Iván Fariñas is considered “the grandfather of Cuban rock.” The leader of the legendary band Viento Solar is not just a great musician, but also a lover of this genre to which he has dedicated his work as a researcher and a historian. He recently received a professional career award at the Cuerda Viva Festival. Nobody questions that Cuban rock is a reality. Its performers deserve full acknowledgement from the populace for having developed a truly revolutionary art that will never die and which will continue to exert its influence among millions of people.
What are the origins of Cuban rock? Who are its most representative figures?
Cuban rock includes several periods. The first began in 1955 and finished in 1960. It included outstanding figures such as the Llopis Brothers, Frank and Ñolo. At their start, along with Felipe Dulzaides, they created a band called Los Llopis, whose versions were in Spanish. Los Llopis was not an exclusively rock group, as by the end of the 1950s their phonography increasingly resembled tropical music. However, they won the glory of being the first. The Hot Rockers excelled during the same period. Unlike Los Llopis, which had a high record production, they left only one 45 rpm record. As a testimony of their work remain the musical tracks of Rip it up and Cachita. The latter, by Puerto Rican Rafael Hernández, is the first fusion of Rock and Roll with Cha, Cha, Cha.
The Hot Rockets ended up playing Jazz and already in 1960, no longer existed. The band was composed of guitarist Luis Cano (the brother of Pablo Cano, who played the guitar first with Los Llopis and then with Los Armónicos), pianist Raúl Ondina, bassist Kike Villalta, saxophonist Leonardo Acosta, drummer Joel Iglesias and percussionists Ernesto Calderín and Tony Escarpenter. The latter, a handsome man, looked like American actor Tony Curtis, but according to some, his voice was very similar to that of Elvis Presley.
There were also other relatively-important groups, like Los Jaguares, which was made known on German Pinelli’s TV program El Show del Mediodía. Ricky Orlando is also part of that period. He started singing at the age of 14 on the Viejito Chichi TV show and dedicated his life to Rock and Roll. Shortly afterwards he created his own band, The City Devils. Mario Mechaca’s Los Centuriones was also prominent at that time. But no one won more sympathies in those first five years of Rock and Roll than Jorge Bauer, who began as a simple chansonnier (singer-songwriter) at the beginning of the 1950s and soon became an idol of the youth. His only opponent was Pedro Román, a protégé of Salvador Levi, the director of the Escuela de rock and roll, a TV show of that time—and in great demand—that was broadcast from the Astral Cinema. Pedro Román made himself famous with versions of Paul Anka’s Crazy Love and Gene Vincent’s Be Bop a Lula.
Likewise, we must keep in mind other important bands like Abelardo Bush’s The Pretenders—which played ballads and slow rock—and Tony Taño’s group, which was very similar to Bill Haley’s The Comets. The Batista police never looked kindly on Rock and Roll, and much less after the screening of films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Bad Seed, among others. After 1959, Rock and Roll followed the same path, although artists like Argentinean Luis Aguile emerged. In 1960, Luis Bravo, a singer with a somewhat adolescent voice, appeared. From Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba, he migrated to Havana and for a short time sang Mexicans songs in bars and cafeterias, accompanied by his guitar. Then, a producer came across him and introduced him at the Cabaret Nacional on Paseo Martí and San Rafael (today, the Boulevard). From that moment on, Luis Bravo increased in popularity and recorded 12 singles and two long plays with the Velvet record house, in just two years. His example was a source of inspiration for an immense number of followers, such as: Los Enfermos del Rock, the Dino and Freddy duet, Los Príncipes del Rock, the Sammy and Richard duet, Los Diablos Melódicos and Raulito Gómez’s Los Astros. As well, for revelation figures such as Baby Fernández, Nelson Brandly, Los Frenéticos, Alexis Machin, Mike Soto, and many others.
When Cuba and the United States broke relations, some people considered rock “the music of the enemy, the language of the enemy.” Then, there was the time of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis and the uprising of armed bands throughout the country. Nevertheless, rock continued to be played. And though it didn’t have a good reputation, it was tolerated. And though somehow its performers were considered to have a deviant ideology, many groups continued playing the genre. Among these were included Los Vampiros and Los Satélites. These bands were composed of black people and had a style similar to that of Limbo Rock in the United States. This was the origin of street rock. And the situation continued like that until 1965. The merit of Salvador Terry’s Los Vampiros and Los Satélites is unquestionable. They kept rock alive. In truth, they prevented the death of Cuban Rock and Roll and showed that black and mixed race people also loved it. From 1961 to 1964, they made people put aside the old quarrels and misunderstandings that rock was the music of high life of the white majority.
