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.
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.”)
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