Communism and the Art of Detachment

I tried to find my zen initially in July of 2003, at a meditation camp in Thailand. At this world renowned Buddhist training camp, you cannot talk, you cannot write, you cannot read. You meditate for 10 days straight. It supposedly changes your life.

The night before I left for meditation, I went out with a man I had been traveling with, a man I now believe to be the one who got away, and drank my whole face off. In Chang Mai somewhere.

His name was Brett and he was, besides my sister, the funniest person I ever met. I don’t have specific memories of us together, per se. Looking back, I see myself hinged at the waist, mouth stretched back, eyes clenched tight, tears streaming down my cheeks and him by my side.

I met Brett on the train to Chang Mai. He was accompanied by a Belgian girl who had the affectations of a drunk heiress; her arms were forever bent at the elbows, at any moment you could pop a long fancy cigarette holder into her crooked fingers, her head was eternally engaged in an lolly neck roll. At any given moment, she might be facing the ground directly, or resting her forehead on her shoulder. There was also a french existentialist in our little group. In the movie of my memory, he is wearing a black beret.

We ventured out to a monkey park together because one night, eating our pad thai and drinking our Thai iced coffee, we bumped into a daddy tourist who told us he took his young son to the  monkey park where the monkeys played basketball. Monkeys playing basketball! I envisioned an arangutan dribbling the ball down the court with another arangutan about to steal the ball, and then the first arangutan, in a black and green sleeveless jersey of course, does a spin and twists in the air, lay up, Score! How big were they? I thought. How high was the net?

“It’s great,” the daddy tourist said, peeling a three year old off his shoulder and trying to stand. “You’ll love it.”

That’s not really how monkey basketball is played. The monkey is on a chain, nightmarish techno pounds in the background and a pretty young Thai girl is the sports commentator. There are no teams. There is one monkey. The monkey’s name, a spider monkey with a metal collar chained to what looks like a hot dog cart, bleeding from the ass, is Oscar, and the young woman is not commentating, she is screaming into the microphone over the techno, “Osca, go trow ball Osca!” The monkey approaches the basket, which is not that far away, and not that high, and nonchalantly tosses the ball more or less in the general direction of the basket. He wants to die. He is depressed. His ass is on fire. The Thai woman shakes her head yes, excitedly clapping with the mike in one hand, encouraging us with smiling eyes, her overzealous cheer telling us this is ok. “Ok Osca!” In the bleachers, there’s an apparently inebriated Belgian woman having a hard time sitting up straight with her rolly skull and a morose french guy disdaining Brett and I in his journal when we are trying to catch our breath. We have succumbed to a severe case of the giggles because it’s really the most horrific thing in the whole world.

They left our little travel group and Brett and I went on to take Thai cooking classes together, go to discos, get Thai massage and facials, ride elephants. I bought him an ethnic hat at the market that was a red, blue and fluorescent green thimble with a dangly sash bumping his nose. Ha ha ha. People in Thailand wear silly clothes! Ha ha ha. Ancient traditions are funny.

It came time for me to go to my meditation camp and change my life. A bender was in order. The night itself wasn’t so memorable, but the amount of beer we drank was.

Brett and I platonically shared a room that particular evening. I might have even left the festivities early the night before, in any event, I was the first one to wake up in the morning and I went for my breakfast that was included in my 7$ a night room. Eggs, tomato, toast, coffee. I remembered thinking, “Oh, my malaria pill. Let me take that now.” I popped one in my mouth.

It didn’t take long for my malaria medication to have a serious discussion with the alcohol careening through my blood stream. The label specifically said not to mix the two, they don’t play well together. Until that point, I had always interpreted warning labels on medication as suggestions. Waiting until the last day of antibiotics to start drinking, for example, was like using a dental dam. It’s a good idea but nobody does that.

Malaria pills and alcohol meeting each other has the same chemical reaction of a baking soda vinegar volcano. Except, in your ass. I was still at the breakfast table when the patron saint of puke gave me a sign. I ran upstairs to my room. Thankfully, Brett had emerged from the bed and I could pass on the warning.

“You should leave now,” I told him. I locked my self in the bathroom and was, is, eternally grateful the sink and the toilet were so close to each other.

This type of two way would happen to me only one other time; after eating seafood at Wakamba, a restaurant in Cuba, 7 years later. No malaria or excessive drinking required.