When did Cuban rock stop making covers and start recording national lyrics and music?
As of 1966, Los Dada emerges within the Army. This band was composed of Raúl Pastora and Alfredo Arias, two former members of Los Vampiros who had enrolled for General Military Service. There’s also Armandito Zequeira’s Los Fantásticos and the Cuarteto Negro, which was founded in 1965 and one year later became the Quinteto Negro. These two bands were preceded by Los Halcones, Dino and Freddy’s Los Príncipes del Calipso and Los Príncipes del Rock. I was a member of all of them. In addition to these must be added Rey Montesinos’ Los Violentos, whose members no longer sang in English. They played their own music and versions of English themes, sung in Spanish.
At that time, for musicians to play rock, they had to veil this word and use the synonym of modern music. In 1963, Salvador Terry and Los Vampiros played an infinite number of versions of English themes in Spanish in private parties, making use of the drums. Their venue was the José Antonio Echevarría Social Club, located in the Vedado neighborhood. There, the audience vibrated with emotion like never before or since. National rock was creating its own path. It had a structure where neither skin color nor race mattered.
Los Fantásticos was directed by its drummer Ángel Orille (nicknamed Manos torpes or Heavy-Handed)—a white man whose musical group was completely made up of black people. Conrado Wilson and his Combo recorded ABC Blues and Ojos Negros (Black eyes). He went down in history as the first man who used Cuban guitar codes linked with Blues music. He anticipated the method that was later used by Carlos Santana. After that, there was a mental cultural imbalance within our ranks. With the emergence of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and their success in the United States, that music started to be used, but initially on the sly.
Then, other bands emerged, especially in residential areas. Examples are Dino Freijo’s Los Buitres, in 1966, and Los Pacíficos—a band from a Vedado High School. Los Kents appeared in 1968. Pashalidis, the accordionist, became the guitarist when O’Reilly left the group. Carlos Carnero was the drummer and Mario Moro the bassist. A year later, Waldo O’Farril, a member of Dimensión Vertical, joined the band. After Frank Tony, who was the singer for a short time, left the group, Jorge Conde entered—and this remained as its more stable line-up. Henry Vesa’s Los Jets was founded in 1969. The band was composed of drummer Miguel Cedeño (nicknamed el Gordo or the Chubby One), singer Guillermo (Willy) Quesada, bassist Luis Ángel León and lead guitarist Javier González.
Other names and groups of the time can also be mentioned, such as Dimensión Vertical, directed by Jorge Luis Penichet and Los Peniques, with singer José Ignacio Vázquez Gallo (Nacho) and bass guitarist Julito Quintana, among others. Also, Mayito Valdez’s Los Yen’s (he was later a member of Los Signos) and Gustavo Díaz Chanez’s Los Hanks, both of them from Havana city, as well as many others. We cannot talk about rock from that period without mentioning Pedro Caña’s Los Gnomos and Los Signos, founded in 1969. And of course, the legendary Almas Vertiginosas, a band created in the Los Sitios neighborhood of Centro Habana municipality.
Some 95% of the musical tracks of these bands were covers, or versions of tracks that were famous on international billboards, that were sung in English.
This distinguishes them from other groups that later on disappeared, such as Los Satélites and Los Vampiros, who performed mostly Spanish versions of musical tracks. Groups that stand out are Los Dada and Los Fantásticos, to which was later added Los Mensajeros, Los Cuales, Los Magnéticos and Los Barbas, all professional bands created at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. This flood of bands was headed by Los Bucaneros. The incorporation of Raúl Gómez and Ernesto Pérez gave a new vocal and instrumental performance to the old line-up. All those groups, created after the emergence of Dino Freijo’s Los Buitres, are part of what we can call “The Third Generation of Cuban Rock.” They were the preferred groups, perhaps because of their professional members. Their recorded music was broadcast over and over again on radio and TV.
What was the impact of Fidel’s speech delivered on March 13, 1963? In that major speech, the leader of the Revolution attacked rock and roll followers and compared them to “little lumpen,” emphasizing: “Many of those fashion followers, those tramps, those children of the bourgeois, go around with their Elvis Presley-like attitudes. With their dissolute behavior, they have reached the extreme point where they want to go to public places to organize their womanish shows just like that (…). But they are all related—the lumpen, tramps, Elvis Presley followers, jeans; (…). We oppose extremists, we oppose incorrect methods, we oppose botchery.”
From that moment on, the opportunistic bureaucrats launched an unwritten campaign against rock and each one dealt with the issue in their own way. As a result, records were confiscated and all those carrying rock and roll discs or something similar were taken to police stations. Extremist and botched actions were committed, and maybe some incorrect methods too. The press never mentioned that. And those police officers, who because of their origin couldn’t understand the mentality of a big city, could not be refrained from their actions. The rock age in Cuba was basically a Havana city phenomenon.
