All photos by Joe Swide
On a rooftop in the southern Cuban city of Holguin, heads banged and fingers air guitar-ed as Cuban youth turned out for the town’s bimonthly metal show. There was an air of excitement as well as a vague confusion, a combination I often felt in Cuba.
The visual rumors and clichés are true, as classic 1950s Chevrolets zip through crowded streets lined with open-air, often crumbling, always gorgeous buildings.
But Cuba is unlike any county I have been to. It sits in a different world than mine. The general population is unable to leave the island physically, and the internet is not a thing that people can access; thus a serious isolation from non-Cuban information exists, for better or worse. There is an omnipresent sense of state control, as Cuban communism and the U.S. embargo that comes along with it dictate basic practices of everyday life, including food, technology, and mobility.
Simultaneously, a black market permeates every public moment for visitors, and I imagine for residents as well; everything is for sale at any time. As a tourist walks down a Havana street, every car becomes a taxi and every person becomes a salesperson, pimp or prostitute. People know a few English phrases like, “my friend,” “where are you from?” and “do you want good cocaine?” When there is not much money around, everyone has a side hustle.
It is a bizarre double economy of intense communism and intense capitalism that makes for a climate that I could barely begin to understand.
I had tracked down some punk bands in Cuba, and was aware of some electronic music, but the limitations of time, travel, and communication had prevented me from seeing it. In Holguin, I found an underground music scene by chance.
Holguin is a big city with a small town vibe, and is a 14-hour bus ride south of Havana. It was teeming with music in the streets. After watching a concert of traditional Cuban music, we heard the distinct thumps of a double-kick drum looming over the plaza we were drinking in.
I had been able to get my hands on some of the local currency, as opposed to the tourist currency that was more easily available. I paid five pesos, or a little less than twenty cents American, to get in. The show was on a huge roof that reminded me of East Berlin. It was weird and amazing. The crowd of around 50 was obviously excited to be there, but seemed a little unsure about the best way to participate.
In between a dance party to System of a Down, AC/DC, Twisted Sister and the like, Holguin’s Mortuory, the only live band to play, ripped a quick set of heavy grindcore. Their performance was excited, energetic and genuine. They overcame simple and significant obstacles to just play a set in Cuba, including a scarcity of venues, instruments, and musicians. They play with a drum machine because they don’t know a metal drummer who owns a kit in their town. Their imagery is not exactly my cup of tea, but given their limitations in experiencing new live and recorded music in Cuba, I’m not going to hold it against them.
Noisey caught up with them after the show to discuss metal in Cuba, and metal in the rest of the world that Mortuory has never been able to see.
Noisey: How long has Mortuory been playing together?
Carlos Alvear Leyva (guitar): Recently the group got a new lineup, but we started in 2003. We have been playing the same extreme music since, and have always sang about topics of pornography in our lyrics. We also have a new guitarist who is not with us right now, but he will be integrated into upcoming shows.
Who are your favorite bands?
Emmanuel Andres (vocals): We love bands like Rompeprop, Carne Dying, Fetus, Cannibal Corpse.
Pablo Rodriguez (bass): And Nirvana too.
Emmanuel: The extreme metal. I love extreme metal. We have always defended it and we will always defend it as long as we are a band.
Living in Cuba, how do you find new music?
Pablo: Here in Cuba there isn’t a label that is dedicated solely to producing metal bands such as Nuclear Blast or Metal Blade. The bands have to fend for themselves to produce their records. Then we find records through internet downloads. Sharing with friends. Or someone from another country brings us something.
What’s it like for you to play metal in Holguin, and Cuba in general?
Emmanuel: At the beginning it was quite difficult for us because there were no resources or venues to play shows. And then bands started slowly overcoming this. Today the situation has greatly improved. We have institutional support and we have venues for shows, audio equipment; in general things have improved.
What kind of equipment or instruments do you use and where do you get it?
Carlos: I bought my guitar here in the city.
Emmanuel: We want to get a real drummer who is not an electrical appliance. There are no instrument shops here, so friends have to come from abroad and bring us some instruments. Or we buy it in a second hand market. That’s really hard for bands, because they don´t always have the necessary instrumentation to make the music they want. It’s limited. You have to make a big effort to make music here.
When did you guys start playing music?
Carlos: I started with a previous project, a project that we´re still in, called Butcher. I have always listened to music, so being a musician was my destiny.
Emmanuel: I personally started with a grunge band called Needle in about 2005. I´m also in Butcher. It’s a thrash metal band.
What are the best cities to play metal in Cuba?
Emmanuel: People play metal in all of Cuba, but there are stronger cities.
Carlos: We have Havana, Santa Clara.
Emmanuel: The principal cities where there are more metal bands are Havana, and Santa Clara where they have a big metal fest with a lot of bands called Metal City. Right here in Holguin we have a festival too, it´s called Metal HG. And we also have Las Romerías de Mayo, both of which are events that attract the public from other provinces. Holguin is located in one of the provinces with more metal participation.
In general, how is the music in Holguin?
Pablo: In general, people in Holguin listen a lot of reggaeton and techno music or electronic music, but we also have a very good metal audience.
Carlos: In Holguin it is very common to listen to Cuban music. Salsa, bolero, that kind of Cuban music. We also have jazz, trova, hip hop. There is so much musical diversity.
Would you ever like to play outside of Cuba?
Emmanuel: I really think that all bands love to travel, and get known internationally.
Carlos: Have their music spread.
Emmanuel: We want to play as many festivals as we are invited to. We'd love to go to a festival called Obscene Extreme, which is a European festival of extreme bands. Generally we´d love to participate in international festivals.
Do you guys like other styles of music, or just metal?
Pablo: That is very controversial. I used to listen to some other genres, but now none of us listen to other music. We defend metal and rock n’ roll in general.
Carlos: All genres of rock. Blues, heavy metal, even black metal. From Pink Floyd to Motley Crue.
Do you have any records or are you planning to record anything in the future?
Emmanuel: The band has three independent releases. In 2007 we put out our debut album, Rustic Sex. Gore Sex was the second album. And in 2011 we recorded an album called Unharmony Sex. Then in 2013 an album was recorded live at Las Romerías de Mayo called Lesbian Distropic. That's what the band has recorded. In 2015 we are planning to produce a new album. We don´t have the name yet, but we have ideas. It’ll be approximately eight songs and the same pornogrind theme.
Pablo: We also have a compilation DVD that includes photos, videos and shows. A Brazilian label included a song in a compilation called “The Metal Infecting the World,” taken from Gore Sex.
What are you hoping to accomplish as a band in the future?
Pablo: We wanna get a stable lineup. The first thing to is to find a real drummer. Record albums, play shows and get out of Cuba to promote our music.
Carlos: I´m looking for a better situation for metal here in Cuba. Having more resources, the possibility to buy instruments. Also human resources. To find some drummer and another guitarist. But mostly to defend the underground music here in Cuba.
Emmanuel: We would also like more support from the institutions and the government. The necessary support and the attention that metal really deserves.
For all the people who have listened to your music in other countries, is there any message you want to send them?
Emmanuel: We´d love to tell them to listen to and support the underground and extreme music scene that exists in Cuba. There are a lot of bands making good metal. Pay attention to this scene as we will always have principles. Even if only one of us is alive, Mortuory will always exist. We will always exist in this scene and this world.