I left the bathroom, took a few steps and collapsed on the bed. Brett returned. I warned him, never, under any circumstances, go into that bathroom. From my pillow, I groaned, “Brett, my malaria pills made me so sick.”

“You might as well just get malaria then,” he said. This seemed logical, and I left my medication on the dresser.

When I left for meditation, perhaps Brett when back to bed. Perhaps he went into the bathroom. He never tried to contact me again.

This particular meditation group was free. Donations were accepted. It was 10 days long, and you meditated all day. There were occasional breaks where you could walk, but there was no speaking, writing, or reading. There were instructional videos we would watch at night. About how to detach. Aside from not being accustomed to meditation at all, I couldn’t find a comfortable position to sit in for eight hours. My back hurt. My knees hurt. My ADD was killing me.

My stomach was killing me. I tried to endure it, for three days. I thought I could meditate myself to better health. Then, on the third night, I thought maybe I was really sick, maybe there was internal bleeding. Maybe my intestines had burst. I had taken a detour on my journey to spiritual enlightenment.

To leave, you had to ask permission from the head yogi. This was kind of embarrassing. Something I would certainly scoff at had it been someone else. They called a taxi and sent me back to Bangkok. I went to the emergency room. It cost me 15$ for the visit and for the medicine. Apparently, I tore my stomache lining with my emmy worthy exhumation in the bathroom.

I got some medicine and a room in a hotel with a little pool in the front in city center. I was down, but not out. I spent a day in the pool and read a book by Jose Saramango. I watched BBC. There is something really special about watching the BBC news in a hotel room. It makes me feel fancy.

I left for Cambodia the next day. I think, for the most part, I was either complacent enough in my depression or content enough with my actual life, that I left any Buddhist aspirations to the side.

Six years later, it would occur to me that Buddhism might just be my salvation when the school where I worked for 9 years was collapsing. I was finding it really hard not to strangle 95% of my co- workers. I sat down and thought to myself, what can I do before I strangle that woman to death and go to prison? What alternatives do I have? I found a Buddhist retreat, for three and not 10 days, that was not so austere. We could talk to each other. We could read. There was coffee.

Kadampa changed my life, and I began practicing, irregularly, but still, practicing, at Dharma Punx in the East Village. Any one who has not died by my hands at my old school owes Josh Korda their lives.

I tell you all that to tell you this. I made a movie about heavy metal. I cashed in my pension, which probably would not be there in 30 years thanks to mismanagement by the state government for the last 25 years. I may or may not be here in 30 years. I quit my job, gave away all my stuff, said goodbye and left for Cuba.

Before I left Jersey City in June 2009, the very last thing I did was go visit my friend Hamlet. Hamlet has been living with HIV for over 20 years, with full blown AIDS for the last 6 or 7. He has been ready to die for a while, but life is fighting him. He lives in a hospice up the street. He has lived there, maybe 5 years. My darling friend Michael was driving me to my sister’s where I would live for the next 4 days. The car was packed. I had an hour to see Hamlet before I left.

Walking into the hospice center, you are accosted by the scent of decay and piss and ammonia. I hate that place. Somehow, it brings out the best in me. I am forced to be happy there. I am not rotting away on a gurney. When I am there as a tenant and not a visitor, push me down the stairs, pull the plug, drive me into the river. I am totally on Hamlet’s side. He is ready to go.

I have seen Hamlet corpse-like in an ICU. I have sat and read to him when he was a 60 lb shell, plugged into so many devices. This was different somehow.

Hamlet was in the bed, barely propped up. It was July 1st. It was hot and sunny. He was in the bed, with the curtains drawn tight. The room was dark. The room is always dark. Hamlet was in the fetal position with chalky remains of his insides all over his lips and the garbage strategically placed near the bed. Maybe he would lift his head and spit and it would land somewhere in the vicinity of the mouth of the garbage can. Not necessarily.

Hi honey, how are you, I ask.

Exquisite, he says. He was.

I wish now I had remembered that moment more while I was in Cuba. On my to do list of making a documentary, I didn’t put: #4. Confront my own limitations of discipline and/or patience. I didn’t know. When I left for Cuba, I loved Cuba. I wish, after being there for 6 months, I didn’t hate Cuba for being Cuba.

It wasn’t that the country was poor. It was. Or that things were difficult. They were. My biggest problem was accepting a whole cultural system which includes making everything a really difficult process. Es un processo, people would tell me, shaking their heads, like, I don’t know, martyrs in the Bible or something. Like time consuming, unnecessary procedures were like the the horizon separating sun and sea. That’s how it is. Man has no control, no agency. Cubans are resolved to believe that bureacracy and wasting your time is as inevitable as the next crisis of imperialism. Or sunsets.

