Rock UnBlocked

Like most great revolutions, UnBlock the Rock (UBTR) was conceived in a kitchen by two women. A logo was designed, letters were written, phone calls were made, beers were bought and held up ceremoniously before being joyfully consumed. It was determined that we would bring metal band Escape from Cuba to the United States for the first Cuban metal concert on US soil.

Jennifer Hernandez and I, the women in that kitchen on a chilly morning in February of 2011, initially met in 2007, on a sweltering August afternoon in the apartment of Alejandro Padron, the drummer of Escape.

“Vamos hacer vecinos,” she told me, “We’re going to be neighbors.” She was referring to the fact that her father, world famous percussionist Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez lived in NJ, and she was in the process immigrating there, as part of a policy of family reunification. I thought she said something about a piscina, or a pool. Elated I replied, “Oh! Que rico!”

 

That fateful August, I was in Havana to photograph Escape. The month before, I was documenting a trip through the US with Pastors for Peace (PfP), an activist caravan comprised of donated school buses, stopping in cities all over the US, collecting medical equipment and educational things to bring to Cuba, openly challenging the US imposed travel ban. The travel ban, imposed in 1963, prohibits Americans from spending money in Cuba and receiving gifts from Cubans while there. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, (OFAC), considers the purchase of a ticket to Cuba spending money. Americans can travel to Cuba with a special license for what may be considered journalistic or religious reasons. In a move toward greater democracy, the Obama administration recently began to allow Americans to travel on chartered tours, controlling how you travel and who you talk to.

I would like to say here that I’ve traveled freely to many places with histories of human rights abuses and terrible leaders, like Cambodia and South Africa and Newark, NJ, without the hindrance of US government sanctions.

PfP organizes caravans against the travel ban, and has done so faithfully for the last 24 years. I was proud to be a part of a resistance movement that challenged a segregationalist, unevolved policy. However, even if I was on the bus, I couldn’t jump on the bandwagon that Cuba was the best place in the world ever.

In American mainstream media, Cuba is a prison/paradise, Fidel is a saint/the devil. There is only this tired dialogue of left and right, volleying back and forth frozen in history. In major publications, documentaries, literature this is the range of expression, the only 2 options to understand Cuba-US relations, presented as democratic debate.

The US provokes Cuba and thrives on this drama, causing crisis on the island all the time, their actions making the Cuban government’s grasp on their people tighter. The US portrays itself in American media as victorious, benevolent, and magnanimous by offering Cubans immigration policies ensuring that just by arriving, (unlike Mexicans, Haitians, Dominicans or Guatamalans, Belgians, Japonese, etc. etc.) Cubans are eligible for citizenship within a year.

Any real objective presentation of truth regarding Cuba is lost in the narrative that is necessary for both governments to perpetuate their policies. Where is their justification for either policy, US or Cuban, when it is widely reported that in a friendship that was born in mutual illegality, two women made a decision while eating breakfast on a chilly February morning to proceed according to love and friendship? That, one born in Cuba, and one born in NJ, under systems that both propagated ill will towards the other’s government, would come together, and with no money or resources, fight to bring a heavy metal band from Havana to the United States. And that people would join them. Lots of people. Good looking, interesting, talented people. What political purpose does that serve?

When I first met Escape in the summer of 2007, I was a recovering leftist. I was emerging from an immersion in Marxist politics that stifled debate and made everything relatively unfun. I was introduced to the members of Escape, and to the burgeoning metal movement in Havana when Patio Maria (Cuba’s CBGB’s) was shut down and Maxim Rock had not yet opened up. I spent a month photographing Escape, and our friendship, illegal in two countries, would prevail, with limited contact for the next 2 years.

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When you arrive in Cuba, you must stay in a state sanctioned hotel or pension. To live with a Cuban, if you are a foreigner, you must obtain what is referred to as “A Declaration of Friendship”. To prove you are friends, you cannot go to the immigration office and say, “Alejandro’s father makes me coffee every morning”, or “Justo’s mom taught me how to make Pan de Rico” or “Yando said something funny and it gave me great joy.” This is not sufficient proof of friendship. The presentation of photographs, smiles wide and gleaming do not qualify.

Jenny and I applied for a “Declaration of Friendship” in 2009 when I returned to Havana to shoot “They Will Be Heard”, a documentary about Escape. At the immigration office in Havana, after her address and personal information were dutifully written down and recorded, surely to be presented to the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, to ensure I did not live in her home, it was declared we were not friends enough.

So this is what we did.

We campaigned for Cuban metal for the last 2 years. We used FaceBook. Twitter. YouTube and Vimeo. And you know what? The right people showed up at exactly the right time. The ultimate rock and roll liberator, Monica Hampton, producer of “Heavy Metal in Baghdad”, brought in legendary guitar player Alex Skolnick of Testament and both organized tirelessly without any compensation. Local bands like Darkness Descends and BroHammer and Iratetion played benefits to raise money. Awesome bartenders hooked us up with metalicious venues like Three of Cups to host cocktail contests. We ROCKUPIED City Hall in Jersey City. Tomato and Karina and Faisal and Alex and Dean and Ismael learned “Simbolos de Libertad” by Escape (Faisal learned spanish!) and they rocked the shit out of it in City Hall, where all the photography of the band was hung. (I was told months later by someone who attended, “It was LOUD! You could hear it from blocks away.”)

