Cuban punk rockers Gorki and Gil used music to take on Castro
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.
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.
"I knew it was a risk, but I wanted to pursue my dream in a free country," Gil says.
Seven years later, nothing has turned out as expected. From Cuba, Gorki became an international cause célèbre, admired abroad for attacking the Castros on their home turf. And in Miami, Gil toils in anonymity, working as a busboy on weekends and trying to make it as a Spanish-speaking, foulmouthed, middle-aged punk.
The two are chasing an elusive audience. While Gorki's politics have made him a commodity outside his country, he's been silenced at home, where he hasn't been able to play a show in years. Without a stage, he's just another discontented Habanero counting the days until the old man in charge is dead.
As for Gil, exile suggested possibilities, freedom, esperanza, but immigration has been a double cross. He has learned that all of those Pepsi-Cola, Technicolor promises also come with ugly truths: minimum wage, wounded pride, heartbreak.
Caught in the undertow of exile and home, present and past, it's unclear who'll manage the ultimate goal: making people finally listen to Cuban punk rock.
Gorki and Gil were born the same year, 1969, just a few boroughs apart from each other, and came of age as rock slowly seeped into the island. American and European music was banned, and only traditional national cha-cha and salsa, and later nueva trova or folk, blared from radio and television.
"The government ruled with an iron fist," says Raúl Murciano, a music professor at the University of Miami. "They understood how radical music could be. Anything that looked toward the North was censored. You could be put in jail for owning American records. You knew exactly what you could and couldn't do."
In the mid-'60s, Silvio Rodríguez, the father of nueva trova, was fired from his radio station job for mentioning the Beatles on the air.
"I grew up listening to boleros," Gorki says. "That's one of my earliest musical memories — my mother doing house chores with a bolero playing at full blast."
He and Gil absorbed rock by subterfuge. Friends passed around magazines and bootlegs in one long conga line of contraband, from one street block to the next. "I started doodling AC/DC and ZZ Top pictures in my notebooks even though I'd never heard them, just seen what they looked like," Gorki says. "The first time I got a Led Zeppelin record, I slept with it underneath my pillow. The sound quality was terrible, but I would play it on my mom's old record player over and over."
Punk infiltrated the scene following the fall of the Soviet Union, 20 years after it peaked stateside. Spanish and Canadian tourists smuggled in cassettes and music magazines, and Gil and his friends pored over them the way Kremlinologists once studied May Day photographs. By the early '90s, the country was knee-deep in an economic crisis dubbed "the Special Period," and young people were restless. Some young Cubans even slept with HIV-positive friends or injected themselves with infected needles as a form of protest. Others turned to music, filling abandoned warehouses such as El Patio de María, Havana's CBGB. One heavy metal concert turned into a riot — the mob of long-haired rockeros confronting cops, who responded with tear gas and gunshots. "Music," Gil says, "became counterrevolution."
In 1998, Porno Para Ricardo was one of the last punk bands to form. Gorki, whose parents had just left for Mexico, turned the fourth room in the family's 1950s apartment into a recording studio by stealing egg cartons — some 700 of them — to soundproof the walls. Gil, already the elder statesman, helped up-and-comers such as Gorki by lending them equipment from his job. "It was crazy," Gorki says. "I would bike from work to María's, grab an eight-channel Soundcraft console, bike to my house on the other side of Havana, rehearse, and then return it to Gilito to keep him from getting into trouble."
The prison was so remote it didn't even have a name. It was simply referred to by its location on Cuba's main highway: Kilometer 5 1/2. In the sloping, verdant valleys of western Cuba, Kilo 5 1/2 was an oasis of terror. In 1993, Human Rights Watch called it one of the worst in its "Global Report on Prisons." The sprawling complex included manual labor fields, five two-story cell blocks, and underground torture chambers. "Gray and surrounded by wire fences, it looked like a concentration camp," bandmate Ciro says.