I waited 6 hours to buy bus tickets! I would tell my adopted family. No es facile, the mommy, replied, shaking her head. But in regards to easy things. Like buying bus tickets. For some reason that is a really difficult, time consuming process. No es facile is the Cuban equivalent of in God we Trust. It’s engraved in the capital and imprinted on currency.

And I think, if I was in Guatemala, and it took a long time, I wouldn’t have been so annoyed. (and it does not take a long time in Guatemala, or anywhere else to buy bus tickets. And then they tell you that you cannot travel together because there are different busses for Cubans and foreigners. Ha! Martin Luther King Center my ass.) But this is in a country that posits itself as the vanguard in human development and progress. Well, I think your hepatitis vaccine is awesome. Why does it take an eternity to buy a fucking bus ticket?

I tried to be joyful. I tried to embrace everything I had and not focus on what I did not. I feel as though I cultivated more Buddhist zen in Havana in 9 months than I would have in India over a life time. My gurus: Escape. Do you want to hear something funny? Jenny would tell me, smacking her hands together and laughing. She tells me a story about how they waited for a bus for an hour at 2 am in the morning. Once it came, it only travelled one or two more stops until it made everybody get out and wait another hour for another bus. Isn’t that funny? she asks again. No, I say. No, that’s awful.

But in Cuba, awful must be funny. Because if you don’t laugh, well, you have no alternative. You can’t just walk around being angry all the time, because you will just be angry all the time. You certainly can’t protest. You can’t be funny and complain on video, because you will end up under house arrest. Maybe you can write a letter and complain to the CDR, if you can find a piece of paper and something to sharpen the pencil you’ve been holding on to for the last 2 years.

When I think about how I explained to Jenny, Yando and Alejandro how I was studying Buddhism when I first arrived in July, I laugh. They must think American buddhists have a strict diet of vodka and cigarettes and curse words.

I am not sure if it’s because everything here is easier, or if because we are allowed to complain when it is not. I am not sure if it’s because I learned the futility of complaint over there. I don’t like who I am when I am complaining. Even if I am right. But I have noticed that I don’t get stressed out anymore, that I am usually calm, or at least calmer, after my Cuban escapade. Namaste, Havana. Namaste.

Statement for Briant, Rockupation of City Hall, June 1, 2012

In dreams I see myself flying…                                                         Invisible Wounds (Dark Bodies), Fear Factory

I know introducing a photo exhibit on Cuban metal with a Fear Factory  song is strange. I know.

I actually discovered Fear Factory in Havana after spending a month with Escape in 2007. And when I hear Fear Factory, I remember Alejandro Padron, the drummer of Escape, in a larger way, in a way that transcends any kind of sadness I might feel from missing him, from missing everyone in Escape. If I am out somewhere, at a club in NYC, and Fear Factory comes on, I remember Julian in the kitchen, Alejandro’s father, serving me coffee from his rations while music blared down the hallway from Alej’s bedroom. I remember nights at Madriguera, an outside music venue in Havana, where DeLa and Jenny and I got drunk and banged our heads to live metal. I remember the paralyzing swelter of Havana, the slow motion of our days together, the evening pilgrimages to Calle G where all the frikis convened with communal bottles of vodka that could blind the sun, the birds in the morning and again, Julian’s cafe.

Closer to the sun and I’m climbing

When I met Jennifer Hernandez in Alejandro’s apartment in 2007, she told me, “Vamos hacer vecinas.” It means, “We’re going to be neighbors.” I thought she said something about going to a pool. I was grateful. The heat was oppressive. “Great!” I told her. “I can’t wait! When?” This type of misunderstanding would characterize the entire process of documenting Escape and filming They Will Be Heard.

 

Tried to touch the sun but the brightness burned my eyes

Two years later, I filmed Jenny as she walked through the doors of the airport check-in toward her terminal, waving one last time to her family, her boyfriend at the time, Yando Coy, who is the lead singer of Escape, and her friends, before reuniting with her father in New Jersey. Briant Garcia Rodriquez was there, waving goodbye.

Briant had worked with Escape for several years as their sound engineer. And he was an avid Escape fan, he had Escape tattooed on his arm.

