For U.S. residents, Cuba has been historically hard to reach, and an aspect of culture as niche and underground as its punk and metal scenes is even harder to access. Documentation of either genre is slim, and typically takes place after the fact. Even great reporting – like Radiolab’s story about Los Frikis in the late 80s – can’t help but fall short in timeliness.
Now, as restrictions on travel to Cuba have eased, we’re beginning to learn more about previously undocumented musical communities. And in terms of Cuban punk and metal, aspiring Puerto Rican filmmaker Alfredo Aybar hopes to usher along its documentation — and help that community thrive, too.
Last week, Aybar, who fronts the hardcore punk band AnoNimaTo, organized a show in San Juan to help gather much-needed gear he’ll take to Cuba in September.
Aybar is headed into his second year at the prestigious Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión in San Antonio de Los Baños in the Artemisa province of Cuba. Before even starting his studies, though, he’d already begun planning how to make his way into Havana’s underground scene.
“There’s not that much information in Puerto Rico about the punk scene there. I started researching bits of this and bits of that,” Aybar says. “I stumbled upon a couple of pictures – a Spanish photographer who did a piece on them…I also listened to Radio Rebelde shows.”
He met a second-year student there who’d already started filming on his own, and during weekends away from classes, he began asking locals where to go. Soon enough, he was in the Diez de Octubre borough of Havana, wedged between a salsa show and a birthday party for the drummer of the punk band Rezaka.
“They were all covered in cake, and they hugged me and received me like another family member. I started talking about the punk scene in Puerto Rico and they were all pumped up, but they didn’t know shit about it. They have heard Spanish bands, classic punk bands, because [current] punk doesn’t [reach] Cuba that much,” he says.
There was no clash between neighbors over the contrasting music that day, he says. Instead, punks were dancing to salsa, and vice versa.
“It was a beautiful thing,” he says. “I guess it was a neighborly, friendly thing.”
At another show, however, things weren’t so calm and easygoing. The police got aggressive, he says, as they misunderstood the intentions of a hyped-up crowd.
“They [started] moshing – a mosh pit or whatever – and they were getting arrested and shit…The dancing, [the police] didn’t understand. I thought everyone in the world understood what moshing was, but apparently not. Hell broke [loose] and a bunch of them got arrested,” he says.
“They’re not dying from hunger, but they don’t have guitars.”
Issues with authorities aren’t the scene’s only obstacle, either. Aybar quickly realized that the bands were lacking gear. In the year he’s been studying in Cuba, he says he hasn’t seen a single music store.
“Getting to know this band specifically, [I’m] seeing how they don’t have a lot of possessions – material possessions. They’re not dying from hunger, but they don’t have guitars and shit. Or they’re using Soviet Union guitars, and they’re making up amps and the drums…they made it out of X-ray plates. Crazy,” he says. “You can see a lot of people in Cuba with new instruments, but I think it’s more of the state bringing in the instrument for music students or music professionals, and since they don’t see the rockers as a profession, they don’t [get] them.”
The members of Rezaka told Aybar they were expecting guitar and bass strings from a cousin returning from travels outside of Cuba — in six months. With an upcoming summer trip home to Puerto Rico, Aybar saw a chance to help.
Along with two friends, John Báez and Angelica Sisco, Aybar put together an event and called for donations of new and used gear. Members from the bands that played — Desfase, Ultraje, and Aybar’s own Anonimato — all brought items. Friends gifted packs of strings, picks, and drumsticks. They donated music and band merch, too.
“People also wanted to share music from here, like vinyl, CDs, T-shirts, and pins. People want to make sure their bands are going to be heard in Cuba, which gets me pumped,” he says.
Between bands, he screened the beginning of what will eventually be a full-length documentary. Rezaka was the main subject; the band represents three generations of Cuban punk, he says.
“I’m just a good guy trying to get this stuff to my friends to play rock. I’m really hoping for the best.”
“For me, it’s a type of band that tells the history of the rock scene in Cuba just by its members, not just the music they play. The bass player is the oldest, and he’s one of the last three survivors of the HIV generation. The singer is one of the first from the generation [that followed]. The smallest – the kid you see – he’s kind of the new generation that’s going on. And they all play in the same band,” he says.
The bassist Aybar mentions is one of the musicians who self-injected HIV in the 80s as a way of receiving benefits from the state in a time of severe depression. A few years ago, that member lost an eye, and he was recently diagnosed with cancer.
Aybar’s goal for the show wasn’t only to gather supplies for Rezaka, but also to cultivate solidarity between the two Caribbean cities.
“That’s going to be changing in the next two or three years, I think. Because Internet, they’ve got [it] there, but to get on the Wi-Fi you have to be on the street with the antenna of a building that has the Wi-Fi, and you have to buy this card for an hour of the internet. If you want to be downloading music then you have to spend a lot of money on the internet,” he says. “Most people who are using the internet are not using it to download stuff or whatever, they’re using it more for seeing their relatives outside the country. There’s another business that’s pirating music and series, but it’s more mainstream things, so punk’s not going to get there via that…so it’s great that people are donating their stuff.”
On his next summer break, Aybar hopes to bring Cuban punk and metal to Puerto Rico, whether through mp3s or physical copies of recordings. Maybe Rezaka and others (like Zeus, a metal group, or Estrafilococos, an oi band) could even get visas to play in San Juan.
For now, though, the immediate focus is getting that suitcase full of gear into Cuba when he returns in September.
“The problem is probably going to be trying to explain to them that I’m not going to sell this on the streets in Cuba,” he says. “This is not contraband, it’s a donation we made in Puerto Rico. I’m just a good guy trying to get this stuff to my friends to play rock. I’m really hoping for the best.”