Last blog post on Costa Rica and Cuba
- First-ever group motorcycle tours of Cuba successful
- Cuba’s Mariel port readying for Panama Canal expansion
- Musings on wildlife encounters on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula
- Cuba’s Steam Trains puffing their last gasp
- My top five thrilling activities in Costa Rica
- Cuba’s fun February festivals include Harleys, Books, Cigars
- Five top volcano viewing experiences in Costa Rica
- New road along Costa Rica / Nicaraguan border mired
- Cuba’s Hotel Campoamor at Cojímar to be restored?
- Cuban revolutionary Celia Sánchez honored in new book
- Christmas challenge for Costa Rica’s sexually abused girls
- Costa Rica opens Chinatown in downtown San José
- David Soul films Hemingway’s car restoration in Cuba
- National Geographic Expeditions receives license for Cuba tours
Cuba’s heavy metal scene is alive but not well
When in Havana on my own (as opposed to escorting Cuba: Discover its People & Culture programs for National Geographic Expeditions), I stay with my “family”—Jorge Coalla Potts and his wife Mari and daughter Jessica at their casa particular (room rental) in the heart of Vedado.
Their home is only two blocks from the corner of Avenida de los Presidentes (Calle G) and Calle 23.
On Friday and Saturday nights the tiny nondescript park on the northwest corner of the junction is the unlikely venue for Havana’s heavy metal fans and alternative youth (everyone from electronica fans to punk) dressed in the black gothic finery, with spiked hair, body piercings, and Metalica T-shirts. The crowd spills onto the grassy central median that bisects Avenida de los Presidentes. (By the way, don’t try to walk on the grass—it’s prohibited in Cuban parks!)
Well, firstly, most clubs are beyond the financial means of most young Cubans. At “Parque de los Roqueros,” or “Parque G,” as the tiny plaza is colloquially known, they can hang out, play music, and share their grouses, along with communal bottles of beer and rum.
While it might look visually threatening, the crowd is peaceful, although there’s always a hefty contingent of police on hand. (On more than one occasion, the police have put a heavy-handed end to the gatherings.)
Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Castro government has frowned upon—and kept a heavy lid on “decadent” capitalist music. First jazz… Then rock music… Even possession of The Beatles music was punishable as a crime. Imagine! (pun intended). See my blog post: “Cuba Discovers the Beatles: So Move Over Che”.
At the best of times, I’m no heavy metal fan. Not least, it gives me an instant migraine. But I find the evolution of the scene to be fascinating.
“In a country ruled for more than 50 years by an authoritarian Communist regime known for its intolerance of free expression and resistance to anything that stinks of imperialist capitalist yanquis, heavy metal has taken hold over the past two decades in a major way,” writes freelance journalist David Peisner, who notes that metalheads even have their own week-long annual concert: 666 Fest.
Peisner’s superb article, “Red Menace: Inside the Hidden World of Extreme Cuban Metal”, which appeared in Spin magazine, brilliantly portrays the evolution of Cuba’s heavy metal scene and how it has been usurped and channeled by the State into a well-contained strait-jacket.
"[We] need extreme music to match our extreme life," festival organizer Joel Kaos told Peisner. "You find harder metal in countries that are more oppressed. We have something to scream about."
As Peisner notes: ” Metal here is almost uniformly deafening, punishing, and brutally aggressive.”
Inspired by the likes of Black Sabbath, Cuba’s first heavy metal band, Venus, was formed in 1981 but forced to disband in 1986 by the government, which controls all professional credentials for musicians (no-one is allowed to perform at public venues without such a permit). Despite a difficult start, heavy rock and metal began to gain traction, focused on El Patio de María—a community house in Vedado where heavy-metal fan María Gattorno hosted concerts.
Not least, says Peisner, the proximity of the venue to Plaza de la Revolución “spooked the leadership,” which closed down El Patio de María in 2003 immediately after a huge concert drew thousands.
The closure coincided with a crack-down on drugs and with Cuba’s dissidents. Musicians can criticize society's ills, but woe betide them if they criticize the government. Many performers have seen the inside of jail. The government has been known to literally pull the plug mid-concert, even if televised. Musicians therefore walk a tightrope. "You know what you can say and what you can't. We have that incorporated since we were kids," Sánchez told Peisner.
Then came the inevitable thaw. In 2007, a new festival—Brutal Fest—was permitted, and in 2008 a new venue called Maxim Rock opened in the midst of dilapidated Centro Habana to cater specifically to hard rock groups. It’s the only such venue in town.
Here, too, the state-run Cuban Rock Agency (under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture) has its headquarters, headed by hard-rock fan (and unlikely government functionary) Yuri Ávila.
If you’re a rock freak, next time you’re in Havana check-out Maxim Rock (Calle Bruzon #62 e/Ayestaran y Almendares, Plaza de la Revolución, tel. +53-7-877-5925) or the weekend scene at Parque de los Roqueros.
For further information about travel in Cuba, buy Moon Handbook Cuba
For further information on Havana, buy Moon Spotlight Havana.
Buy an autographed hardback copy of Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro's Cuba direct from the author.
Looking for the perfect coffee-table book gift item? Buy an autographed hardback copy of Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles direct from the author.
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
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Copyright © Christopher P. Baker