On Saturday nights in central Havana, a scene unfolds that defies stereotypes on this communist island famous for its salsa, strong rum and revolutionary heroes.
With the hiss of a fog machine, the country’s iconic rock star, Diony Arce, emerges from the darkness inside a local theater. He grabs a microphone and launches into a gut-wrenching scream that echoes through this quiet, residential neighborhood.
Diony is the lead singer of Zeus—the gods of Cuban metal. As the loud, abrasive music kicks in, this crowd of several hundred young fans unleashes a pent up flood of emotion.
They violently push and pull at each other while shouting up to Diony to play their favorite songs.
“Vamos a la Silla Electrica!”—“Violento Metrobus!”—“Viven en Mí!”
Diony and the band have performed in Havana since the 1980s. They’re the longest-running metal band in the country and they have the scars to prove it.
When the band first started performing, this American-influenced music was officially banned by the Castro government. It was seen as “music of the enemy.” Long-haired, tattooed rockers—or “freakies”—were thrown in jail, and concerts were broken up by state police.
Thirty years later this music is accepted, but only within the official Agencia Cubana de Rock (Cuban Agency of Rock), a government institution overseeing the country’s rock scene. Formed in 2007, the Agency has created a space for rock bands to perform their music and gather crowds without worry of police crackdowns. The trade-off, however, is a government system managing the freedom of artists.
This small opening for rock music is a sign of the changing reality in Cuba, but it is also a difficult compromise for the country’s artists.Earlier this year, Zeus celebrated their 25th anniversary with their first-ever national tour of Cuba. I bounced across the country with them on the tour bus filming their story for the upcoming documentary film, Hard Rock Havana.
Traveling from Havana to Cienfuegos to Santa Clara to Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, we experienced a true national view of the state of Cuba today—as seen from the depths of the country’s mosh pits.
What I witnessed was the wide cross-section of the country’s youth—all screaming and shouting to be heard. At a late-night concert in Guantánamo, a group of young twenty-year-olds shared a documentary they had made. It was a gritty, hour-long film called We Will Be Heard and featured interviews with the youth in Guantánamo, a region in the far east of the country, expressing their hopes for the future and their need for change.
On the tour bus the next day, the band watched the film silently transfixed. With bootleg technology and an earnest drive to have their voices heard, the country’s rockers are uniting and pointing a potential way forward for the country.
That’s what has drawn me to this story—the way in which Cubans have embraced Westernized rock music highlights the broader changes that Cuba has experienced over the past two decades as this communist country tries to find its way in a post-communist world.
This is also why the Moving Picture Institute, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting liberty through film, has partnered with me and my team of Cuban and American filmmakers to capture a glimpse of this struggle for freedom. We have filmed over 120 hours of footage in Cuba and we are now beginning post-production on the film. With supporters in Japan, Brazil, Mexico, the U.S., and throughout Europe, we look forward to sharing the story of Cuba’s growing rock scene with audiences around the world.