It was 9 PM in Havana, and the smoke from a dozen cheap cigarettes hung heavy in the humid air. Someone was playing Cannibal Corpse through blown-out phone speakers and a small group passed a bottle of Havana Club between them, leaning against a wall inscribed with a number of obscenities and band names – Slipknot and Korn among them – in both Spanish and English.I was standing on the steps of Maxim, Havana's only music venue dedicated solely to rock, as I scanned the faces of the crowd in search of someone named Maria. I was told I would have no problem finding her, since it was likely she and I would be the only two blondes in a sea of morenos. I sipped from a lukewarm beer which had been ice-cold only a few minutes prior, and tried to count the number of Metallica shirts.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to find myself face-to-face with a petit woman in her early 60s who, with the absence of any tattoos, facial piercings, or primary colours in her hair, looked more like someone who got lost on her way to play bridge than the main reason all of these punks had come together.The woman introduced herself to me as Maria Gattorno, the director of the Cuban Rock Agency, even though introductions on her behalf were entirely unnecessary: Everyone knows Gattorno – less so as the Agency's director, and more so by her illustrious, if not informal, title as the godmother of the Cuban rock scene.Gattorno ushered me inside Maxim, past a gaggle of teens lining up to pay 20 pesos (about $1) for a night featuring everything from thrash to metalcore. The space had been an old movie theatre, which was repurposed as Havana's home for all things rock in 2007.Gattorno had promised me an interview before the music would start at 10 PM, but this seemed increasingly unlikely as she was accosted every few steps by a friend or admirer on the way to her office. She greeted everyone lovingly, like family. As I would later learn, these punks and metalheads (collectively known simply as los frikis) are Maria's family, an unlikely filial bond forged from a common history of oppression and passion for rock 'n roll.
There was an announcement that Mortuary, a Havana-based deathcore band, was about to kick off the evening and Gattorno apologised that we were unable to conduct an interview before the show. To make up for it, she invited me over to her house the following evening, which she assured me would not only give us more time to talk without interruption but would also enable me to spend this evening doing what I had come to Maxim to do: experience the Cuban metal scene.
And experience Cuban metal I did. The show was more or less indistinguishable from its American counterparts – which made it all the more striking. Despite the fact that Cuba has been culturally isolated from the United States for over half a century, Cuba's rock scene has kept abreast of the stylistic shifts, a feat made possible by massive pirating efforts run out of Havana from which locals can purchase all different types of media and download them onto USB sticks for the price of a few pesos a gig.
While their shirts made overtures to bands whose heydays were in the 80s and 90s, most of the band members I spoke with that evening cited groups like August Burns Red, As I Lay Dying, and Emmure as their primary musical influences. Indeed, one of the band's guitarists who, to put it delicately, was wasted out of his fucking mind, implored me endlessly to tell Bring Me the Horizon's front man Oli Sykes to visit Cuba, unaware that I was neither an acquaintance of Sykes, nor had ever even set foot in the UK.
After the show, the venue cleared out quickly, most heading to the 23 y G park in Vedado, which has been the de facto friki hangout since the early 80s. I stuck around for a bit, heavily engaged in a rum-fuelled debate with some locals on the subject of whether metal could become a universal language akin to Esperanto, given that languages all tend to sound the same when they are growled against a rhythm of drop-tuned guitars.
The results of our inquiries into this matter were inconclusive, but all parties were in agreement that further experimentation in this direction was imperative.The Cuban Rock Agency officially started in 2007, but it was gestating more than two decades earlier in a small state-run "Culture House" opposite the Plaza de Revolution in Havana. Music was only just one part of the overall activity at Culture House, which catered to all varieties of the arts. Each Saturday it became "Maria's Patio," where local punk and metal groups would gather to vent their anger at the Castro regime and test their chops as a band.As Gattorno put it, "People always said that if you didn't prove yourself at Maria's Patio, you weren't a real band. The crowds would decide if you were going to play anywhere else."Gattorno claims she first realised the need to dedicate part of the Culture House to rock music when she was approached by a band that was looking for a spot to rehearse. This exposed her to the burgeoning rock scene in Havana at the time, which was in desperate straits both due to censorship and the unavailability of material resources. So in 1986 Gattorno began allowing bands to use the Culture House as a practice space and these informal open rehearsals quickly turned into a regular, organized affair.