When Gorki arrived in 2003, he didn't know what kind of prison 5 1/2 was or that it held hardened criminals and political dissidents. He knew only that if life outside was a hardscrabble purgatory, a Cuban prison would be the bottom rung of Hell. He entered the cinder-block gulag with nothing but a four-year sentence and the clothes he was wearing when he was arrested. "In prisons in Cuba, you have to bring everything," he says. "Blankets, soap, toothbrush, a bucket to wash yourself. The Ministry of the Interior gives you nothing."
He was assigned a cell that was no bigger than a petri dish to be shared with two other inmates. Six by ten feet, it had three cots, a small window, and a hole in the floor. "To take a shit, we did it in front of everybody," Gorki says. "There was no water. There was no privacy. To move, you had wait until the other inmate moved. It was physical and psychological torture."
The stench from the prison kitchen woke him in the mornings. Inmates were given vermin-rife bread for breakfast and sooty rice and watery beans for lunch, "with a side of bloody ground beef." The highlight came once a month: chicken day. Sometimes they'd get soft-serve ice cream — so melted it would inevitably trigger mass diarrhea. "I loved it. I didn't care about all the shitting," Gorki says. "It was the only thing with flavor they gave us."
That same year, Gil arrived in Miami. On a Fourth of July, no less. He headed to Kendall, where his wife had family. From the car, Miami looked like a neon-lit world full of promise. The fireworks, he thought, could only be a good omen.
Those blue-and-red-colored lenses soon wore off. Kendall "was very 'Welcome to the Jungle,'" he says. His wife's family pushed him to get a job.
Before the year was over, he split from South Florida and his wife, and headed to Las Vegas, where a friend lived. For a year, he worked as a prep cook at the Mirage Hotel & Casino. "It was a tough experience," he says. He didn't speak English. Nobody knew him. In that big town, he felt as anonymous as a chorus girl. Dreams of making it seemed to be dissipating, even if he carried his guitar everywhere.
"I thought, If this is America, I prefer Havana," he says. He stayed out West only a year.
In his dungeon, Gorki didn't write a single song for Porno Para Ricardo. He couldn't find the inspiration. His early songs seemed cruelly naive, and he didn't know how to write seriously about the depravity around him. "I didn't have any creative time," he says. "My head was too stressed out, too distraught with other thoughts." For one, his 6-year-old daughter, Gabriela, visited him only once during his sentence.
She appeared in her Sunday best — a mirage in that Dantean underworld — ran toward him, climbed onto his shoulders, and sobbed. "It's hard for a little girl to understand where I was or why," he recalls in one of several conversations from Havana, this time his voice breaking up not because of bad reception. "I broke out in tears. I still don't like to talk about it."
Instead of writing, Gorki sang Willy Chirino from his cot until lights out, while a fellow inmate banged on buckets they used to shower. The sound echoed through the stone-gray walls, and other prisoners sang along in unison, drowning out the screams of torture emanating from the basement.
Gorki's time in prison warped him, but not the way his jailers intended. Aside from murderers, political dissidents were also held at 5 1/2. In December 2002, Óscar Elías Biscet, who would receive George W. Bush's Presidential Medal of Freedom in absentia five years later, began a 25-year sentence for "counterrevolutionary activity." When the dissidents walked in the afternoons, the punk singer talked to Biscet through the peephole-sized window in his cell.
"They were very conscious of why they were there and had the strength of their convictions, and that fed me, gave me perspective," Gorki says. When he was released early two years later, the 35-year-old emerged eager to "assault those who screwed" him, he says.
"Politics trumped sex, what I used to write about. I got out hating the regime more and wanting to do something about it."
Biscet, meanwhile, is still serving his quarter-century sentence.
Alberto Alonso sets aside a glass of cheap Palo Viejo rum and lumbers toward what he calls el cuartico. He walks through a dirty kitchen where unpaid bills lie piled on the countertop, steps down into a dank laundry room, and then maneuvers into a converted utility space more confined than Dee Dee Ramone's stinky Converse sneakers. The walls are adorned with Ramones and Clash posters, tattered Cuban flags, and skull stickers. One frame holds a photo of a half-naked biker chick who resembles Bombshell McGee.
