Cuban music has had is its ups and downs – the latter state epitomised by a macabre suicide sub-cult whose members literally gave up their lives for music and a free electric band. CHRIS DU PLESSIS re-awakens the haunting spirit of Los Frikis in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death.
If you happen to harbour the same high hopes as I did some years ago, of being blissfully consumed by Cuban music, and are packing your bags for the party of your life in Havana before McDonald’s signs start dominating the Malecón, you might want to reconsider. The experience might not fit your fantasies of a harmonious and free-spirited nation, its people poor but content, participating in a perpetual street carnival to celebrate life and socialist values.
We too stepped ashore with Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club collaboration still ringing in our ears. We would be welcomed at the airport, I’d imagined, by exotic men and maidens bearing garlands of tropical blooms amid a flourish of wild percussion. After all, this was the heartland of the rhumba, the mambo and the cha-cha-cha.
Instead we were ceremoniously unwelcomed by sullen security personnel behind reflecting drop-shades reminiscent of Pappa Doc’s Haitian Tonton Macoutes — and the closest we came to a celebratory welcome was a rheumy-eyed pauper with a cracked guiro-gourd in the airport foyer.
Distressing thoughts started to surface. Was the knackered gourd an apt symbol of what remained of the golden era of mellifluous Cuban composition? Could the reason why the BVSC-members were so old when Cooder rounded them up for the album simply be that there were no young Cubans around playing Cuban music of any worth? Which in turn could very possibly indicate that there was not much Cuban music of any worth to be played.
Listen: Radiolab – Los Frikis
Yes, there have been contemporary attempts to reinvent hip-pop and other commercial US contrivances. Ever since the late 1990s when Castro slackened his stance on tourism to Cuba, young island musicians have been mixing international styles into local formats to create hybrids such as Timba (a salsa-ish fusion with rock, funk and jazz), and Reggaton – which started out as Dancehall/Ragga-cloning but ended up as an awkward compromise between hip hop and bad reggae. But such savourless mambo-jumbo displays nothing close to the musical mettle we’ve come to expect from Cuba in its euphonious prime.
It seems the last time Cuba displayed any form of real musical flourish was when Al Capone was setting up shop in the Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel to circumvent US prohibition laws, a deported Meyer Lansky was appointed Il Presidente Batista’s advisor on “gambling reform” and the American Mafia reigned freely on the island in the first half of the previous century.
Watch: Punks in Havana, Cuba Speak Out
The flamboyant, creatively explosive epoch saw the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson and Edith Piaf swanning around the casinos, Papa Hemingway holding forth at Sloppy Joe’s, The Wonder Bar and the Havana Club (the venue, not the drink) and Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper and George Raft staggering from the Shanghai Club and other Chinatown brothels.
This was when the tropical vice-paradise was at its steamy, concupiscent best. Conveniently wedged into the geographical junction between the two Americas, the melting pot played host to an unfettered crossbreeding of intercontinental musical cultures, comfortably accommodating creative fusions between the sizzling Latin hybrids that had been simmering on home ground and nouveau jazz trends from swing to bebop (eventually dubbed Cubop) blowing in from the north.
But that dazzling, undulating Cuba had long since become a broken record by the time we stepped ashore, forever replaying that vainglorious moment of dubious collective harmony in 1959 when Fidel and his band of revolutionaries rolled into Havana in the wake of the fleeing dictator Fulgencio Batista.
It had been a gradual but glorious progression up to that particular point in Cuban musical history.
By the late 19th century, the complex percussive patterns and vocal call-and-response arrangements, introduced via religious rituals of African slaves, had manifested in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains around the south-eastern port of Santiago de Cuba.
The rhythms were gradually blended with 18th century English country dance music – adopted by Latin-European royalty and exported to the colonies – and the hybrid surfaced in Cuba as Danzon.
An uptempo, down-and-dirty version laced with social satire known as Guaracha emerged in the city bars and brothels and, after the abolition of slavery in 1886, wooden crates were replaced by tumbadores (Congolese congas) and the music and dance known as Rumba was born in the former slave ports like Matanzas.
On a parallel continuum, Cuban troubadours roaming the countryside and city streets honed and perfected a vernacular romantic ballad called Trove, and by the first decades of the 20th century the whole bag of tricks had blended into Son Cubano.
By the early 1900s, Rumba, ripe for some more cultural cross-pollination, had infiltrated New Orleans while jazz in all its renegade nuances made the Caribbean crossing to Havana.
