For many, the simple idea that there are bands that perform metal in Cuba today and that also belong to a government entity called the Rock Agency may seem impossible.
But the new documentary “Los Últimos Frikis” -which is already available on Topic and On Demand, and which was filmed over almost a decade on the same island- has in front of a group from Havana that identifies not only fully with the genre, but he has just completed 34 years of career.
Directed by the American filmmaker of Irish descent Nicholas Brennan (without a drop of Latin blood in his veins) and spoken entirely in Spanish, the work shows the countless challenges faced by a musical group that has never managed to perform. beyond its borders.
The documentary feature film has as a precedent to “Hard Rock Havana” (2009), a short by Brennan himself that premiered at the Tribeca Festival and which already portrayed the story of Zeus, but which led the director to think of a much more installment extensive.
“My first trip to Cuba was in 2009, as a student, and I was very surprised to find there the same music that I grew up with and that I loved,” said the director, who was born in Maine and lived in New York for 15 years. , although he has lived in London since the beginning of the pandemic.
“That was the connection and what made me not only start this project, but decided to continue working on it for almost a decade,” added Brennan, who grew up playing drums but ultimately decided to put her creativity into the art of filmmaking. “Of course the process was not continuous, because I came and went. A lot of interesting things happened in all that time, related to the changes in the administrations of the United States that affected the island and, of course, the band ”.
Thanks to the radio
Although the documentary shows many moments of disappointment and frustration, even when the Cuban government tries to support Zeus but is faced with serious organizational and infrastructure problems, Brennan believes that the film ends up leaving a flavor of hope that has a lot of to do with the personality of the vocalist of Zeus, Dionisio ‘Diony’ Arce.
“‘Diony’ is an extremely positive person, and it’s impossible to keep a band active under these circumstances if you don’t believe that the future is going to be better than the present,” he said. “We finished filming during the group’s 30th anniversary, and although the pandemic has obviously hit everyone, I know they are already rehearsing and preparing a new album.”
These words lead us to the singer himself, who answered our telephone call from his home in Havana to tell us first of all about his historical role as a representative of a musical style that does not seem to be exactly favored by the environment in which he finds himself.
“This is something that I have believed all my life and that must exist in the whole world, because each country must have a band that has the language of metal,” said the vocalist firmly, who began to listen to rock in the middle. from the ’70s (he quotes Johnny Winters, Fleetwood Mac, King Crimson and Led Zeppelin) through the signals of the Miami radio stations that reached Havana.
“Exposing yourself to this music was practically impossible if you did not have a good antenna or did not know some of the few people who had the possibility of traveling abroad and who returned with the records or cassettes that they bought there,” he added.
In the ’80s,’ Diony ‘joined Iron Maiden, WASP, Bon Jovi and Poison; later, he took a liking to Manowar, Overkill, Metal Church and Helloween; and already in the 90s, he leaned towards the more extreme metal of Sepultura, Pantera, Megadeth and Metallica. “You had to listen to it quietly or with headphones, because you annoyed the neighbors; and people who listened to music in English were not seen well, because it was seen as the enemy’s music, ”he recalled. “Those who listened to it were accused of ‘ideological diversionism’.
Despite the risks, ‘Diony’ remained in the toughest musical fields. “It was something different. I was young and I always wanted to consume what was forbidden, or what they told me not to listen to, “said the singer, who suffered a six-year prison sentence for reasons that he prefers not to detail. “All the problems I had at that time I looked for them by listening to music in English.”
But ‘Diony’ was not a simple listener. In 1981, he joined Venus as a vocalist, which he himself considers the pioneer heavy metal band in Cuba. That group only managed to record three or four songs, in an extremely precarious way; Despite this, these were broadcast through a radio space called “El Programa de Ramón”, which was in charge of publicizing various Cuban rock groups. “Before they were shown, the lyrics of each song had to be handed in so that a ‘literary advisor’ could determine whether or not they would go,” the vocalist resumed.
Venus also had the opportunity to perform live in the so-called ‘houses of culture’, in private parties and in an auditorium in Havana, where they were given the last Sunday of each month; But all this was suddenly interrupted when the authorities decided that the group could no longer exist.
In 1988, ‘Diony’ briefly joined Zeus, who was still starting out; but their real presence in the group (which has only managed to record two albums so far) began in 1997. “At that time there was an opening that allowed bands to rehearse, play and try to become professional, and we have I have continued in this since then, despite the fact that we still had and still have to face many obstacles, especially when we want to do events ”, assured the singer.
