From Shanghai with love: The story behind a China-produced Cuban punk compilation

A local musician's efforts to support punk in Cuba

Punks performing in Cuba (photo by Mei Er)
'It was like discovering buried treasure. I never thought Cuba would have a punk scene.' This is how Shanghainese musician and producer Mei Er describes his first encounter with punk music in Cuba, and it's perhaps an understandable reaction - even for someone who is used to being on the receiving end of such astonishment.

Inspired by GG Allin, Mei Er was one of the founders of renowned (and now sadly defunct) Shanghainese band Top Floor Circus and also runs the punk-focused WeChat account 敌台. As such, he has been a key player in China's punk scene for years now, the existence of which can still be met with surprise from outsiders.

Yet it was actually Mei Er's day job at a local TV station that took him to Cuba in 2015 to make a documentary about music in the country. 'When I said I was going to Cuba, friends would joke and say, "are you going looking for Cuban punk?" but I hadn't really thought about it,' Mei Er wrote on 敌台 shortly after his trip. 'The Cuban musicians that the world knows are the ones from Buena Vista Social Club - I didn't think I'd find any punks.'

However, he did discover a short interview with a couple of punks on a Havana street on YouTube that he watched before he left. 'I thought I'd go to that street and wander around to see what I could find, but I didn't have very high hopes.'

"cuban punk"

Mei Er began by asking the translator that had been arranged to accompany him and his crew whether he knew of anyone making music, ideally young and doing rock or hip hop. The translator said he didn't really know anyone like that, but that one of his fishing buddies was in a punk band. As neither the translator nor the fishing friend had mobile phones, the translator had to call his friend's house phone instead. The band member's mother answered the phone and said her son was currently out on tour; he wouldn't be back for a couple of days at least.

'I was so disappointed,' Mei Er writes. 'If we'd arrived a day earlier we could have gone out on tour with him.' Eventually however, the Chinese visitors were able to track down a livehouse in Havana, Maxim Rock, and here there fortunes improved; the bill for that night's gig featured a punk act.

Having found a way in to the punk scene in Havana, Mei Er crammed as many gigs as he could into his ten day visit, coming into contact along the way with stories of Los Frikis - the Cuban punks who injected themselves with HIV to escape the constraints of society under Castro - and ultimately resolving to help bring the sound of Cuban punk to China.

The result is El Furor, La Nihilidad, y Ron - La Compilación de Punk Cubano, a China-produced, crowd-funded salute to bands such as Akupunktura, Adictox, Eskoria and - in particular - to Pedro Sainz de la Rosa y Venitez, the bassist for VIH and Barrio Adentro who passed away last year.

VIH's name was a pointed reference to the Los Frikis movement, which formed a key part of the development of punk music in Cuba and which thirty years ago chose a path that continues to shock to this day.

In the late 1980s, the Cuban government's response to the spread of HIV/Aids around the world was to send those infected with the virus in Cuba to sanitariums. Despite this leading to large numbers of people being ostracised, for some, being sidelined from mainstream society was an attractive proposition. Under the relatively progressive policies of the Ministry of Public Health, patients at the sanitariums were not only given food and shelter, but were generally able to wear and listen to what they liked.

As word reached Cuba’s punk and rock community of the less straight-jacketed social norms at the sanitariums, a number of them came to the extraordinary conclusion that in order to live a life free of persecution, they should inject themselves with HIV. Today, only a handful of Los Frikis remain, some still living on the sites of the former sanitariums (which have mostly been shut down), as documented by Vice earlier this year.

"punk in cuba"

Following his trip, Mei Er decided he would produce a compilation CD to share Cuban punk with audiences in China and to help raise funds for the bands, many of whom use cobbled together equipment and who rarely charge for gig tickets.

El Furor features 17 songs from 10 bands, including Sainz de la Rosa y Venitez’s two acts, Barrio Adentro and VIH. To bring this music to China, Mei Er set up a crowd fundraising page on Music Kid, offering a copy of the CD and multiple Master Gao beers depending on the donation amount.

But given the slow and expensive nature of the Cuban internet, getting a hold of the songs was far from straightforward for Mei Er. Rather than having the bands email or upload the files, he had to ask a Canadian friend who was planning a visit to Cuba to tour around the country and meet up with each of the bands to retrieve their music. The songs were then transferred to USB sticks, which were then brought to China by another friend who was travelling there from Canada.

CubanEven then, the saga wasn't over, as Mei Er explains on the Music Kid page: 'In early 2016, not long after I'd received the materials and the songs were in the process of being mastered, my laptop was stolen and I lost all of the files.'

Mei Er managed to track down a Cuban violinist, who was working in Shanghai at the time, to once again bring back copies of the files following a family visit home. At the same time, he also arranged for Chinese musicians to donate pedals, strings and other equipment to the bands back in Cuba, which were also delivered by hand.

After all of these setbacks, plus several months of translation, the CD was finally released at the start of June. Those who failed to get a copy through the initial fund raising stage can now purchase the record for 100RMB, through this WeChat store. It comes with a 50-page booklet (in Chinese and Spanish) detailing the history of Cuban punk and lyrics from the songs.

The record contains some great songs - and of course, comes with quite a back story.

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