This past July 22, Giovany Milhet and Fanny Tachín, leaders of the six-piece metal act Hipnosis, launched what’s guaranteed to be the longest, strangest trip of their band’s life to date, Arielle Castillo reports for ABCNews.
Along with their four bandmates, Milhet and Tachín headed from their Havana homebase to a supposed gig in Oakland, California — with a layover in Miami. As you might guess, they never made it to Oakland, becoming arguably the first full hard-rock act to defect at once from Cuba to Miami.
And last Sunday, the group played its first real U.S. rock and roll show at the very smoky and punk Churchill’s Pub in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.
Who are Hipnosis and why do they matter in the overall scheme of Cuban rock?
Hipnosis was, up to now, probably the biggest hard-rock act in Cuba. Though the metal field isn’t too crowded on an island still obsessed with tropical music and Latin urban sounds, the group still stood out for a couple reasons.
The first is that rather than trying to put a “Cuban”-type spin on metal, founder Milhet wanted to perform largely in English. Second, his other concept was to feature women prominently in the band. The lineup has shifted over the years, but it’s always featured two or three women as guitarists, bassists, singers, and/or keyboard players.
The group first found real fame a little over a decade ago, when it appeared on a Cuban reality talent show called Cuerda Viva. Since then, it’s gained a following around the island but has never been able to leave to perform elsewhere.
Because the band lived walled away from the rest of the heavy metal world at large, its look — kinda goth and theatrical — lags a few years behind current trends. But its blend of thrash, symphonic, doom, and various other strains of metal spews out tightly and forcefully.
Did the band perform in Cuba with the approval of the Cuban government?
Yes. Though the Cuban government regularly censors performers and casts a side-eye at youth culture, Hipnosis, at least on the surface, was generally allowed to do its thing. The group was “signed” to the Agencia Cubana de Rock, an organization that functions sort of like the official ministry of rock and booking agency. (To legally make any money off performances, bands must sign to the agency to be deemed “professional” musicians.)
The Cuban press regularly previewed the band’s gigs. In fact, Suffering Tool, a side project of erstwhile Hipnosis singer Ramiro Pupo, enjoyed a glowing profile just this past April in no less than Granma, the official Communist party newspaper.
What kinds of gigs did they get to play in Cuba?
The group was a regular headliner at Havana’s official club, Maxim Rock. In fact, they were such regular headliners that it caused reported scene grumblings that they played there a little too often, according to the Cuban communist party web site CubaDebate. They also appeared regularly at the government-organized Caiman Rock festival series.
More interestingly, side project Suffering Tool also played at the August 2011 edition of Brutal Fest, the closest thing the island has to a fully independent, heavy-music festival. It’s organized by French national David Chapet, the head of Brutal Beatdown Records, a label dedicated to sharing heavy music in and from Cuba.
“I was about 27 when I came to live in Cuba, and when I got there, I got interested in the little local [metal] scene. I discovered an underground movement that was pretty important,” Chapet wrote by e-mail in French. “But there was no real support for them from the national institutions or record labels. So I decided to create Brutal Beatdown Records.”
If Hipnosis was doing okay on the island for so long, why did they finally decide to leave and plead asylum in the U.S.?
It’s unclear whether or not the band had been planning an escape for several years. The night after the group arrived in Miami, I found Archie Pantelmann, a Canadian listed as Hipnosis’ North American contact on an English-language web site for the group.
In an interview for WLRN, the Miami public-radio NPR affiliate, Pantelmann told me he had originally tried to organize a Canadian tour for Hipnosis in 2011. He said he got the sense that if the group were to make it to North America, they would not be returning to the island. He also said he felt that Cuban government officials got the same sense, and refused to grant the band’s travel visa.
Meanwhile, though Hipnosis played with official approval, more or less, and played all the available metal clubs and gigs on the island, the market for heavy music there is still limited, to say the least. And the government, too, has been increasingly cracking down on musical expression.
In 2011, the government pulled the plug on the Rotilla Festival, the island’s largest multi-genre music festival, fearing its 20,000-audience-member-strong power as a temporary autonomous zone. This past December, Fusion’s Manuel Rueda reported on a government crackdown on reggaeton lyrics.
How did they manage to finally make it to the U.S.?
That first attempt at traveling to Canada to tour got foiled, but in ensuing years, travel restrictions from the island have lifted somewhat. As the band told *Cafe Fuerte’s Cancio Isla, they managed to score a gig in Oakland for July 27. The government allowed Hipnosis to travel, but required that a culture ministry official chaperone the group.
