FRIENDS, ACQUAINTANCES, AND PASSING STRANGERS: Porno para Ricardo

One of Cuba’s most notorious bands, Porno para Ricardo is nothing if not controversial. Their unrelenting anti-Castro stance has made them a thorn in the side of that regime and a darling of the Miami exile community, and fellow punk rockers debate the band’s position within the island’s small scene: some applaud their cojones, others call them clowns. Most, however, adamantly defend their right to free expression. In August 2008, PpR frontman Gorki Águila was arrested on the dubious charge of “social dangerousness,” an offense punishable by up to four years in prison. After Generation Y blogger Yoani Sánchez called international attention to the case, these charges were reduced and Águila got off with a fine. The following interview, with Águila and PpR drummer Renay Kairus, took place with the help of a translator in late September 2013, in Havana. In light of the United States’ recent (and long overdue) decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, I thought I’d revisit that conversation here. 

Gorki: Cuba is a very musical country. When I was a child, my mom would work around the house, cleaning the house, listening to Cuban music. She enjoyed singing and I liked to listen. Peasant music—son, boleros—here there are millions of genres of music, and these were my first musical influences.

Renay: Music is everywhere here, so I absorbed that indirect influence. I have heard so many boleros… songs that got under my skin, like Frank Sinatra. The first English rock record I heard was Sgt. Pepper. When I was in ninth grade, I got a tape. One one side was Sgt. Pepper and the other side was The White Album. I was amazed by that. Now I’m a great fan of jazz and blues, I listen constantly to American blues, and to English [language] rock music.

Gorki: In terms of the influences that are reflected in our music, there are things that are not musical that have influenced me, that I have put into my music—for example plastic arts, painting, art in general. It’s not only music that has influenced the band. It´s everything.

Renay: In Cuba in the 80’s, there was a strong new movement in the plastic arts. Artists were dealing with postmodernism, which was virtually unknown to Cuba at that time. They were a little bit more daring, they were talking about art in the streets, they were talking about politics. It was a fresh wave. Of course, I was still a child.

Gorki: There was a need to say something, and for me that was very important. I don’t judge someone who needs to earn money by making art, but I felt then that something was speaking to me. I identified with this in a deep way.

EP: And when did you start playing?

Gorki: I started playing guitar, learning in the streets, when I was 19 years old, and the band started in 1998. I liked rock and roll so much, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t just be passive in my enjoyment. Among other things, when I went to places where rock and roll was played, I felt that there wasn’t a band that was able to please me completely, and I decided to create a band, to do it myself.

Renay: I also taught myself to play guitar, in the street and with some friends. I was maybe 17 when I began with the guitar, but then I realized I liked the drums more. I was in high school, and there was a group of musicians, a band of kids, and I watched them constantly. I watched how the drummer played, and then I practiced at home with books [for drums]. One day, the drummer of the school band didn’t arrive on time, and the director asked if anybody played drums because he had to begin his concert. I raised my hand and I said, “I am a drummer.” It was a lie; I had just been playing on those books. But I played the song that I had watched so many times, and I realized that I could be a drummer. When I was at the university I took a few lessons with a musician friend of mine. He played traditional Cuban salsa music, and taught me the basics of drumming.

EP: There’s not much in the way of music stores here, and the ones that exist are super expensive and tend to sell more traditional Cuban instruments. How do you even go about putting equipment together?

Renay: You have to save money for a long time, and you have to be lucky enough to come across decent instruments. With drums it’s crazy because they’re sold in pieces. I had to save for a lot of years, nickel by nickel, so I could afford ten years later to have a drum set. It was a very, very basic kit, but I began to practice with that. I was lucky in that way—there are many people who have better drums, but there are some who don’t have any—so I have my little poor drums, but it´s something. The guitar is expensive in Cuba, too, and of course it has its accessories: cables, an amplifier, speakers, pedals… when you consider the whole package, it’s very expensive.

EP: You guys had the rare opportunity to play some shows in Europe not too long ago. Were you able to come home with like a new pedal or any of the equipment that’s hard to come by here?

Renay: That was my first and the only tour, my only visit to Europe. I couldn’t save any money [in advance], so I bought a pair of sticks only. It´s something. In Cuba, a pair of sticks is significant. But after all these years, we have saved for the group, and we have our studio with a decent [setup], the drums are not bad, so right now we have the basic stuff to sound good.

EP: But you’ve essentially been banned from playing here.

Renay: That’s the other side. Basically, if you don’t belong to a government institution here [eg. Agencia Cubana de Rock or Asociación Hermanos Saíz], you don’t play. So everyone who wants to play, to be known, has to belong to an institution, which provides them with opportunities to practice and perform. But they are watching, they are controlling in certain ways. There are other bands here that play punk, but maybe they think of it as a musical genre only, apart from the original spirit or attitude of punk rock.

EP: I don’t know. There are bands in other parts of the country who I would consider punk for sure—in their attitude, their lyrics, in the way they scrap equipment together—and I think they´re just making do with what´s available to them. I agree that it’s peculiar to be both punk and affiliated with a government institution. But the alternative—to be an artist who cannot perform—seems unendurable.

Renay: It´s a way of living in Cuba. To be known, you need to belong to an institution. Otherwise you don´t exist.

Gorki: It’s difficult to pay the price we are paying. Not everybody needs, wants, or can make that step.

EP: So you guys just don’t play outside of your rehearsal space [in Gorki’s home]? Or you only play underground events?

Gorki: Yes. And we almost cannot play underground in Cuba. The last time we tried—playing inside my house—we were arrested.

EP: On a noise complaint?

Gorki: No, no. We barely even started. The block was surrounded by police.

EP: The band has been increasingly vocal against the Cuban government, both in interviews and song. Dissidents in the States have latched onto the band, and in particular to Gorki—his visit to the US in 2009 had the exile community fawning. Somewhere I heard a rumor that you guys get some sort of financial backing from Miami. Considering you’ve been blacklisted in Cuba, I have to ask…

Renay: Of course we don’t work for anyone. Maybe the special attention is because we are the only band that isn’t affiliated with the government, but there is not any relationship with Miami. In fact, we had an offer to play in Miami recently, but we didn’t like some of the [ideas] involved so we rejected the invitation. We would play in Revolution Square, in Miami, or in Russia—

Gorki: —but we would play in Revolution Square singing what we want. Nobody can tell us what we have to sing. Not Miami, not Castro.

EP: I dig.

Gorki: A question for you: I know that people always complain about the place where they live, their reality, and express their opinion, and fight… After being here in Cuba for a time, how do you see the reality of Cuba? Like as an option to resist against the reality of your country?

Renay: He asked you that question because we recently met some people from Spain who believed our reality is the answer.

EP: No, no, I don’t believe that. I’m from—what—the greatest capitalist country in the world? And it’s very ugly. Our “democracy” is a mess. I won’t sit here and dismiss the freedoms I have that you don’t, like easy access to information, the ability to travel… But I can’t say the Cuban reality is the solution. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think it’s neither.

Gorki: Look: capitalism is shit, but it’s a better shit better than this one. Communism is non-moldable, non-plastic. That’s why it dies, why it has to take on capitalist rules…. It fails by its essence, by its root. It doesn’t work. Enough of utopia; no more utopias. I don’t like communism, I don’t like anarchy, I don’t like capitalism, I don’t like anything. No more shit in my head. I like reality, right now: my beer, my pleasure, to do what I want.

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