In addition to providing a vital public service for a marginalised community of musicians, Maria's Patio also organised public health campaigns in response to the HIV outbreak which was just beginning in Cuba at the time, the virus spreading at an alarming rate within the rock community.
Cuba, which has one of the lowest HIV rates in the world, has an ethically complicated history in its approach to containing the spread of the virus. In the 80s and well into the 90s, the state would force all those diagnosed with HIV or AIDS into state-run sanatoriums, where they would be required to live out the remainder of their lives. The catch with this was that compared to those Cubans living outside the sanatorium's walls, who could barely find enough to eat, the hospitalised HIV patients were guaranteed access to top-tier medical treatment, food, and shelter."Los Cocos [the Havana Sanatorium] had the best conditions in the whole country, at a time when people were dealing with food scarcity every day. The Cocos patients lived as if they were at a hotel, and all they had to do was get AIDS," said Gattorno. "It's not much of a deal, but I knew many kids who self-inoculated because conditions were so bad on the streets. They thought it was going to be a short time period, thinking the vaccine was going to be discovered soon. Many of them died in there."
This was the case with Eskoria, one of Cuba's first punk bands who formed inside a sanatorium after they had voluntarily given themselves AIDS. It was in response to this crisis within the rock community that Gattorno launched the Rock vs. AIDS program at Maria's Patio in 1991 in order to raise awareness about AIDS prevention and sexual health, by passing out flyers and condoms at shows.
Noisey went on the road with "New York's grossest band," Hellbent Hooker, as they invaded Cuba.
"The project was written and directed by the rockers themselves. The administrative staff would give them the content and the rockers would translate it into their own lingo because it's one thing to be told about something by your peers, and another to be told by your mom," said Gattorno. "It was an interesting project, and even to this day there are kids – now grown men – who will come up and tell me that I saved their life."
Maria's Patio continued hosting shows every Saturday until 2003, when it was shut down by authorities for reasons that remain unclear to this day. Some cite the venue's proximity to the Plaza de Revolution and the numerous government ministries housed there, while others claim that it was an overt gesture by the regime to suppress Cuba's friki culture.After the closure, Gattorno said she felt crushed at seeing her life's work swept out from under her feet overnight. She went into a self-imposed exile for a decade, wiping her hands of a scene which she could no longer help."I don't know if I made the right or wrong call, but at the time I wasn't ready to keep fighting for a scene that I was no longer a part of," she said. "It wasn't an ego thing. The space just wasn't there and it became so much more difficult after the closure."Then one day in 2013, Gattorno received a surprise visit from a number of local rockers and Maxim admins, imploring her to come direct the Cuban Rock Agency. The Agency's former director had recently defected to the United States and the Agency saw Gattorno as the perfect replacement.
"It made me really happy when they came to me for the Maxim position because it made me realise that they hadn't forgotten about me," said Gattorno. "Reencountering the scene has been amazing – I'm meeting full-grown adults that I can remember as small children."Despite her happiness with having been selected for the position, Gattorno originally declined the offer to direct the agency, because she was afraid she wouldn't be able to manage such an expansive enterprise. She eventually overcame those fears and accepted the offer, taking over the agency in 2013.Since then, Gattorno has seen the agency expand rapidly, hosting several shows a week, a handfuls of festivals on an annual basis, and managing 23 "professional" Cuban rock bands (professional in the sense that they get a small percentage of the door fees when they play).As I spoke with Maria in her home library, drinking café con leche and playing with her seemingly endless supply of cats, she excused herself to take a phone call she had been expecting all afternoon from Maxim's manager. He was calling with bad news: One of the bands scheduled to play at the Atenas Rock Festival the following day had dropped out of the lineup.Gattorno replied with something unintelligible to my poorly trained ear and then turned to me, cupping one hand over the receiver. "There's some extra room on the bus to Atenas next week. Are you free?"Follow Daniel Oberhaus on Twitter.