As Hipnosis members told it — at least to the press — their government-appointed chaperone essentially annoyed them into defecting at the Miami airport. “This lady started to give us rules about what we could and couldn’t do on the trip,” Giovany Milhet, the group’s guitarist, told Wilfredo Cancio Isla of the independent news site Café Fuerte. “With all of her pressures, we think she really helped us to escalate things.”
Still, the Oakland gig may have been a big, clever cover-up. Back in July, I couldn’t find any proof that any such performance was ever scheduled for the city. And though Hipnosis arrived in time to travel to Oakland, they never did, and instead billed the pair of Miami shows this past weekend as their first in the U.S.
The details behind the supposed gig and the band’s escape from the island may forever remain shrouded. In late July I contacted Maylin Ruiz, a former frontwoman for the band who managed to get to Spain a couple years prior, to ask about the Oakland gig. But she declined to comment.
So, how was their first show in the United States?
The Sunday night show at Churchill’s started off a bit like a Cuban version of Spinal Tap, featuring once-huge stars now playing in a rundown dive for a crowd of about 50. Most of the audience seemed to consist of friends, former band members, and friends of former band members, plus a few handfuls of hardcore Latino metalheads. (Still, perhaps Churchill’s looked like Madison Square Garden in comparison to Cuba, because hey, electricity and less threat of a police raid.)
Hipnosis’ headlining set, too, betrayed a disconnect between metal tastes back on the island and the current heavy-music zeitgeist. A set-closing handful of covers started with a cover of Europe’s cheesy, keyboard-driven anthem “The Final Countdown,” which segued into Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” (Interestingly, “The Final Countdown” was also an obsession of Acrassicauda, the Iraqi band featured in Vice’s excellent Heavy Metal in Baghdad documentary. Perhaps this is the official jam of metal acts in repressed countries.)
There were a number of high points, though. Hipnosis side project Suffering Tool, featuring mostly the same members but fronted instead by Ramiro Pupo, played a growling, searing opening set of death metal that could fit easily on a festival bill. Drummer Reymond Daniel Rodriguez’s lightning-speed command of his kit particularly impressed.
Hipnosis, meanwhile, play like the seasoned pros they are, complete with synchronized headbangs and a well-rehearsed, forceful synth/guitar onslaught. The group also boasts a real star in bassist Tachín, who demands attention both for her feet of swinging blonde hair and her precise rhythm-keeping.
You can check out video of Hipnosis playing their original number “Fear to Change” here, and a few seconds of their “Final Countdown” cover here. Click here for a quick video of Suffering Tool’s performance.
Now that Hipnosis has left the island, has the official Cuban media turned against them?
The answer is, naturally, yes. The coverage on CubaDebate — again, a Communist party-sponsored web site — has largely focused on puncturing the group’s asylum-seeking claims. Writers there continue to point out how the band regularly performed at government events as proof that they weren’t persecuted. While it’s true that the band performed with approval, government gigs are pretty much the only ones available that won’t result in arrest.
Who else is holding it down for heavy music in Cuba now that Hipnosis is gone?
The annual summer Brutal Fest is actually going on right now, through August 25. Out-of-town performers on that bill include France’s Mortuary and Sweden’s Splattered Mermaids, with support coming from 10 different Cuban acts.
Brutal Fest founder David Chapet hopes that by bringing in occasional bands from out of the country, he can help introduce new influences and sounds to Cuban acts. “Cuban metal remains very classic and conservative, and not very well-formed,” he wrote by e-mail in French. “There’s a little death metal, a little old-school black metal, a little bit of thrash, and a little bit of hardcore which still sounds way too timid.”
Besides Hipnosis side project Suffering Tool, Chapet recommends that metal fans curious about the scene check out 2012 Cuerda Viva winners Escape, death metal act Combat Noise, hardcore groups Switch and Arrabio, metalcore bands Darkness Falls and Dead Point. Finally, he says essential listening comes courtesy of 25-year-running Cuban metal legends Zeus.
What does Hipnosis plan to do next?
They also plan, finally, to tour North America. The night before the Sunday performance at Churchill’s Pub, Hipnosis played a small, informal show at a warehouse venue, La Madriguera de Miami. There, all the door proceeds collected by venue owner Pedro Vidal went to fund this future outing.
More immediately, the group is playing around Miami, with the next show coming up on August 24 at the venue the House of Rock.
For the original report go to http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/heavy-metal-cuba-care-hipnosis-us-full-band/story?id=20000304&singlePage=true