Monday, May 21, 2012

¡Libertad o Metal de la Muerte!*

Who knows where Google searches will lead us? I was trying to figure out which grindcore band was featured in the latest episode of HBO's Veep ("This is fucking PRIMORDIAL!" a character screams, though I can confidently say it wasn't Primordial), and got sucked into this Spin article about Cuba's extreme metal scene. 

The article, written by David Peisner (who also wrote a great article about music as an enhanced interrogation technique for Spin), is a pretty fantastic primer on the Cuban metal scene and its history, going back to its earliest Sabbath/Zepplin inspired band, Venus, to its first forays into extreme metal via the raw thrash of Metal Oscuro.

Of course, as with any country with a long history of religious conservatism and dictatorship, the most dominant style of metal in Cuba is black metal.  On the surface, the reasons are obvious: Black metal is rarely political and its sacrilegious nature is less likely to ruffle feathers with the Communist establishment than more socially conscious genres like death metal or grindcore.  In fact, its anti-religious themes run parallel to the old Marxist aphorism about "the opiate of the masses."

But who was Satan, if not the first non-conformist and ultimate anti-authoritarian? And since its inception, black metal has drawn heavily from Anton LaVey's Satanism, which is more a philosophy of self-determinism than anything to do with the occult. Cuban black metal may not be as articulate or obvious a rejection of autocratic regimes as Orwell's 1984, but that doesn't make it any less passionate; lump Big Brother in with the Father and the Son for entities that black metal bands would rally against.

Of course, extreme metal vocals offer unlikely cover from government censorship:

A lot of bands sing in English, which offers a measure of protection. As Abaddon's Olivares points out, many of the lyrics are indecipherable anyway. "If you sing in English and your voice is all growls, they can't understand what you're saying," he says. "If they understood, it would be more problematic."

As someone who often complains about the state of metal in South East Asia, I have to say that this article is incredibly humbling.  Stories of Malaysian authorities harassing and arresting the local metal scene are well documented, but pale in comparison to what Cuban metal bands have to go through.  Besides the intense government restrictions on their material, Cuban metal bands have to be licensed by the State in order to be paid:

"For musicians to get paid, they must be "professional," a status bestowed on them by a government agency, through the Ministry of Culture.

For years, rock and metal acts were licensed through the same agencies as salsa and jazz bands. What that meant, in reality, was that they were mostly ignored and therefore couldn't earn money legally. In 2007, the Cuban Rock Agency was formed to represent them. Shortly after, the agency began auditioning bands to receive their professional credentials. At present, it has 16 acts on its roster, most of them metal, and, due to limited resources, nearly all from Havana. These bands either get paid a monthly salary or 60 percent of ticket sales whenever they play a show. What that amounts to is not much: Only one musician I spoke to, Arce, the ex-Venus singer who began fronting Zeus in 1996, makes enough from music to live on. He earns 3,000 national pesos a month, or about $125, which is four to five times more than the average Cuban."

The Internet, that great enabler of bands from even the most remote parts of the world, is still out of the hands of most Cuban metalheads:

"Access is restricted to those authorized specifically by the regime, and even people who manage to get online, legally or illegally (often at great personal expense), must cope with governmental monitoring and slow dial-up connections (broadband and Wi-Fi are all but nonexistent)."

Think about that: no iTunes, no Youtube, no blog searches, no torrents, no trolling on message boards.  Even gathering equipment to start a band requires more resourcefulness and dedication than the average music fan is capable of:

"When Eric formed his first group, Cronos, in 1991, they had to manufacture most of their equipment from scratch. Eric, whose full-time job is teaching art, constructed the guitar bodies from wood, then fixed them with pickups that came from former Eastern Bloc nations such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Friends helped him jury-rig together homemade amplifiers. These days, getting equipment is only marginally easier.

"My monthly salary is 480 pesos," says Eric. "That's about $20. I'm not going to buy a microphone or I'll starve to death. By the way, there's no shop with instruments, anyway."
The band members tell me about taping together broken drumsticks, making guitar picks from old phone cards, and only changing guitar strings every seven months. As one of Chlover's guitarists Milton Núñez explains, "Normally, you buy equipment to get the sound you want to achieve. Here, you take anything that shows up and somehow get to the sound you want."

And for bands outside the capital of Havana, the challenges multiply:
"Traveling the country is arduous. Buying a car was illegal without specific government permission until last year, and still remains prohibitively expensive. Decent public transportation between provinces is also pricey — my bus trip to Santa Clara cost as much as the average monthly salary — and the cheaper options are unreliable. At the 666 Fest, one of the headlining bands, Unlight Domain, hitchhiked to the gig, which isn't uncommon; but two other bands tried to and didn't make it, which also isn't uncommon."

In light of what Cuban metal heads have to go through for the music they love, the rest of us have it pretty easy.  Cuban bands rarely get to play overseas, and with limited resources available in Cuba itself, bands like Narbeleth rely on foreign labels to release their music, as well as the few websites dedicated to Cuban metal, such as, erm, and

A free compilation of Cuba's most KVLT can be downloaded here, courtesy of

*Yes, that's supposed to say "Liberty or Death Metal," or as close as I can get to it in my limited español.  No, I will not apologize.