Risks and reggaetoneros
According to Brennan, the entire filming process had no major setbacks. “The short film, which had already been seen in Havana, allowed us to obtain permission to film the feature film,” he commented. “Things were pretty quiet. The real risk was not for the filmmakers, but for the members of the band and the ‘forbidden truth’ of which they speak ”.
“In reality, the most complicated was on the side of the United States,” he continued. “Before Obama made the changes that he did, in 2014, we had to get a special license. Afterward, Trump made things difficult for a lot of people, but we weren’t affected. “
“Los Últimos Frikis” is officially an American production, but in practice, it featured an impressive number of Cuban workers. “I collaborated very closely with cinematographer Javier Labrador, who did a beautiful job and helped me capture everything in the best possible way,” Brennan told us. “It seems to me that this ended up being a half Cuban, half American job.”
Curiously, when watching the film, it is discovered that government obstacles are not the only obstacle for Zeus, but also the increasingly massive taste of Cuban youth for a new enemy of our protagonists: reggaeton.
“Metal has always been about expressing yourself openly and physically to reject what is being imposed on you, while reggaeton is a celebration of having a good time,” emphasized the director. “They are two very different concepts of what music can be, and the film shows at a certain point the time of joy that occurred during the Obama period, which was in sharp contrast to the stage of development of Zeus, when everyone had hungry and what they wanted to do was go to a concert and get into a ‘moshpit’ ”.
In the same film, ‘Diony’ admits the disgust that this musical aspect produces, although during the interview he offered us, he acknowledged that he likes to dance the timba of Los Van Van. “The company that sets up the tours, and that does it through the Cuban Rock Agency, sometimes put you in concerts with artists who had nothing to do with what you do, which could cause problems between the ‘heavies’ and the reggaetoneros who already had a lot of rum inside ”, he explained. “But what we have started to do now with the Agency is to put together posters in which there are only representatives of the same rock’n’roll style.”
And it is that, in 2019, as strange as it may seem, the singer was appointed Director of the Rock Agency founded in 2007, placing him in a position that started in a particularly promising way (he managed to make the Maxim Rock room, with capacity for 1,000 people , was completely full over many weekends), but that has been seriously affected by the arrival of the pandemic, mainly due to the impossibility of doing live concerts.
The Ministry of Culture of Cuba has continued to pay a stable monthly salary (and very decent, in their words) to each of the members of the numerous bands that belong to the Agency, which has allowed them to survive without making any presentation, more beyond the acts that are recorded for television transmission and that are also paid. “We must recognize that they have not left us helpless and that they have even supported us in projects that we have presented,” acknowledged ‘Diony’.
The vocalist considers that having been appointed to this executive position after having practically been a ‘persona non grata’ is mainly due to his perseverance and transparency. “I have always spoken with the authorities head on, telling them what I think,” he said. “I think they have also realized that Cuban music has to include rock in its representation, because that is something that happens all over the world.”
For his part, Brennan believes that the election of ‘Diony’ for the position has to do with a change of mentality in the Cuban government, but also with the tireless work of the singer over the years. “In any case, it is a great responsibility for him, because he has spent his life fighting for things to change and now he is in the necessary position to make those changes,” he said.
The divine hand
The most obvious link between “Los Últimos Frikis” and the Cuban-American community is that between Dave Lombardo, the legendary drummer of Slayer (and current member of Suicidal Tendencies). The renowned musician, who was born in Havana, not only visited Cuba for the first time in half a century due to an invitation from Brennan -and took ST to the Cuban capital to offer a concert there with Zeus-, but also composed the powerful soundtrack of the documentary.
“Dave and I connected shortly after the short film came out, and our friendship developed over time,” the director told us. “He believes that having grown up listening to Cuban rhythms was what allowed him to create the revolutionary style that distinguished him in Slayer. When he saw a cut of the movie that I showed him in 2017, he said, ‘what can I do?’, And I replied, ‘we need a composer.’ This is the first soundtrack I ever created ”.
“Then he made his first trip to Cuba since he had to leave there in the 1960s, when he was less than 2 years old, and he also brought his mother, who had the same thing,” he added. “I think he saw in Zeus the alternative version of what would have happened to him if things had been different in his life.”
For ‘Diony’, meeting Lombardo “was something divine”, in the purest spiritual sense. “He is one of the most sincere and humble musicians I have ever met,” he said. “The members of Zeus will be eternally grateful for having placed this trust in us. We consider him an example to follow for all Cuban musicians around the world ”.