This is where Gil and the three other members of G2 rehearse Mondays and Wednesdays, usually after 9 p.m., when they've gotten off work. Alberto is the drummer, and his set occupies half the room. Beside it stand Javier Hernández on bass and Cesar Rios on the second electric guitar. They can hardly move without hitting one another, so the keep their feet planted, bobbing back and forth like dashboard hula dolls. If they weren't middle-aged, you might say there was some glamour in their struggling-musician look.
Near the entrance, Gil stands in full punk regalia. He pulls it off. Mostly. Where Iggy Pop has big blue eyes to set off his cubist face, Gil has a goofy grin he pulls as indiscriminately as punks spit at their audience. "Check, check," he says into the mike, where a beanie baby hangs loosely, and then flips a page of the lyric notebook spread open on the floor. "This is going to be enpingao, fucking dope."
Alberto closes the door. Outside, this late at night, the only sounds are of planes taking off from Miami International Airport and dozens of TV sets turned to Telemundo. He sits at the drums and taps his sticks twice. The effect is atomic — deafening silence followed by cigarette smoke, which the ceiling fan slowly circulates around the room. As the four tear into their instruments, the room shakes and the lights flicker bug-zapper-like from all the equipment plugged in.
"Who was it?/Who was it?/Tell me who was it?" Gil screams into the mike, wildly swinging about in place, like a schizo trying to get out of a straightjacket. "¿Quién fue?/¿Quién fue?/Dímelo quién fue." Alberto, a 43-year-old with rheumy eyes and an ample paunch, bangs the drum set like it's a skanky groupie.
Gorki's rehearsal studio in Havana is larger than Gil's bar-napkin-sized cuartico in Flagami. Spacious enough for the rambunctious foursome to jump around and mime punkish pyrotechnics, it's been sealed off entirely to muffle the noise and ward off nosy neighbors. In the summer, it's a furnace — a loud, reverberating furnace that also functions as a filming site for the band's ersatz music videos.
Upon Gorki's release from prison in 2005, the band finished an album within a year and appropriately called it I Don't Like Politics, But Politics Likes Me. But they've been under heavy surveillance, preventing them from playing even the few reckless gigs they used to pull. So they videotape themselves, and their Mexican manager, Laura García Freyre, a former fan who wrote her university thesis about the band, posts the clips online, gaining Porno its first international fans.
Ciro penned the album's most acidic ditty, "El Comandante," which has become one of the band's best-known songs. When he takes the mike, Gorki doesn't slur through the lyrics. He sings with all the angry bravado of someone passing a kidney stone, but his phrasing is precise, every word clearly enunciated: "El Comandante wants me to work/For next to nothing/El Comandante wants me to applaud his bullshit sermonizing/Oh, Comandante, stop sucking cock, Comandante."
Over the next two years, the band would get more aggressive, producing songs such as "Commie Fatcats" and "Dissident Pioneers." Gorki did call-ins on Mega TV and agreed to interviews in El Nuevo Herald. "Yeah, we were afraid, but we worked with that fear and we overcame it, because if we hadn't, we wouldn't have done anything," he says.
The stakes became dangerously high. I Don't Like Politics was a radical break from the band's earlier output and from Cuba's safe protest music. No one had ever been this explicit.
"This was uncharted territory," Professor Murciano says. "Nobody would have thought to do this 20 years ago because they knew what the repercussions were."
"We all spoke through metaphors, play on words," Gil says. "To sing 'El Comandante' in that country isn't easy. It's suicide."
In 2008, Porno got the reaction it sought. On a scalding August Monday in Havana, Gorki was arrested at his apartment for civil disobedience and "predelinquent dangerousness." Soon enough, Yoani Sánchez, whose Generación Y is read by millions, blogged about the arrest, calling it something out of the sci-fi flick Minority Report. By Friday, international reporters swarmed the anonymous, dilapidated Fifth Police Station at Third and 62nd streets in Playa, where Gorki was being held.
