Cuban punk rockers Gorki and Gil used music to take on Castro

Cuban punk rockers Gorki and Gil used music to take on Castro
C. Stiles
Gil Ortiz Pla (right), in full punk regalia and Mohawk, rehearses with G2 in their cramped Flagami studio.

Gorki Águila filled his beat-up camo backpack with enough supplies for a weekend trip, not a four-year prison sentence. It was August 2003 in Havana, and he and his punk band, Porno Para Ricardo, were headed to the Cuban countryside for a rock music festival, a Third-World Lollapalooza a hundred miles from the capital.

The invitation had surprised him. His 5-year-old band was mostly known for having pissed off the communists by singing about masturbation and horny lesbians. Rarely on the airwaves, the group's occasional concerts were mosh pits. A year earlier, they'd taken over an abandoned theater in La Habana and thrown a rave where they all ended up naked.

A week before the concert, a government stooge had asked Gorki to change the name of the band and its repertoire — or else. "I should have gotten wise to what was coming," he says.

Despite his age and minimum-wage job, Gil still chases Cuban punk's elusive audience.
C. Stiles
Despite his age and minimum-wage job, Gil still chases Cuban punk's elusive audience.
Gil Ortiz Pla (right), in full punk regalia and Mohawk, rehearses with G2 in their cramped Flagami studio.
C. Stiles
Gil Ortiz Pla (right), in full punk regalia and Mohawk, rehearses with G2 in their cramped Flagami studio.

Cuba in August is steamy, but 2,000 fans greeted him when he arrived. They weren't all there for him. There were heavy metal heads, grunge kids, and other frikis. The country's rock scene was and still is as small and insular as Fargo, North Dakota's.

The four hirsute punks walked onstage wearing dresses. Gorki looked just as he does now — with an unruly Afro and a runty stature, like a jack-in-the-box waiting to spring. They taunted the crowd before ripping into a risqué jingle about a couple of lesbians Gorki lusted after, Marlen and Tatiana. But before finishing the song, they abruptly segued into another, where they mocked Cuban bureaucrats for sucking up to Soviet commies. The bandmates burned the T-shirt of a popular metal band, shit-talked the local baseball team, and then, as a final act of defiance, threw money at the audience.

Guitarist Ciro Díaz, a balding 32-year-old who could moonlight as an undertaker, says the band had been getting progressively more provocative over the years, but the 2003 show was the "apotheosis" of their subversion.

"We were as chaotic as we could be," Gorki says. "You can almost call it musical terrorism."

When the performance was over, a female fan offered Gorki dozens of little blue pills — muscle relaxants prescribed to Parkinson's patients that young Cubans use recreationally. He turned her down, but the girl insisted, so he took a couple and stashed them next to some dirty pesos in his wallet. "At that moment, I fell into their trap," Gorki says. Two days later, he was arrested for procuring and selling drugs, and his trial lasted less than an hour. He was sentenced to four years in a maximum-security prison.

Gorki's arrest was for more than just drugs. It was a continuation of "The Black Spring," an unprecedented crackdown in April 2003 that sent 75 dissidents and journalists to prisons all over the island nation. Some are still serving time, and their wives, mothers, and daughters — known as the Ladies in White — have been taking to the streets to protest the sentences.

Gil Ortiz Pla is no stranger to violent arrests. "If you don't know the inside of a jail cell, then you're not really a punk," he says, strumming a Gibson knockoff inside a cramped converted garage in residential Flagami waiting for his band, G2 — nicknamed for the Cuban state police — to begin rehearsal.

The 41-year-old is a lanky, sinewy, dark-skinned gargoyle sporting black skinny jeans, a studded Hot Topic belt, and a perky Mohawk on a shaved head. When he smiles, a silver crown flashes at the back of his jaw.

Though you wouldn't know by looking at him, idling at this residential flophouse, Gil is the godfather of Cuban punk — its Iggy Pop.

Nearly 20 years ago, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Gil was on the 12th floor of a Havana high-rise recording an album with Canek Sánchez Guevara, Che Guevara's grandson and an aspiring music producer. Working with a rudimentary four-track recorder and off-brand guitars, he and three other guys made Jodidos y Perdidos, or Lost and Fucked Over, a four-song demo that effectively launched the country's first punk band, Rotura.

After decades when rock music was banned, Rotura tapped into the disillusionment of the children of the revolution, kids like Gil born after 1959 who were fed up with the failed promises of Fidel Castro. Their anarchic performances brought routine beat-downs from cops and nights spent in dank gulags, but they paved the way for all the punks who followed, including Gorki Águila.

In 2003, Gil faced a choice: Flee the country or stay. By then, he had become an established figure in la isla's balkanized rock scene, touring the country at least 20 times a year and helping young musicians get their acts started.

But he didn't see a future. He figured he could emulate other well-known musicians who'd found success and fame in exile, such as Albita, Issac Delgado, and Manolín.

A month before Gorki was arrested, Gil and his wife boarded a plane to Miami. He carried a bag no bigger than the one Gorki brought with him to prison. It was filled with hand-me-downs, a few magazines, some press clippings, and a ratty Cuban flag signed by rockero friends.

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