A more frenzied offshoot derived from Danzon, called Mambo, was also conceived in Cuba but celebrated in New York with a bolder, brassier face. As was the Conga music and dance trend. In a show of empathy for Americans trying to find their feet with complex Cuban rhythms, band leader Enrique Jorrin created a watered-down version, pre-empting the American Cha-Cha-Cha (never say it only twice) craze of the 1950s. And an even spicier Cuban derivative of Son Cubano known as Salsa (sauce) also emerged in the USA during the 1970s. But these were all arguably American re-inventions of older Cuban musical styles.
What, you may ask, caused the creative demise of Cuban music then?
Well, Fidel Castro mainly, to be sure.
By the 1980s his attempt to create a social utopia was backfiring spectacularly as post-Perestroika Russia pulled the plug on an annual $6-billion in economic aid as well as lucrative oil and sugar concessions. Tractors had been replaced by ox-driven carts and wooden sleds (still very evident on the rural byways today), food rations slashed to survival level and government programmes instructed Cubans on how to make their own soap and construct sandals from dried banana leaves.
As greasy whorls of factory smoke introduced by low-grade oil enveloped Havana, productivity declined, corruption escalated and mismanaged healthcare, education and social services degenerated to the point where public dissent forced Castro to offer Cubans permission to leave the island. As blame was bandied about, prostitutes were forced into rehabilitation and homosexuals into labour camps.
In the interim, Cuban soldiers returning from Angola had introduced Aids to the island and Castro ordered a crackdown on victims. Not wishing to taint the reputation of his Caribbean outpost known for the healthy physical disposition of its people due to Cuba’s much lauded free healthcare system, Castro sent officials to the homes of those rumoured to be inflicted to conduct spot blood checks. Those testing positive were packed off to one of Cuba’s 14 state sanatoriums.
Then, into this time line stepped an insubordinate individual called Papo Labala (Papo “The Bullet”). Weaned on a dissentient diet of Led Zeppelin and and other US rock bands intercepted on shortwave broadcasts from Florida in secret rooftop sessions with fellow non-conformists, Labala regularly defied the neighbourhood watch groups (or CDR’s – Los Comités de Defensa de la Revolución) set up by the Cuban government on every second city block to report seditious behaviour to the authorities, by prancing about town with an American flag as headgear.
Watch: Cuban Punk Rocker Gorki Aguila on Music, Life and Getting Led Zeppelin Records in Cuba
The intensity of his remonstrations against the system increased with his revulsion thereof until, as a protest against Castro’s thinly disguised fascism, Cuba’s rapidly degenerating social conditions and a display of solidarity with the persecution of gays, he self-administered blood contaminated with the HIV-virus.
“Death is a door,” he proclaimed, “when you don’t have any other doors to open.”
Now an official outcast and unofficial pioneer of a sectarian subculture in time known as Los Frikis/Friquis (The Freaks), he was imprisoned in the Pinar del Rio sanatorium.
Ironically, it was a turn for the better, according to documentary producer Luis Trelles whose subject in a podcast interview for Radio Ambulante, one Gerson Govea, describes how Labala played guitar for a punk-rock band they started in the sanatorium called “Metamorfosis”.
Photo: Porno para Ricardo (Porno for Ricardo) known for its bare-fisted criticism and satirical jibes at the Castro regime.
Initially run as virtual prisons under the auspices of the military, Trelles relates, responsibility for the sanatoriums was handed over to the Ministry of Health in the late 1980s. More than often found in tranquil, picturesque country settings, they offered inmates not only access to the best medical treatment by caring doctors, but clean sheets, air conditioning, colour TV as well as hearty meals of meat, milk, beans and ice cream otherwise unattainable even after days of queueing for the average citizen in Havana.
It was, frankly, 5-star hotel treatment for free.
The only thing you needed to qualify for a permanent place in such an earthly paradise was a terminal illness.
And this became one of the reasons why many young Cubans followed Labala’s example and started self-injecting the HIV virus to gain entry. In an ironic twist to Castro’s desperate clarion call to rejuvenate a revolutionary spirit among the downtrodden Cubans in the late 1980s with his slogan Patria o Muerte! (Fatherland or Death!), many Frikis chose the latter.
Soon the sanatoriums such as Los Cocos on the outskirts of Havana became hotbeds for a new anti-communist counter-revolution led by agitprop musicians first developed under the patronage of the so-called Godmother of Cuban Rock, Maria Gattorno, in Havana during the mid-1980s.
