By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
Seven men, some wearing nothing but bikini underwear, spent a recent morning rolling around on the floor, chanting, running in circles and literally banging out tunes using old Soviet typewriters as instruments.
They’re members of Omni-Zona Franca and represent one of the more extreme examples of Cuba’s fast-growing counterculture movement.
Artists, street performers, rappers, reggae singers and others are carving out precious new space in the traditionally rigid socialist society.
Some openly criticize the government, complaining about 50-cent-per-day wages, racial discrimination, economic inequality and police abuse.
The government’s reaction has been astonishing, some Cubans say.
Instead of repressing the movement, it has embraced it – helping to organize rap concerts and festivals and allowing artists and musicians to use state-owned workshops. And the government finances counterculture publications.
“The entire political culture supports rap,” said Ariel Fernández, editor of Movimiento (Movement), a state-funded magazine about Cuban hip-hop.
“Hip hop is a cultural movement, not a political movement,” he said. “Rap songs don’t say, ‘Down with the government, down with Fidel Castro.’ ”
But some complain that cultural officials linked to the Communist Party’s youth wing shun those who push the limits of free expression.
Take the case of Rodolfo Rensoli, 38, organizer of the first Cuban rap festival in 1995. His festival became an annual event. He continued promoting it until 2000, thinking the music could help change Cuban society. But the following year, he said, he was forced out by inept people who had more conservative views.
“There are a lot of people who don’t understand people like me,” said Mr. Rensoli, founding member of a popular rap group, Grupo Uno.
Cuba’s rap movement started in the early ‘90s. The former Soviet Union had collapsed, sending the economy into a near free-fall.
Restless youths living in the dreary concrete-block apartments of Alamar, east of Havana, found some relief. They began to tune in to Miami radio stations and listen to LL Cool J, Public Enemy and other rappers.
They recorded the songs when they could and soon began creating their own.
Rap spread, and today there are at least 200 groups in Havana and 300 outside the capital, Mr. Fernández said.
On a recent night, rappers set up speakers and a microphone outside in the Antonio Guiteras neighborhood, east of Havana. Someone strung an electrical cord through a neighbor’s apartment window. Then a blackout struck.
The rappers moaned. People gathered around and waited.
Ángel Fuentes, 20, a street performer and graffiti artist, launched into an impromptu rap.
“Where can you find freedom? Inside your soul. Freedom to be me. Freedom to be you. What’s freedom? A shout?”
Then he let out a scream, “Ahhhhhh!”
By then, the blackout had ended and Tápate con Colcha (Cover up with a Bedspread) began to perform.
More locals arrived and joined the party.
“With all the problems in the country ... you can’t be sowing anger or hate. You have to sow love,” said Balesy Rivero, 35, the group’s artistic director.
But sometimes street performances push the limits of political correctness. Members of Omni learned that in 2000 when they staged a mock vigil for a poet who had criticized the government before committing suicide. The police broke up the display and hauled them off for questioning.
“It’s easy to be an artist in Cuba. But it’s hard to be a creator,” said Omni member Luis Eligio Perez, 21.
The government allows Omni to rehearse and perform at a state-owned workshop in Alamar. They decorated it themselves, scrawling poems and phrases on the walls.
Members say it’s the only workshop of its kind in Cuba.
“We call it our laboratory,” member Amaury Pacheco del Monte said.
The other day, he and others exercised furiously until they were covered with sweat. They ran in circles and slapped their hands in unison against their bodies. “The music of thought,” they called it.
Later they brought out the Soviet typewriters and began tapping on the keys. They started slow and built to a frenzied, tribal crescendo.
“Give us water, and we’ll produce sparks,” Mr. Pacheco del Monte said.
But even with the workshop, Omni remains an underground group. Government theaters and galleries are off limits, so members perform in private homes, garages and on the streets, earning occasional meager donations.
Most say they’ve had run-ins with the police over the years. Inspired by such figures as Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they say they believe in passive resistance and tolerance. And they say their performances are open to everyone, from the police to diehard communists.
“When you’re young, you go against your parents, your teachers. You’re against everything,” said Mr. Fernández, the magazine editor. “You want to change society. But no one’s suggesting the government be overthrown.”