With the creation of Mozambique, by Pello el Afrocán, this genre caught the overriding attention of that group of black rockers, especially their singers. Thus, the rock and roll enthusiasm of that ethnic sector was neutralized and rock was left practically in the hands of the whites.
From that moment on, rock was marginalized and Cuba, one of the most advanced Latin American countries in this field of culture, remained far behind Spain, Argentina and, of course, Mexico. In an interview conducted with our Commander in Chief, on December 8, 2000, after the visit to Cuba by the group Manic Street Preachure and on the actual day of the inauguration of John Lennon Park, Fidel said: “But I didn’t cut anyone’s hair, you know? Possibly there was extremism for different reasons; there was practically a huge rejection of the West, you could say because of the blockade, because of the dirty war, the aggressions, the terrorist attacks that we still suffer. And possibly people didn’t have the culture they have today.” And referring to Lennon he definitely affirmed: “A Lennon today would be much better known and better admired than at that time…”
What was the role played by radio and television programs, such as Buenas Tardes, Nocturno and Radio Marianao?
The television program Buenas Tardes, on the air for over ten years, tried to focus the attention of youth on national song/trova/pop-rock. That was the reserve for the creation of new stars. The objective was to persuasively convince Cubans about the importance of so-called national culture. That was the origin of artists such as Rolando Ojeda (Ojedita), Alfredito Rodríguez, Los Dadas, Miguel Ángel Piña, Los Barbas, Los 5U4, Leonor Zamora, Los Gafas, Los Magnéticos, Maria Elena Pena, Lourdes Gil and Los Galantes, Delia María, Tres más uno, Miguel Chávez, Beatriz Márquez, Farah Maria, the Rocel and Cary duet, and of course, Mirtha and Raúl. The radio also broadcast Spanish and Mexican groups and singers making covers of English and American bands. Actually, English rock started to be heard in 1970, on a Radio Marianao program entitled Buenas Tardes Juventud. That program presented groups such as the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Dave Clark Five, The Animals, Grand Funk, Rare Earth, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, Presley, Sedaka and Paul Anka. At the beginning of the 1980s, this radio station joined Radio Ciudad de la Habana.
What tendencies were later on seen in Cuban rock?
Cuba, in a manner of speaking, is a genuinely musical country. An example of this is that today all the manifestations and sub-genres of rock are performed, no matter how atypical they are. From the rhythmic and blues, to the ballad rock, the limbo rock, the slow rock, the rockabilly and the twist, at its beginning, are played. Then, from 1964-1965 on, we started playing the so-called Beat, hardly knowing it was a rhythm from Liverpool, England. That happened from the third generation of rockers on. Then there came the fourth generation, with the Zeppelin-like sound, and, of course, Underground, which mixed Hard Rock and Psychedelic simultaneously with the sound of Deep Purple and Grand Funk, which in due time left Black Sabbath behind on the bench. This type of music was very much performed in Cuba by street bands, until the arrival of Heavy Metal or Heavy Rock with ACDC at the head, followed by Van Halen, Ronnie Montrose and Alice Cooper.
Unfortunately, the 1980s Punk tendency was not welcomed by our rock and roll musicians until the 1990s. However, there were several great dance groups with the name of Free Creeks. In major National Festivals such as the Alamar Festival, Heavy trash, in 1990, Speed Metal and Death Metal, in 1991, started to be performed, and also, in 1992, some kinds of satanic trends. Then arrived a period of National rock. And even though its roots were based in Grindcore, it gave rise to the more radical death tendency. This was evidenced in two ways: the trend of the Western part of the country, with a Trash-like style, and the Central-Eastern trend, with a darker influence. Today, there’s a high presence of Metalcore and Black Metal among 15-30 year old rock-loving youth.
How is rock seen in the Island in the 21st century?
As of the Alamar Festivals of 1999, 2000 and 2001, the number of festivals in the country has increased. We now have Ciudad Metal, in Santa Clara; El Rey Metal de Tendencia, in Pinar del Río; los Mephistos, in Holguín and the Atenas Festival, in Matanzas in 2001. In addition, as of 2001, Cuerda Viva, a television program directed by Ana Maria Rabbasa, is on the air. This program, broadcast on Sunday afternoons, provides an excellent opportunity to rock bands, among other genres. We currently have a theater, the Maxim Rock, a nightclub, the Yellow Submarine—in honor of The Beatles—and a National Rock Agency that brings together over 12 bands.