Under her roof at the state-run Cultural Centre opposite the Plaza de la Revolución, a conglomerate of would-be heavy metal and punk-rock ensembles would gather on Saturday afternoons to vent their anger and frustration with the Castro regime for a small percentage of the door. Popularity was gauged by crowd response. The gatherings became known as El Patio de Maria (Maria’s Patio) and members also helped organise public health campaigns in response to the HIV outbreak.
And later, in the sanatoriums, many Frikis and group members of bands such as Eskoria (meaning “Scum” – taken from government billboards denouncing refugees to the USA with the slogan “Vai a la Scoria”) and Viache (HIV) followed in “The Bullet’s” footsteps by injecting themselves with HIV.
Soon it not only became the vogue to do so, but necessary for anyone craving access to the in-crowd. “If you really want to be a rocker in Cuba,” one self-injector pronounced in the Trelles interview, “you must have AIDS.”
Describing life in the sanatoriums at the time as “a regular head-bangers’ ball”, Trelles relates how electric guitars were smuggled into Cuba from East Berlin and strung with “strings made from telephone wires”. Drum kits were cobbled together from “materials found in X-rays” and makeshift speakers were constructed from cardboard boxes.
And for a while there everything was hunky-dory. “We gave ourselves AIDS,” Friqui Louis Enrique Delgodo proudly pronounced, “to liberate ourselves from society and laws about obligatory work and live in our own world.”
Unfortunately, not for too long – in their world or the real one.
According to sanatarium records, the first to die was a boy of unknown origin known only as Manuel. Followed by a second and a third in close succession. In two years following the advent of the death-trend, 18 people succumbed to the disease at Los Cocos. As they went blind, became incontinent, lost control of their organs and mental faculties, panic set in.
Many of the youths who had self-injected the virus in order to belong, or as a vehicle to lodge a protest against Cuban oppression, naively thought that an antidote would be made available to them soon.
It wasn’t. Over a hundred deaths were registered due to the short-lived trend (with some estimates citing figures as high as 200). In Swedish producer Bengt Norborg’s 1995 documentary film Socialism or Death (after Castro’s slogan meant to revive the revolutionary spirit among the huddled masses), a Cuban clergyman who had met with Los Frikis members relates how he personally alerted Castro to the self-construed epidemic. The dictator’s response was to ban syringes and institute an eight-year prison sentence for self-injectors.
In a belated response to the crisis perhaps only surpassed in stubborn incompetence by our own country’s fumbling to stem the disease, Cuban authorities eventually developed the first generic antiretroviral drugs for general consumption in 1998.
For most Los Frikis it was way too late.
By 2000 all but five of the 60 original Frikis who were sent to the Pinar del Rio Sanatorium, for instance, had died of AIDS. In his Radio Ambulante documentary, Trelles talks to some of the last few survivors: Gerson Govea and his partner Yohandra Cardoso. Still resident in the defunct sanatorium, Govea, who injected himself after an amphetamine bust and a personal pledge to “rather die than go to prison”, rattles off names from patients’ records he salvaged from the ruins: “Juan-Luiz Perez Arencibia – neurofoxoplasmosis, Esteban Reisin – heart failure, Jose Antonio, Coelle – a.k.a. BonJovi…”
As for the ever-deviant Labala – up to a week before succumbing to a parasite furrowing through his brain – he was still protesting the fact that no one wanted to go out and party with him.
And the spirit of Los Frikis was kept alive by metal and punk outfits still bashing away at the system such as the deathcore grouping Mortuary (a regular feature at Maxims, currently the only venue dedicated exclusively to rock in Havana), veteran metal-rock collectives such as Zeus – a survivor from Maria’s Patio days whose hit song Violento Metrobus decries the poor state of public transport in Havana, Combat Noise with their ever-popular Soldiers Must Like to Kill and Porno para Ricardo (Porno for Ricardo) known for its bare-fisted criticism and satirical jibes at the Castro regime.
“The whole thing was about making fun of Fidel and Raoul”, band leader Gorky Aquila tells Trelles – though things have not always been a barrel of laughs for him either. Arrested in 2008 for “Social Dangerousness”, a law that allows authorities to detain people who they deem likely to commit a crime, and which could carry a sentence of up to four years in prison, he was only let off the hook after an international human-rights outcry.
Both he and his female bandmate, Lia Villares, were detained in March this year on the group’s return from a tour in Miami. An artist friend, Danilo Maldonado, immediately created a heartfelt live stream on Facebook:
“If anyone knows of where Lia Villares is, let us know,” he requested tearily before ending off with: “My brothers, if we live through this, let’s get rid of these dogs in power.”
Lia is back now, but the “dogs” are still baying for her blood. DM
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