No doubt you’ve heard about how U.S. and Cuban political and diplomatic relations have warmed up considerably since the days of the Bay of Pigs and when JFK was trying to off Fidel Castro in his spare time away from boinking Norma Jeane Mortenson. Pretty soon, and hopefully before there’s a Wal-Mart and Starbucks on every corner of Habana, Americans will be able to experience the gluttony and sunshine that comes with being a tourist in Cuba, a country which has bordered on an odd precipice of restriction and freedom for years on end. One very noticeable and relevant field this grey area manifests itself is the arts, specifically the extreme music scene and opportunities for both native bands and those from abroad. A few months ago, French grinders Nolentia and stoner doomers, Drawers (along with fellow Frenchies La Horde, Hungary’s Superbutt and Switzerland’s Sickret) were invited to participate in 2015’s edition of the long-running Brutal Fest, an annual tour that brings European bands (usually) to the cigar-and-classic-car covered island for some sun, fun and the opportunity to experience a totally different way of artistic and everyday life. Having been to Cuba myself – it sucked; feel free to ask me about it some time – and seeing no signs of metal life while there, I was curious about the band’s experience. So, I got in touch with Nolentia guitarist/vocalist, Ghis and Drawers drummer Olivier Lolmede to get an account of the experience.
First off, how did you end up being asked and invited to do a Cuban tour? Did you know someone there beforehand or did this come totally out of the blue?
Ghis [Nolentia]: All credit for the tour goes to David Chapet from Brutal Beatdown Records. He’s a French guy who’s been living in Cuba for like 19 or 20 years and he’s been organizing the Brutal Fest twice a year for the last seven years, I think. Niko from Drawers somehow heard about this fest, he contacted David from Drawers, and since there was a spot for another band, he proposed us to join. We’d heard about the Brutal Fest before through Mumakil from Switzerland who had played it, but never considered playing it ourselves until Niko proposed.
Olivier [Drawers]: Niko, Drawers' singer, had contacted David Chapet, the French promoter of the Brutal Beatdown Fest in Cuba via Facebook. David knew our music and he was looking for new bands to set up his next event. So, we were informed of the conditions and went!
What did you know of Cuba before you got there? Did you know anything about the nation's music scene?
Ghis: I knew a bit about the revolution and what followed, but I only heard about a metal scene there a few months before the tour through an online article on Vice, I think. Before that, I must confess I didn’t even consider that a scene could exist, as if it was all about the Buena Vista Social Club and their likes. At every show, there was a local band and the level was pretty good in general; a bit outdated both musically and in the attitude, but good musicians.
Olivier: Cuba was totally unknown to me, except the things everybody knows - Ché Guevara, Communist government, cigars, rum, weather... And personally, I never watch trailers of movies, so I did not want to know what to expect. So, I went in Cuba without any knowledge of the country. The same for the music, I knew Buena Vista Social Club a bit, that’s it.
What sort of special visa/paperwork applications and paperwork did you have to go through in order to do this? What was it like showing up at customs/immigration in comparison to any border crossing you've dealt with on previous tours?
Ghis: Everything was handled by David in Cuba, all we had to do is give a scan of our passports and a detailed list of the gear we were bringing. I don’t know how it’s like when you go there as a tourist, maybe you have to pay and endure a Kafka-esque process for a visa, but we were spared that part. The not-really-funny thing is that no matter how or why you entered the country you have to pay to get out, like a “leaving tax”! With Nolentia, we’ve only played in Europe so far, so I can’t compare Cuba with any other country. The customs part was really smooth compared to what I’ve been confronted with as a tourist, especially compared to the U.S.!
Olivier: David Chapet did all the paperwork for us. He dealt with the visas and the Cuban Ministry of Culture, so we got special “artists” visas, not just simple tourism visas. Going through customs was EXACTLY the same as any other countries we’ve visited! You show your papers, they take a picture of you, and get a “have a nice trip.” In fact, U.S. customs are colder and more into this kind of ‘military/police power show’ than the Cubans.
What was your impression of the country before getting there and how did reality match up to your assumptions?
Ghis: I’d heard stories from friends or relatives who had been there and who had returned with mostly positive impressions. A month or so before leaving, I started reading travelers’ blogs on the net about the life there, trying to gather tips and information. Basically, I tried to have as few expectations as possible to tried and keep an open mind. I assumed everything would be very different from what I was used to. I expected a poor country and an even poorer population and, in that regard, I wasn’t disappointed. As for the rest, I feel uncomfortable talking about the reality of Cuba; we were only there for two weeks and even though we tried to see and seize as much as we could, there are aspects we missed that would allow us to give objective feedback. This having being said, and based on what I’ve seen there, I feel the country is a profound state of dereliction and no one really seems to care. A few parts of the country are well kept, at least by Cuban standards, for tourists, but the rest is just left to rot. And again, no one really seems to give a damn.
Olivier: Honestly, we all had in mind the images of the beaches, the colorful Habana, Ché Guevara, etc… Some are real, some are what a rich tourist thinks of his trip in a big hotel where everybody speaks English and where poverty is hidden from the streets.
Nolentia in Cuba
How were you getting around and travelling and were you able to get out and see parts of the cities and countryside when you weren't playing? I'm assuming that because tourists are so common there that you didn't really stand out, but were there any moments where you felt really out of place and did you end up feeling more and more comfortable as the trip went on?