As Jenny’s waving hand, seen above the crowd of people at the airport checking their luggage and getting their boarding passes, disappeared behind a red door, Briant turned to me and said, “The next time I come to the airport, I’m going to be the one leaving.”

Briant had three options. He could wait for normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, he could become an international artist right away and get invited to another country, or he could get married to someone else outside of Cuba.

Unconscious or am I conscious?

Briant couldn’t wait to get married or become famous. Who can? Briant chose the fourth option: to get on a balsa and try and float 90 miles to Miami.

And I saw my own face in the dark and loneliness

Briant went missing in October. Jenny and I were hopeful, but there are instances in your life where the words being conveyed to you carry their truth, undeniable like the weight of the ocean. I thought of Briant in his last moments often, succumbing to that weight, as the truth of what was about to happen became certain…sometimes I think of it scientifically, when I am swimming; I am aware of how heavy the ocean is. Sometimes I can’t think of it, but I feel it in my chest and my face becomes frozen.

and I saw my own face like a spark frozen in heaven

One of the problems when someone you love goes missing is that there is no ritual of closure. You are aware of what has happened, you are aware they are gone, but there’s this window, this impossible window, and you think anything is possible.

Jenny and I have been very lucky in many ways. One, she came to New Jersey, and we were able to build and continue our friendship. We’ve been fortunate enough to meet and know and love incredible people who saw the potential of Escape and the entire Cuban metal community and understand the necessity of changing the world through heavy metal. We’ve been able to develop and build UnBlock the Rock with an amazing team of artists and organizers.

Jenny and I decided that we would dedicate June 1st, UnBlock the Rock Occupies City Hall, to Briant as our memorial for him. He is in these photos, immortalized with a smile and surrounded by friends. Tonight you will hear “Simbolo de Libertad” by Escape, performed by musicians from Venezuela, Cuba, Iraq, and the US, and we can remember Briant in a larger way, in a way that transcends missing him.

http://www.theywillbeheard.com

 

 

Cuba, Heavy Metal and Pope Benedict

Benedict said the “ambition and selfishness of certain powers” took “little account of the true good of individuals and families,” and added that it was impossible to “continue in the same cultural and moral direction which has caused the painful situation that many suffer.” (Wall Street Journal, on the Pope arriving in Cuba)

As the director of They Will Be Heard, and the Executive Director of UnBlock the Rock, I read these words and felt compelled to share my thoughts regarding Cuban heavy metal band Escape and the Cuban heavy metal movement in general.

Alejandro Padron, practice at Casa de Cultura
Alejandro Padron, practice at Casa de Cultura

I don’t think it can be stated clearly enough that the US imposed blockade against Cuba and the internal Cuban blockade against anything “that smelled American” effectively segregated two nations of people for the last 62 years.

 When heavy metal arrived on the island, and was warmly received circa 1986, it signified a population of Cubans who were hearing and understanding and embracing the language of resistance and rebellion young Americans had the privilege of accessing at our local record store or recording on to cassettes from the radio, or purchasing from those record clubs where you got 10 albums for a penny, or MTV, or U68 so easily.

It signified a major breakthrough between two communities who were deliberately politically and culturally isolated from each other. Beyond enjoying heavy metal, young Cubans, continued against all odds, to emulate heavy metal, to create and develop heavy metal, putting themselves under great scrutiny of the Cuban government, with little or no interaction, much less support of the international metal community, with the exception of Sepultura and Audio Slave performing in Havana.“

They Will Be Heard” is testimony from those courageous Cubans who have been fighting for their dreams for the last 10 years, who have been fighting to be heard.

Escape with John Lennon in Havana.
Escape with John Lennon in Havana.

UnBlock the Rock is our movement to bring Cuban metal band Escape here to perform with their head banging neighbors in the United States.

While I was filming in Cuba, I had the great honor to be there when Jennifer Hernandez’s father, El Negro Hernandez, came to perform at the Gran Teatro. When asked, “What do you think about this type of cultural exchange,” Negro, who defected from Cuba in 1989, replied, “The reason Cuban musicians and American musicians don’t perform together has nothing to do with musicians. We want to be together.”

For all of us, music is the way we externalize how we feel. It is the loudness of our love, the silence of our sorrow. It’s time for Cuban musicians and American musicians to be together. It’s our time.

For more information, contact traceynoelleluz@gmail.com or             (973) 868-6393.

 

 

Socialism is Lame, Capitalism Sucks

*Originally written in January 2012.

