Cuba has been recently on everyone’s lips and its music radar has gone off the roof with news of world-famous international rock bands now looking to stage concerts in what for long had been regarded as “The Forbidden Island”. Everyone in the island is now gearing up to welcome The Rolling Stones who have announced a concert in Havana for next year and preceding that the much-awaited arrival of Sting, who has expressed his wish to perform in the island before the Stones get there. Add to that the fact that Cuba very recently celebrated British Culture Week with a special guest performance by rock guitarist, Dominic Miller and you might be wondering about Cuba's links to rock. After all, why are globally famous rock bands so intent on performing in Cuba anyway? What's all the fuss?
Cuba might not very well known for its rock music, in fact most people would be forgiven for asking themselves why anyone should aspire to listen to rock in Cuba when it’s the birthplace of salsa and award-winning quality Jazz…yet rock has a presence in Cuba, and a strong one at that too. While Cuban rock is not as mainstream as its salsa (or indeed reggaeton) rivals it has a multitude of fans and rock musicians who operate mainly at underground level. On this blog we explore Cuba’s rock scene through examining my favourite rock band in the island: Stoner.
These four young men all under 23, have just won Cuban music's most important award with their Spanish language rock music, whose influences range from Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden to Ministry, Nirvana and Alice in Chains.
They're known as Stoner, and they boast a "demolishing right-hand punch." The gramophone now turns on its lights, beckoning you to shake your head non-stop with them at Maxim Rock, the island's most rocking site.
When I decided to write this post about Stoner, my mind went back to the nineties, the time of my youth. Cuba was suffering its worse ever economic crisis but I was happy. I was a happy youngster because I loved rock 'n' roll and in its pursuit, I used to navigate the whole city either on a bike or on foot to find a concert, or to get my hands on a cassette with the latest recordings of Pearl Jam, Sepultura, Paradise Lost or any of the great rock bands of the time.
So now, almost like a ritual, I remember and go mentally back to my time as a "friki" (a Cuban term derived from the English term freak, which is used to refer to rockeros), and don a dark coloured T-shirt to invite you to the Maxim Rock. Stoner is offering a show there, starting at 10:00 p.m.
A different type of band breaking the metal barrier
Stoner opens its concert with "Desnudo" (naked), a song from its first independently-made CD "Fuera del Camino" (get out of the way); winner of the Premio Cubadisco 2014 title to the best metal rock album in Cuba.
The band's fans move close to the stage and begin to toss their heads, others raise their hands putting up their pinkies and forefingers to make the trademark horn sign, while a few others choose to stand back and study the band with skepticism.
But "Desnudo" quickly awakens our senses. Tiago Felipe's intricate and technically perfect guitars, Angel Daniel's rhythmic and powerful bass, and Denys Sanchez's precise and thunderous drumming along with Michel Bermudez's warm and mischievous poetic voice; are all aiming at our chests. Little by little, the infectious tunes enter our minds and bodies into the free spirit of rock 'n' roll.
With "Fuera del Camino" Stoner sent a clear message to the public as well as to the rest of the metal rock bands:
"We want Stoner to attain the greatest possible number of fans, while breaking away from the heavy metal stereotypes made in Cuba."
Since the eighties, the landscape of rock in Cuba has been ruled by extreme heavy metal. Following a route that began with the influence of classic heavy metal like that of Iron Maiden and the California trash of Metallica and Slayer; Cuban heavy metal has deepened into other currents like hardcore, industrial metal, death, and black metal. Emblematic bands like Zeus or Combat Noise stand as part of that heritage.
So if you play rock music in Cuba but you don't display guttural voices in English language (practically unintelligible), nor a strong distortion of the guitars (more rhythmic than melodious), nor lyrics that tell about "dark themes", you'll probably be severely criticised by the heavy metal fans. And the same applies for pop rock, symphony rock, and for Stoner's metal rock.
However, the band led by guitarist Tiago Felipe is not only taking the risk of breaking away from that tradition, but he's actually seeking new sound paths as part of its vital and creative work.
Stoner's second song is "Dulce Recuerdo Amargo" (sweet bitter memory) an obvious love song that begins with an arrangement of violins, and later slides into beautiful riffs and lyrics captivating the audience as only great songs do. It's a lovely song about the beauty and sorrows of love. The band's fans keep tossing their heads, the skeptical ones confirm their suspicions and you and I just close our eyes and listen.
"Hoy me ahogo en otros labios
"Now I drown in other lips
Rock's shrine in Cuba
Maxim Rock is located in Havana's Cerro municipality, at 62 Bruzon St. between Almendares and Ayestaran streets, just a few minutes away from landmarks like La Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square), and El Estadio Latinoamericano (Latin American Baseball Stadium). Standing in the place of what used to be a small local cinema, it has been reconditioned as the new rockeros' venue, after the closing of the legendary Patio de Maria (Maria's Patio) in 2003.
For 15 years the Patio de Maria (Maria's backryard) stood as a community cultural area that sheltered the country's underground bands, under the guidance of its founder; cultural promoter Maria Gattorno. With little resources but enormous will and a mighty heart, Gattorno was able to establish a site where rock bands and rockeros could take refuge from society's side-lining and stereotypes.
It's rained a lot since then, but the rock bands' battles are still the same. This brought forth Gattorno's appointment as Director of the state-regulated Agencia Cubana de Rock (Cuban Rock Agency), which promotes several of Cuba's best rock bands while having Maxim Rock as its main performance theatre.
So now, rock bands in Cuba have found a new home at Maxim Rock, an excellent air-conditioned theatre displaying fine acoustics, lights and a light gastronomic offering that includes alcoholic beverages.
After an hour-long concert, Stoner plays the final accords of its song "Cero Impuesto" (zero tax). The theatre's foundations shake, and smiling, we look at each other; as if confirming the quality of these four young Cubans who have made us sweat and remember Rock 'n' Roll's universal power.
Classical, avant-garde and brilliant in their capability to convey emotions through their heavy metal music; Stoner reminds us of how good it is to go back to our youth, offering us again the magical experience of jumping and tossing our heads all night long, in the company of a good friend.