Ghis: We had a bus David rented with two drivers and, yes, we had plenty of time to hang around! I guess David tries to organize the fest as 50% tour, 50% vacation in the sun. We would play like two or three shows in a row, then have one or two days off and so on. So, in between shows and transports from a city to another, we’d have time to visit. To tell you the truth, I felt out of place the whole time there. When you’re in country where the average salary is about $20$and you make a comfortable living back home, I found it hard not to feel somehow indecent being there, and even more when a Cuban tells you he can’t afford the beer you’re drinking which costs less than a dollar. Plus, I’m a bit taller than average and I have a rather long red beard, so I was stopped in the street like every minute with people asking me for a picture for god knows what reason. After three days in Cuba, I had been photographed more than in my entire life! Concerning the bus, even though it had been reserved for us, the drivers are the sole masters aboard. So as long as there are unoccupied seats, they would take passengers even if it means a detour. The guys from Sickret from Switzerland even missed their plane because of one of those detour and they ended up paying like $800 to take another plane.
Olivier: The cities we visited were very far from the paradise we thought it would be. I believe that maybe 99% of people visiting Cuba actually go to Varadero, which is THE town made for tourists, with big all-inclusive palaces and beautiful beaches everywhere. On the tour we went to Camaguay, Bayamo, etc. cities which are in the countryside and where the real Cuban people live. So, we saw the real poverty of the country, we spoke to a lot of kids at the shows. They told us how it was to live there; it was really interesting, sometimes quite sad, sometimes just crazy. In fact this country is really complicated to understand; the U.S. embargo is really hard for them. The USA are in a strange situation where they are the big enemy, but when you talk with young Cubans, a lot of them have a relative living in Florida, which is the only way to get a little more money. Also the Cuban government has huge positive and negative sides. Healthcare is completely free for anybody, so is education. Most Cuban people speak two languages: English, Russian, German, or French. They know a lot about history, literature, etc. As we are French, the first thing they told us was “France, the country of the first Revolution.” Their revolution is everywhere, and despite the secularism in the country, Ché Guevara is like a god; his face is on every wall, in every street, it’s really strange. We went to his mausoleum, it was really religious, with a lot of useless stuff he owned: a pen, a gun, a shirt. Cities are not in good shape since the revolution. The image you can have in mind of the colorful buildings is true in two streets of the Habana, the rest of the city is falling apart...So much to say !
Tell us about the shows you played, the reaction of the Cuban kids, the other bands and any other tour stories you'd like to add.
Ghis: Even though the country is opened to tourism, culturally there’s a twenty year gap, maybe more. Internet is scarce and expensive and the code by which the kids react is sometimes hard to understand. There might have been a video with guys doing the KDS stuff shot somewhere in the western world that got ripped and went viral in Cuba, but at some point you see guys doing the same, except they’re not holding it and they hit on another for real! One night Niko from Drawers even stopped the show in the middle of a song and the people were like “Relax! This is how we do things in Cuba!” The cool thing about shows in Cuba is that people show up, even when the venue is changed at the last minute for whatever reason, you have at least 250/300 people coming to the show. But what struck me the most is their attitude before and after the show, the way people come to talk to you, want to take a picture with you, it’s all too much, always too much! Concerning stories I could tell, you know the rule: what happen on tour stays on tour! Let’s just feed the rock ‘n’ roll legend by saying that someone from some band which is neither Drawers nor Nolentia got so drunk in the bus he ended up literally shitting himself. On a twelve or fourteen hour drive. With the windows locked. Oh, and a personal message to the pickpocket who stole my phone: I wish you a very slow and very painful death.
Olivier: The shows were kind of strange since rock music has only been authorized for like five or six years, so people don’t know exactly how to react at the shows. They hear loud guitars, they are happy and they dance. They don’t really care about what the bands play, they just enjoy the show as it’s something really unusual for them. We were really happy to see about 300/400 people every night, and like 900 people at the Habana shows. I can tell that the opening of the country is something real, because six years ago it was forbidden to listen to rock music, and now if you deal a little bit with the Ministry of Culture, you can play right in the middle of the city, a 120dB loud show at midnight, and it’s ok. Not even one policeman showed up once.
But you must not forget that the country is poor, venues are most of the time just an open air place in the city, the backline is really old, but works well (the guitar cabs were given by Sepultura when they played in Habana).
Drawers in Cuba
Would you recommend other bands jump on the opportunity to do this if they can? Would you do it again? How would you say this particular tour/trip has influenced or inspired you in ways other tours haven't?
Ghis: This really is a tough question. On the one hand, you have David and the people from the Maxim who put up a lot of time and energy to make this possible in a country only a few bands come to tour, so the expectations from the kids are really high and maybe coming to Cuba to play helps reducing that cultural gap I mentioned earlier. Maybe. On the other hand I can’t really think of this experience as a tour, but rather as a vacation in the sun with a few shows to justify the trip. You pay for your flight, accommodation, your food, even if you want a bottle of water on stage you have to find it yourself and in some locations it can be a bit problematic. We sold a few of our CDs and t-shirts at the Cuban price, which means we gave them away, but we knew what we had signed on for. Well, not the water part, but the rest. Was it worth it ? I don’t know. I’m really glad we did this and I’m thankful to David and the people from the Maxim for the opportunity, but honestly there is no feedback to expect from this experience, professionally speaking. We shared great and bounding moments and discussions with our tour mates, very different from any other tour probably because of the distance, the exotic location and the language barrier with the locals. I can’t say it will come off as an influence or future inspiration, at least not one I can measure or be aware of. If we ever get back there again, it won’t be before a few years and I expect things will be very different.
Olivier: This tour was really inspiring. We learned a lot about what is really important in life. But when you’re a band, when you play your music, and when people thank you to come to us and play, well that’s why we do it. Every band should do this; it’s a great lesson and a great inspiration. We played in Algeria a few years ago, and it was a really similar experience, both countries have a common history of revolution in the 60’s, then communism, etc. I think we’ll try to play in some other countries, we have to complete our world tour !