The arrest set off a political stink bomb across the globe, with foreign government and human rights groups appealing for the runty agitator's release. Spanish Rolling Stone, Paris Match, and the New York Times all covered the story. Marc Lacey, The Times' Latin America bureau chief, penned a "Week in Review" about the case. Even a "Free Gorki" Facebook group materialized. From out of nowhere, a punk musician weirdly named for a Russian novelist was the most famous freedom-of-speech icon in the world.
Freyre says the band's 2008 CD, The Red Album, went into a second printing, selling 2,000 internationally, a remarkable number for a Third-World band that was until recently best-known for a song about horny lesbians.
The glare of the media was so intense that the Cuban government ended up fining Gorki only $28. And a year later, they granted him an 11-month visa to travel to Mexico, where his mother and sister lived. The message was implicit: Defect — we don't want the hassle.
Gil was living an alternate reality. He wasn't sitting in a Cuban jail cell or getting beaten by belligerent state police. But he wasn't exactly free either. He was picking up after teen scenesters with asymmetrical, greasy haircuts at downtown's the Vagabond. Just another underpaid immigrant with intimidating expenses and too many obligations. That same year, in 2008, his new wife, an elementary schoolteacher, gave birth to a baby boy, whom he named Gibson. But the boy has a defective heart and demands almost constant attention. Gil is feeling the strain of age. "Every day is a battle, una lucha," he says. "When you come here, you start from scratch. You have to swallow a lot of pride. You have to build everything up again, and you can't let up."
Three years earlier, he had joined G2, which was made up of three other immigrants half his age. Still, he was grateful to be in a band at all. (In 2005, Gil became the leader and recruited the current members.)
His verse book isn't stashed away under his bed anymore and is getting some fresh ink on it. The band has played nonpaying gigs at Little Haiti's Churchill's, the cathedral of South Florida's struggling musicians. They sing in Spanish and cover the same topics they did on la isla, only with the freedom to say whatever they want. But outside Cuba, Gil admits, the lyrics lose their power.
"Musicians write songs depending on their surroundings," he says. "I can sing, 'Suck cock, Comandante,' all I want, and it's not going to have the same impact here as it would in Cuba."
In September 2009, Gorki set off on a self-proclaimed freedom tour with his travel visa in order to capitalize on the band's new cachet. He stopped in Washington, D.C., and New York City, where people asked for his autograph and paid him compliments. But it was in the Magic City where he received a hero's welcome.
He appeared for a solo promotional performance at the Cubaocho Art and Research Center on Calle Ocho. Inside a wood-paneled library that smelled of cigars and worn leather, Gorki took a makeshift stage in front of his oddest audience yet. Before him was a crowd of comfortable Cuban señoras and grizzled guayabera-clad dinosaurs who looked like his father. He wore an Afro, a nose ring, and a T-shirt that read, "Anarchy."
It was a weird sight in this part of town, where the largest turnouts are for Los Van Van protests. He asked for more amp and then licked the strings to the tune of his first song, "El General." "At last el general became the Comandante/at last the general is number one," he sang, accompanied only by his baby-blue Fender. "His brother's slowly shedding, his beard and his marbles/They say that he's got the cancer, they say he's lost his mind/Raúl! Raúl! You are a charlatan!/Raúl! Raúl! Get out of town!"
The crowd went nuts. That's what they were here for. Cuban exiles saw something in Gorki they'd never seen before. "They responded to the music, but also to someone who was able to say what they hadn't dared to say when they lived here," he says.
He unwittingly became the Jorge Mas Canosa of punk. Gorki had arrived in Miami when Colombian pop star Juanes was preparing for a concert in Havana that had riled up all the viejitos. Throughout Gorki's stay in the city — where he appeared on Mega TV shows and sat before a news conference — he was seen as the pop star's antithesis.
