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Amalgamation Of Aggression... With Jon Wiederhorn

Cuban Diplomatic Relations Are In The Hands Of Rafter-Rattling Metal Bands

Escape, Agonizer, and Ancestor hope to break down the diplomatic barrier between Cuba and America.

To play SXSW, countless musicians have had to take time off work, buy pricey plane tickets and scramble to find places to stay in and around Austin. For others, getting the music festival required an entirely different level of sacrifice.

Four days before their March 16 performance at The Jr., Cuban metal bands Ancestor, Agonizer, and Escape left Miami in two packed vans—17 people plus gear—to make the 20-hour pilgrimage to Austin and become the first Cuban extreme metal groups to play the U.S. There aren’t many flights from Cuba to the America and most of them go to Miami, where there is a large Cuban community. Getting a direct flight to Texas is out of the question. Securing travel reservations wasn’t even the hard part.


“We lied to the Cuban government about the kind of music we play in a lot of forms we filled out to be here,” said Joel Kaos, bassist for the black metal band Ancestor. “This whole trip has been so difficult. The paperwork for our government took three months to be approved. Then, just a week before we came here, the whole trip was down. Somebody at the International Relations Ministry didn’t get a document on time. But the next morning, the embassy called and everything goes well again. It has been a real crazy ride.”

“The entire process has required sacrifice from all of us,” added Agonizer and Ancestor manager Alex Sanchez Salazar, who also co-edits the Cuban metal magazine Scriptorium. “Some musicians sold computers, some sold equipment to have money to pay for the tickets and the Visas. But we are very happy to be here and we know it’s a great opportunity for media people and headbangers and everyone to see us and check out what the Cuban metal music is all about.”

The long delay in the cross-cultural exchange was caused by strained political relations between Cuba and the U.S. and the 50 years of trade embargoes between the two countries. But during the past couple decades, the Cuban metal scene has flourished behind closed doors. This year, Agonizer are celebrating their 20th anniversary as a band, Escape have been around since 2000, and the members of Ancestor also have been playing black metal for over a decade. Now, Escape, Agonizer, and Ancestor hope to break through the barrier that has existed for too long and break down the doors for others to scramble through.


“We’re making history, man,” said Kaos, pride filling his voice. “It’s a kind of adventure that we have never experienced in our lives. The most special thing is that we are representing a lot of other bands and musicians that cannot be here because of the economic problems in our home country. They are our brothers and they will be in our hearts when we play at the show.”

At various points over the past year, it looked like the three Cuban bands were being stranded on their own island, but there were forces pulling for them in the States. Journalist and author Dave Peisner opened the gateway last year when he wrote a story for SPIN magazine about Cuban extreme music. Musicians in Cuba can’t leave their country unless they have a concert booked, so Peisner told them about SXSW and suggested a Cuban metal night to the festival organizers, who were excited by the idea. Hours before this year’s concert, Peisner moderated the panel "Red Menace: Cuba's Heavy Metal Underground," which featured both musicians and individuals who helped organize the event.

Two people who campaigned hard for the show were Escape’s former keyboardist Jenny Hernandez, who emigrated the U.S. in 2010, and Tracey Noelle Luz, who launched the organization Unblock the Rock after filming a documentary in Cuba about Escape called They Will Be Heard. Luz’s group worked with the musicians to secure Visas and helped sort out the paperwork for the trip. Unblock the Rock also solicited donations from companies assembled and sold the compilation CD, The Red Album, which includes tracks donated by Eyehategod, the Supersuckers and Black Tusk to help out with expenses.


Also integral in the show’s success was SXSW booker and coordinator Alicia Zertuche, who worked with lawyers, members of Congress, and the U.S. Embassy to make sure the musicians could get into the country. To Kaos, the amount of effort required to bring a few bands from Havana to Austin is absurd.

“A lot of Cuban art comes to Miami and the United States all the time, but metal is still the enemy’s music in our country,” he said. “We have some venues and concerts, but it is still so hard to be able to record a good CD and have the opportunities that the other bands from traditional Cuban music have.”

The main reason Cuban metal bands have developed a reputation for staging exciting live shows is because they tend to put in long hours practicing for the few opportunities that arise. “Cuban bands don’t record that often,” said Sanchez Salazar. “The best record for a Cuban bands is the stage. They do things very tight, very precise, because they don’t have the opportunity of making an album very often. There aren’t that many resources.”

Kaos said that when he’s back home in Havana it’s hard to find new Western album releases and he can’t rely on the Internet to discover new bands since he’s still using a dial-up modem that takes as much as 30 minutes to enter Gmail and Facebook. It’s like our country is 30 years behind the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s like a wheel that goes backwards.”

Unlike the bands that come to SXSW to score a record deal, Agonizer and Ancestor are more interested in raising awareness. “We want to play a great show and give the Cuban metal scene some exposure,” Sanchez Salazar said. “If we do that, we will feel very happy, and we are going to have a lot of fun and drink.”

Quality Cuban metal bands who couldn’t make the trip to SXSW: Tendencia, Combat Noise, Zeus, FireHaze, Protesys, Switch, Grinder Carnage, Resistenzia, Spectral, The One Who Bleeds, Narbeleth, SevenSins, Chlover.

Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of the book “Louder Than Hell: the Definitive Oral History of Metal,” which comes out May 14 on !t Books/Harper Collins. Follow him on Twitter - @louderthanhell

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