 

unblock the rock, group, eric
UnBlock the Rock with members of Alex Skolnick, Faisal Talal, Monica Hampton, members of Iratetion and Darkness Descends, and Firehaze.

 

Elan Trybuch appeared at a bar stool next to me one night and graciously and amazingly designed our beautiful website. (Look at it, here! www.unblocktherock.com) David Peisner, the author of The Red Menace, an article about Cuban metal in Spin, solicited great tracks for our benefit CD, “The Red Album” and was instrumental in getting visas for Escape to perform at SXSW. Alicia Zertuche performed the herculean feat of organizing frikis, or Cuban metalheads via email, (virtually impossible) and US congressmen to make the visas manifest the week before the SXSW. The Supersuckers, Black Tusk, Eyehategod, and other killer bands donated tracks for “The Red Album” to raise money. Bill Martinez advised. Talented people photographed and shot and edited our amazing propaganda. WSOU joined forces with us. ShitKill and Dave Dreiwitz and FireHaze performed at various venues. All in the name of Cuban metal.

Democracy wants to be born.

UBTR is a new voice, championing those Cubans, true visionaries, who adopted a language of resistance that was born out of the blues and transformed by disgruntled working class kids through out the western hemisphere and translated it into their own, embodying metal riffs with Cuban history and identity so complex that even Alex Skolnick and Chris “Tomato” Harfenist, both accomplished musicians, had a hard time mastering the rhythm of “Simbolos de Libertad.”

 

Listen: The US erected a fake wall in the middle of the ocean in 1963, the Cubans retaliated with their own fake wall banning The Beatles (!) Cubans who heard Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” in 1986 didn’t necessarily speak English but they understood completely the language of rebellion. Young Cubans start to emulate and adopt and transform metal culture in the mid ’80s and early 90’s when Brothers to the Rescue was shot down over Havana and Bill Clinton signed the Helms Burton Act tightening the embargo, the USSR falls and the Special Period ensues. The walls grow taller and that infamous 90 mile stretch of Atlantic Ocean becomes a vast graveyard where most likely, the original sound engineer for Escape, Bryant Rodriguez was buried a year ago when he tried to take advantage of America’s favorable immigration policies.

On March 10th, 2013, Jenny and I took a taxi to LaGuardia airport to fly into Miami and greet Escape. It’s hard to convey the sensation of walking in communion with your dreams.  Even now, reflecting on seeing Escape walk through those doors into the Miami airport, my skin is jumping, I feel electric. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for 3 years,” I told Yando, lead singer of Escape. “Tracey, I’ve been waiting for this moment for 28 years,” he replied.

What a beautiful thing we all did.

 

My hope is that Obama, in his last term, will just lift the blockade altogether. If the US isn’t provoking Cuba, the Cuban government has no pretense to demand Declarations of Friendship, they have no enemy to protect the revolution from.

As of now, Escape, along with Ancestor and Agonizer, is in Miami, doing what they have always dreamed of doing, performing live in front of new audiences. UBTR is in the process of bringing them to NYC before the band, all or some, return to Havana. Alejandro called me yesterday about performing in NYC, “Is it possible?” he asked, then, immediately, responding to his own question “Of course, everything is possible!”

Of course everything is possible. It’s our time.

 

Tracey Noelle Luz

March 31, 2013

 

 

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.

 

 

Spain, Stocks and Rock UnBlocked

When I read the news of Spain’s youth taking over the streets, I had my typical these days reaction which was to bounce up and down in my seat and contain the energy surging in my veins that wanted me there, now, into the hopeful and encouraging FB status and link that maybe some would comment on. Boo.

But as a recovering lefty activist, I was inspired to see people redefining their movement to change the world outside of the left/right paradigm that has dominated the discussion of class politics for the last 50 years.

Why is UnBlock the Rock so special? Because nothing has epitomized the left/right dichotomy more than the relationship of Cuba and the United States. And so within this very confined discussion of “No, you” “No, YOU!” Somehow, someway, heavy metal arrived on the island in the mid 80’s. Somehow, someway, the same music that helped me identify my systems of oppression arrived at the polar opposite of that system and defined another. 

We have to be friends. Cuba and the United States that is. Regardless of what Cubans think about their situation, and it’s their decision to make, it’s really ridiculous that it’s illegal for US citizens to travel there. 

I believe in free health care and free education. I believe in freedom of speech. I believe they can all exist together. I also believe it’s time for us to focus on what brings us together and start determining our future in a time when the stocks are down and Spain is rising and the middle east is figuring things out and how rock and roll figures into all of this. I believe it’s time to stop being so left you’re right and so right you’re wrong and coming up with a new ideology, a new ideology that sounds good.

So what is UnBlock the Rock? It’s us recognizing that on an island where it is impossible to find toilet paper, these people found guitar strings. It’s us realizing that if nothing else, we all have Metallica. It’s us coming out to see three great bands for 10$ and that 10$ going towards legal fees to organize Cuban hard core band Escape, featured in the rocumentary “They Will Be Heard” (the website of which, surprisingly is theywillbeheard.com) and organizing the first Cuban metal tour on US soil ever.

Come out, June 24th, at 11 pm to see FireHaze, Iratetion, and Trash Executioner at Boca Grande (564 Washington BLVD) Jersey City.

Wake up, it’s the beginning of the new world.

-
Tracey Noelle Luz, Director, “They Will be Heard”