This past March, six months after the Miami stop, Gorki did the unthinkable: He left Mexico, where he had lived for nearly a year, and returned to Cuba. That he did so after well-known political dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died — unleashing a new intense wave of government repression — only made his decision all the more baffling. Speaking to the press for the first time since he returned, he says he's still ambivalent about the decision. He did so because he feels most useful in Cuba, rather than in South Florida, where he would be just one more exile.
"This is the really shitty question only Cubans have to ask themselves: Defect and never return, or stay and be miserable?" he says. "It's really a question about being Cuban itself.
"The day has 24 hours, and 12 of them are spent thinking about getting out of here," he says. "Then the next 12, you're thinking — despite the repressive economy, all the injustices, with all the shit I don't have — this is still my country."
At el cuartico, an hour after they begin rehearsing, Gil struggles with a song called "Paz Soldier." He can't seem to get the riff right and sing in English at the same time. By now, his Mohawk is crestfallen with sweat. Alberto taps his sticks three times and kicks off a ferocious drum solo, when the two guitars are supposed to join him. Cesar comes in on time, but Gil misses the beat. "I'm not getting it, I'm not getting it," he says in Spanish, frustrated. "You gotta admit it's hard."
"It's not hard, Gilito," Alberto says, wiping the sweat off of his face. The room is boiling, and the drummer, who'd been installing cable TV all day, is beat. They step outside, where Gil lights a joint and passes it around. He's nervous. He's not usually the one who messes up.
The night is cool, most of the neighborhood sleeps, and the bandmates need to keep rehearsing. They've been recording an LP, collectively funded by the group, to send to music scouts and record producers. Since Gorki's solo tour, they've performed at larger venues such as Gil's workplace, the Vagabond, where they opened for a Dutch metal band. They've also been booked on local Spanish-language television.
Still, the gigs are sparse. Gil can't leave his job and work on his music full time as he'd like, and the band is not making enough money to cover expenses. G2 is an investment as much as it is a dream. "If it wasn't for the Vagabond, I wouldn't be getting any checks," he says.
Jorge Graupera, bassist for Latin punk band Guajiro, says musicians such as Gil and Gorki are at a disadvantage in a town with few live music venues. "The language is a factor," he says. "And age matters. After a certain age, people don't think you're cute anymore in punk outfits."
Ariana Hernández-Reguant, a cultural anthropologist who has followed Cuban music for the past decade, says it's difficult for mature artists to duplicate their success outside their homeland. "That's one of the dynamics of migration — not everybody is cut out for it," she says. "If you arrive young, you can build a career here, an audience. For everybody else, it's going to be extremely difficult."
During the past two months, Gorki spoke with New Times over several days of dropped calls and inaudible connections. He joked that his phone shares a party line with the ministry of defense.
"Living here has a price," he said. "You're living under this tyranny, in really undignified circumstances, but you gotta have some sort of hope in your head that someday all this bullshit is gonna change."
He has found it easy to revert back to old routines. He rides his rusty Chinese bike through Havana's tree-shaded neighborhoods, humming melodies to the three or four songs running through his head. Then he rushes home to jot down the lyrics. "It's so chaotic, my writing process," he said. "I just grab whatever I have on hand — a napkin, a Granma — and set the words to the guitar."
The bike ride resembles the ones he used to take 11 months ago, before he left for Mexico, except now everything looks more haggard. There are more cops on the street. Around him, people look more worndown than the pockmarked alleyways of his neighborhood.
He already has two songs written, two more than when he lived in Mexico. "Here's where I find the things that I'm passionate about. Here's where I feel most needed."
But he hasn't been able to share the songs with his bandmates. In his absence, their homemade studio has fallen into disrepair, and they're now working on rebuilding it. "I'm desperate to rehearse again, but I've got to resist the temptation. I don't want to give them an excuse to jail us again."
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