When I was 25, my second first true love of my life and I broke up and moved out of our 1 bedroom apartment with the closet that was too shallow and the kitchen with linoleum floors. I was convinced that the psychosis driving us apart stemmed from the fact that we were organizers in a well meaning but misguided organization that plotted to overthrow the capitalist system and usher in a new society based on austerity and justice for all.

As the organization came crumbling down around us, because we were too annoying to deal with our own political posturing, I was sure, with time, my true love and I would realize we were not the jerk offs we had been for the last two years. When the dust cleared, we would find ourselves embraced, rolling around on the ground, like a bad soap commercial, which is how we ended up moving in together in the first place.

Late at night, we didn’t discuss white picket fences and what we would name our children (thank god, because based on collective cat names at the time, Steinbeck would have been the most socially accepted, but would have gotten his ass beat twice as much as his cousins Mao and Lenin). Lying in each other’s arms, with the moonlight streaming in the window, we debated whether or not Chairman Gonzalez was correct in his assessment of the Cuban revolution having made a complete right wing error while glamorizing the fact that he said that in a striped jail suit from a cage. We dreamed not of moving to a “good neighborhood” with a strong public school system, but of how we would collectively raise our kids while forging a new society and how even the men, even the men! would participate in day care.

 

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

And our relationship, and our organization, was a result of well meaning and sensitive young people coming to consciousness of the atrocities of our own government.

Once you understand that Christopher Columbus killed all those defenseless people and that we commemorate it with sales at Macy’s, once you find out where your Nike’s come from, once you find out exactly why you are forced to sit down with your relatives every 4th Thursday of November, (blankets with what!) and then, somehow, always soon after, you understand that it it was written in our Bill of Rights, that we had the right, nay, the duty, to alter, reform or abolish the government, well, you grab your copy of the People’s History, and it’s on.

I can’t stand liars. I’ve lied. But I don’t lie as a matter of fact or as a matter of public policy that gets people’s legs blown off. I try to be accountable. We’ve all found ourselves in those situations where we’ve made bad decisions. But, I’ve never been like, “Let’s go to war because that country will randomly attack us with weapons of mass destruction, send us your sons!” because I wanted oil. George Bush is a liar. And Dick Cheney’s heart has failed us all.

And so this kind of outrage, and I suppose these are evolutionary baby steps we all take as human beings, occurs because we realize our government has been lying to us. And we hate them for it.

Many of us come to this kind of consciousness, and immediately bypass Dr. Martin Luther King, running straight for Malcolm X, white girl from Flanders that you are, because Malcolm doesn’t confront the oppressor out of love, love! He is ready to kick oppressor ass. And it’s true that violence only begets more violence, but the people who told you that see nothing wrong with Columbus Day.

 

When you come to this kind of consciousness, either through Rage Against the Machine, or Gael Garcia Bernal, or because you are crazy about guys with long hair, somehow, Che Guevera is going to land in your path. Because you loved Tupac Shakur, Assata is going to end up on your coffee table. And because Fidel Castro is the man most despised by the lyingest of liars ever, the demon evoked by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Bush I and the sequel, which never needed to be made, Bush II, then clearly, clearly, Fidel is the man.

When I was 25, my second first true love and I broke up and I was sure the psychosis of our well intentioned but misguided organization that dreamed of overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with each according to his need, each according to his ability, the masculine pronoun of which was excused by the women in organization because Marx didn’t have the correct vocabulary at that time, that psychosis would dissipate and we would realize we really did love each other. The failure of our relationship was because he was an infantile leftist and I was a chauvinist missionary. And in time, we would grow back together, tectonically, like plates.

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

A few days after commencing our trial separation, a few days later after moving out of our apartment with the closets that upheld my clothes at a right or left wing angle, depending on how you looked at them, and the shower head that didn’t not shower us with water, but dribbled down upon us, he appeared at my new apartment’s door, to tell me he had met someone else. Someone who wrote better poetry. Someone who was taller. Thinner. Younger. I was too young to be -erred out. But there I was. Older. Shorter. Less metaphoric/er.

The decision was made. I would commit myself to the only man who ever loved me: Karl Marx. I would travel to Cuba. Maybe my ex boyfriend’s revolutionary fervor could be quelled by some CPUSA bombshell grappling with the nature of contradictions, but I was going to the motherland. I had outgrown all the foolishness of our local movement and would commit myself to building the true people’s movement, regardless of race or class, something that would have the diverse multi racial composition of a busy Saturday afternoon at IKEAs. To commemorate this great event, I would cut my hair and dye it blonde, descending on Cuba like a furious Billie Jean, a woman scorned.

