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Rojo Desteñido (Faded Red)

Tom Astley

El Album Rojo (Destenido)Porno Para Ricardo
Rojo Desteñido
la paja records, 2011

Despite the image, still prevalent in magazines and tourist literature, that “authentic Cuban music” consists of leather-skinned old soneros tapping out the ubiquitous clave rhythm, rock (in myriad guises) has become something of a national music in post-millennial Cuba. So the fact that a punk band exists on the island is not quite as surprising as one may think. However, that this particular punk band, Porno Para Ricardo, continue to exist—despite total political and artistic ostracization, a four year prison sentence visited upon lead singer Gorki Águila, and continued police harassment—is of some note.

Rojo Desteñido (Faded Red) is the band’s fourth full-length album, and in many respects their most accomplished. Their first, Rock Para Las Masas … Cárnicas (“Rock For the Masses”) was wilfully anarchic, even juvenile, featuring songs about drugs, lesbianism, and a cover version of the theme song from a old Soviet cartoon. 2006 saw the release of Gorki from prison, and the release of the “diptych” albums A Mi No Me Gusta La Políticas Pero Yo Le Gusta A Ella, Compañeros (I Don’t Like Politics, But She Likes Me) and Soy Porno, Soy Popula’ (I’m Porno, I’m Popular). The mood herein is, understandably, more aggressive, more pointed, more political, and more defiant. It is also more anarchic. Interspersed throughout the songs are jokes, bizarre short speeches, and a recurring manic laughter; all tropes alluding to the live gigs forbidden to the band since Gorki’s incarceration.

But this fourth album represents something different. Though it celebrates the same punk aesthetics as its forbears – a fiercely DIY ethos, a “live” sound to recordings, and a socio-political stance that is far from compromising – it takes a more measured sonic approach. The production, for a home-recorded, self-financed and, to all intents, “illegal” album, is much richer. The guitars have depth, as well as distortion; the vocals are sonorous at moments (particularly in “Los Dinosaurios“) as well as being strained. The composition of the album is more diverse, too; shades, perhaps, of post-punk. Certainly a more varied musical palette is utilised here.

Lyrically, there is no let up from previous efforts, and the content provides just as many shock effects (and just as much swearing) as before. Once again, prominent members of the Revolution are called out by name, though this time it is Raúl Castro who is given the limelight in what is perhaps politically speaking the album’s flagship song, “El General“.

It follows a similar line to the band’s most famous track, “El Coma Andante” (“The Walking Coma”, a play on Fidel Castro’s consonant epithet “el Commandante“) by mercilessly lampooning “el segundo Castro” (“the second Castro”). Yet, as with much of the band’s work, behind the veneer of bluster and defiance, there is a lament for their powerlessness and a frustration at the apathy gripping much of their generation:

La gente se pregunta
Qué es lo que va pasar
Pero con Raúl al frente
¡La mierda sigue igual!

The people ask
What is going to happen
But with Raúl at the helm
It’s the same old shit!

The standout track on this album is the cover version of the old bolero standard “Mucho Corazón“. In interview, Gorki speaks of the band’s decision to open their album with this song:

We start the album with a bolero, to give people what they’re not expecting. We open a rock album with a bolero. Of course this is a bolero that somehow sets up the band’s position. It is this bolero by Marcelino Guerra that goes ‘dicen que no es vida, esto que yo vivo’ [they say this is not life that I am living] [laughs]. That is contextualising that bolero within a rock album and even more so with the characteristics of our band has a special meaning. (Gorki, 2010)

For its heartfelt and surprisingly faithful rendition, for incorporating aspects of ‘memory’, even nostalgia, into a punk context, it is perhaps the most shocking track on the album. One keeps expecting the serenity of the intertwining acoustic guitars to be punctured by a ‘punkification’. That the disruption never comes forces one to consider Porno Para Ricardo as part of Cuba’s rich canon of musical greats and as a part of Cuban society, rather than as perennial “outsiders”, “dissidents” or “Yankee copycats”.

All Porno Para Ricardo’s albums can be heard (and bought) from their website.

Tom Astley is reading for a PhD in Ethnomusicology at Newcastle University.