That’s when I met Chiqui.

 

Over a decade ago, I traveled to Havana. I lived with a family for a couple of days and then, it was decided, I would move, in what was the first step of my long career as a fag hag, a talent I neither asked for nor deliberately honed, into an apartment closer to the city center with two gay men.

After a celibate but fabulous 9 week introduction to socialism, I prepared myself to return to the belly of the beast. I went, by myself, to UNEAC, a beautiful house in Vedado that hosted a weekly musical performance of trova or rhumba.

It was one of those moments that you never forget, but considering the events afterwards, I’ll spare you the eyes locking, the stomache butterflies, the first touch of our fingers, blah blah blah. What is important about me meeting Julio, aside from the fact that the fucker still owes me money, is that he was the bass player for a Garage H. He brought me to Patio Maria, which is where I met, I am convinced I met Alejandro Padron, and the lead singer, Chiqui.

Mind you, I was young. Mind you, I wasn’t interested in metal bands in Cuba at that time. I was over metal. I was discovering jazz. Participating in weekly study groups left me with a sense of enlightenment, and I was confused why these young men would cling to such a petty bourgeois cultural expression when they lived in paradise, the beacon for all humanity. I mused that their outrage must be against imperialism. I wanted these men to know that I may be a North American, but I was a good one, and I was aware of What Was to be Done.

Understand I had organized and taught in Newark, I saw the diseased and infected intestines of the belly of the beast. I saw the politics of food, adorned on the mustaches and double d cups of 12 year old girls. I saw the politics of race in photos of our governor, Christie Whitman, frisking black men in Camden for folly; Abu Grab lite. I had gotten my ass out of bed to go to demonstrations on cold Saturday mornings in DC for whatever civilian bridges we were bombing at the time. I would have taken over a building to protest George Bush stealing the presidency, but I think the left was too busy blaming Ralph Nader for that.

First day meeting Escape in 2007. Cayo Oeste, Havana
First day meeting Escape in 2007. Cayo Oeste, Havana

Havana, on the other hand, was peaceful. There were no drive- bys, children could play in the street unattended, there was no Amadou Diallo in Havana, there were no universities and public institutions being bankrupted for corporate greed, abortion was free and legal, the medical system has been lauded by world renowned organizations, and, in the streets, there was a constant historical record of Cuba’s independence from the United States, a claim very few nations can make.

Back to Chiqui. I spent about three weeks in Miami filming frikis with connections to Escape in February 2010. Chiqui was the original lead singer for Problema, founded with Alejandro and Justo, who would go on to form Escape.

I love Chiqui. If I was People magazine, he’d be one of the top ten personalities of the new millienium. Chiqui and I have drank together in Havana, Topas de los Criantes, Vitoria (Spain) Miami and New York. Our friendship has spanned about 12 years. He is a huge part of this film, he put me in touch with Escape in 2007.

In all the interviews, friquis talk about the beginning of metal in Habana, Patio Maria, how they encountered metal despite a blockade against Cuba and a cultural blockade within. In all the interviews, in Cuba and Miami, they talk about losing friends and band members because of immigration. When I ask Chiqui how he feels when he goes back, the pace starts out very calm, but sad.

“It bothered me to go back and see the people without any power to do anything different. The streets were a little worse, the people a little more poor…I’d prefer to go to Haiti,” he says. “Even though Haiti is in terrible condition right now. But when you see your people suffering, it hurts you more.” As he considers the question, his mouth turns upside down, his forehead wrinkles, he leans forward in his chair. “You are a thief, you are a jinitero” he snarls into the camera. He is louder, he is angry. “The divided family is a business,” he says into the camera. Knowing Chiqui for the last 12 years, where he has been and where he has gone, it’s a beautiful interview.

Jennifer Hernandez at the Atelier, 8/2007
Jennifer Hernandez at the Atelier, 8/2007

In a rough cut of the film, I place the interview, intermittently, with Jenny’s (the original keyboard player of Escape) departure at the airport. She is leaving her family, her friends. Even if Jenny had a million dollars, she cannot return to Cuba for three years, and her mother or her boyfriend, Yando, cannot leave the island without an invitation. Her mother can be invited by Jenny in three years. Yando cannot, unless his brother, who left, many years ago and has been out of contact, somehow resurfaces and goes through the very lengthy and expensive process of inviting him.

I am watching this cut with a Cuban editor. The discussion of Chiqui’s testimony lasts for a long time. Which is good. Democracy is messy and should take a long time. It is the form of the discussion around the interview which leaves me exhausted and confused, tired and overwhelmed. I want to hand someone the hard drive and go wait tables off the coast of Oaxaca.

Because the conversation goes like this. The cuban editor argues that I am making Cuba look bad. That what Chiqui is saying is exactly what the right wing in Miami has been saying for the last 40 years. That the film won’t show in Havana if I include that part of the interview.

I argue that I won’t include it if what Chiqui is saying is unoriginal, but I am not going to censor the film so it can be shown in Havana. But the discussion decays into the United States versus Cuba. The discussion has somehow become capitalism versus socialism. We argue about freedom of speech. We argue about civil rights. We argue about segregation. And this has been the problem for the last 51 years. The dialogue is bi-polar, either you are left, or you are right. I don’t want to align myself with either because their fanaticism obscures the truth. And, even though I love Chiqui and I know he is being sincere, I don’t want to put out a film, where one sentence will brand the whole film as right wing propaganda for a population I despise.

Maybe the heartache of my second first love leaving left me lazy. Maybe I just found the most convenient enemy of my enemy, and latched on to the forbidden island. But, after living in Havana for 9 months, I know my love for the island is predicated on my ability to leave. I am also aware that the freedoms I have here come at a cost. Someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s mother harvests my coffee. If I want to buy clothes, I have to pay more money to make sure a grown up got paid for their labor. It is because of an underpaid Mexican day laborer who cannot support his or her family, that I can get strawberries in December. My freedom of speech is different than freedom of speech for a day laborer in the south. Or a black person in Newark.

Maybe we can just accept the fact that under capitalism, people are taught to be a little too selfish. And that this selfishness can manifest very ugly and violent things. Like Rudolph Guiliani or Donald Trump. On the other hand, is that if it sucks for one person in Cuba, then it sucks for everyone else in Cuba.

In arguing with the Cuban editor, he refers to Chiqui’s interview again. “I don’t think this is going to change anything. It’s going to add to the hate.” And now we’re getting somewhere.

And so maybe there’s an answer for all of us, living here on planet earth. Not in the middle, but in taking the best parts of both ideas…we should have free health care and education, but we should also be able to protest and speak freely. Two things synonymous with rock and roll.

Alejandro and his son Jorgito.
Alejandro and his son Jorgito.

I consider these kids creating a heavy metal culture in Havana their declaration of independence. I consider the blockades that separate Americans from Cuba ridiculous and obscene. I consider this our moment to reshape the world based on the values we consider important. Like music and humanity. I consider this a message to the people who have been in charge for the last century or so and have fucked things up.

Move over. It’s our time.

 www.theywillbeheard.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Flanders – Havana Connection

Growing up in Flanders, NJ in the 1980’s was a lot like living in Cuba in the first decade of the new millennium. In both epochs of my life, my friends and I ate copious amounts of pizza. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. There was no internet, and no one had cell phones. Our pot was lame. We finagled beer and vodka and drank on the streets. We were made stronger by the Power of Metal. When I write that, it is said like thunder and each syllable is very important. The Power of Metal.

Except, in the 80’s, in Flanders, I was a very young teenager. I had no control over my circumstances. At the age of 11, my father would finally leave, which was a good thing because he took his out of control temper with him. The judge awarded custody to my mother, forcing my father to contribute the legal equivalent of pitching in here and there. We were struggling financially, and the absence of a father, not necessarily mine, made adolescence even more difficult. Heavy metal was a natural outlet. Metal united me with all the other misfits of society, and we loved the Misfits. The voice of my frustration against the injustice of my circumstances, against the suffocating feeling of adolescence, of being controlled by adults who stood in the way of my fierce determination to be self destructive, was heard through Metallica, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Testament, Anthrax.

 

To live in Cuba means to be isolated from the world. Kind of like living in Flanders in the 80’s. There are three television channels that show Friends, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls, courtesy of the state. There are three newspapers. To have access to internet, you must have permission from the government. Most Cubans do not have access to the internet.

Living in Cuba is the eternal suffocating feeling of adolescence, even when you’re a grown up. You have no control over your external circumstances. You live with your parents. In most cases, your bedroom, when you have one, the guitar player Yanio does not, bears the same decorating savvy as it did when I ripped my first centerfold out of Circus Magazine.

In Flanders, in the 80’s, when I lived with my mother, and I was angry, pictures from metal magazines, right angle to right angle, joined forces to create a motley montage of hair and heavy metal hands. Ratt, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Queensryche, with an occasional intruder like Chief Seattle because he was also righteous and had long hair. Alejandro,the drummer of Escape, has this wall, with Scarlett Johansen looking completely comfortable out of place because she knew, if given the chance, that Slipknot and Megadeath would love to be her boyfriend. She had no fear on the wall of metal.

I ripped down my photos when I became more sophisticated and slightly gothy and punk rocky and wrote poetry like most ugly girls in high school. My hair was thankful. So was my vagina, in lieu of skin tight jeans, I started wearing loose anti-objectification garb. But, I had options. There were choices. Even in culturally vapid Flanders, I could land my hands on DK and Black Flag and go through my whole Sid and Nancy worship phase. (I kid you not, I saw that movie no less than 20 times and still confuse Sid Vicious with Gary Oldman. Watching JFK was a complete mind fuck.)

Metal came to the island poco a poco after the ban against John Lennon was lifted in 1966, after the first wave of rock music came to Cuba. Cubans who had the opportunity to travel to Germany or other countries of the USSR came back toting Metallica and Judas Priest. Metal did not come to Cuba from the US, as the majority of US tourists go to see old cars and marvel at the musicians in the square who play Guantanamera or Hotel California. The activists who travel there on some humanitarian mission or another tend to cling to the hip hop movement, also state controlled, extolling Martin Luther King who can’t get any peace where ever he is trying to rest, since Cubans aren’t permitted in hotels, nor or they permitted to demonstrate against these segregationist policies. Todavia.

Metal is an expression of individual liberty, explosive and furious, passionate. For these Cubans, born into the successes of the revolution and the suffering of the Special Period, they are finding their own way, despite all odds, to define who they are.

 

 

In Cuba, this is especially difficult. In Cuba, this is especially courageous. Access to instruments, practice space, electricity, social acceptance, accessories, is difficult. You are not permitted to speak freely. Escape, the band featured in this documentary, shouts, growls, screams what they feel, explosively, forcing people to listen.

Metal, the white, working class equivalent of hip hop, the trumpet, I mean electric guitar, for collective frustrations, was identified with western values and ideals by the Cuban government and seen as contraband. Cuban metalheads, frikis, were arrested for having long hair only 15 years ago. Patio Maria, Havana’s equivalent of CBGB’s, gave a home to those early bands, Zeus, Agonizer, Escape, and Hipnosis and a birthplace for metal until it was shut down in 2000.

What is so ironic, so fucking ironic, about that, is that metal led me down the path to my commitment to social and political justice. I found a deep correlation in the injustice of my parent’s relationship, the subsequent lousy divorce settlement, our financial struggle, in the themes explored in my favorite metal songs. And I loved Stephen King. (See Among the Living) I emphasized with the plight of native americans (Chief Seattle, again, righteous and long hair. The first metal head ever! Run to the HIlls, brothers!) I was concerned about the nature of good and evil, I also wanted to bring the noise. Metal, when you scratch the surface, is against the status quo. I wanted to rock and roll all night, and party every day. That first act of resistance, of realizing you had choices, you didn’t have to participate in the capitalist 80’s culture of cocaine and bad hair, yes, Cuba, the worst tenets of capitalism, were born into the consciousness through metal.

It was through metal, and punk, and hip hop, through Dee Snider and John Denver and NWA, that I became politicized and took my first steps towards becoming anti -imperialist. It was because of the PMRC (Parent’s Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore) and “Tales of the Witch Trials”, cassettes by Jello Biafra on his political views and why pot was really illegal, it was because of “Injustice for All”, that I became a “revolutionary” in college. It was really because my sister bought “Back in Black” on vinyl when I was 11 that I would arrive with hungry eyes and narrow perspective in Havana 15 years later. To find other metal heads, despondent and discouraged by their own society’s shortcomings, just like me. Just like me.

Two years ago, visionary and metalhead, Yuri Max Avila rallied the Cuban government for support, and Maxim Rock, the premiere (and only!) metal venue was born in Havana. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Escape, Combat Noise, Zeus, Agonizer, or Hipnosis play. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the club closes and frikis trudge on down to the park at G and 23rd. Five or 6 people contribute towards purchasing a bottle of vodka and the night begins. Again. The same way it did the night before. A week before. Years ago.