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"Estamos juntos en esto": Montreal punk rockers to show solidarity for Cuban scene

Benefit show this Friday to facilitate cultural exchange with Cuba through tour, donations

by J.W. Coady

Cuban punk rock band Arrabio playing at Le Murdoch in Sherbrooke, Quebec with Pollo (left) of Adictox. Photo Credit: Benoit Pepin
Cuban punk rock band Arrabio playing at Le Murdoch in Sherbrooke, Quebec with Pollo (left) of Adictox. Photo Credit: Benoit Pepin
This Friday, November 27th, local Montreal punk bands are taking the stage to raise funds to support punk rock in Cuba.
Featuring music from Montreal locals Dethfox , Drip, Parasytes, Dark Circles and Niños Rata, the concert is the kick-off event for an upcoming tour in Cuba, which will see Drip and Dethfox join their Cuban counterparts Adictox and Arrabio for a two-week tour of the island.
First and foremost it is a fundraising event that aims to bring awareness to the challenges facing the punk rock scene in Cuba. A substantial portion of its proceeds will go towards paying the costs of bringing donated gear – used guitar and bass strings, picks, pickups, pedals, cymbals, even drum sets – to a country where the economic sanctions imposed by the United States create a scarcity of the basic equipment needed to play the music.
For organizers Kristen Brown and Dave Earles, this scarcity was apparent from their earliest experiences in Cuba. One image that has stuck with them is seeing a bass drum whose skin was held together with a bicycle wheel. Seeing this and other instances of ingenuity triumphing over scarcity inspired them to try and make a difference.
In February 2015, while planning a future trip to the island, they used their contacts in the punk community to reach out to members of the punk rock scene in Cuba. Attuned to the hardships that the U.S. sanctions created for Cubans, they asked their counterparts what, if anything, they could bring to make their lives easier. The response: equipment.
“We realized that there was a massive need, and we realized that there is so much music gear in Canada that people just have lying around, that they’re not using,” says Brown.
The two created a Facebook event shortly thereafter in order to ask their friends for donations of gear. The response they received was overwhelmingly generous: about $2000 dollars’ worth of equipment, including a guitar, forty sets of strings, cymbals and a bass drum pedal.
At about this time, they received an e-mail from Drew McIntosh, a documentary filmmaker from Edmonton, Alberta, with extensive knowledge on the Cuba punk rock scene. In 2007, during a trip to the island, he and Cuban punk rock musician William Garcia took the first steps in creating what would later become Solidarity Rock: a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the punk rock scene in Cuba through gear donations and facilitating tours in both countries.
McIntosh gave Brown and Earles advice on how to transport the material so as to avoid the seizing of goods exceeding the limits established by Cuban customs. He also gave them access to an already-established support and distribution network in Cuba. They would eventually meet and become friends while on their trip to Cuba in March. McIntosh, who was trying to facilitate a planned punk tour in Canada, was in Havana working with the Canadian consulate in an attempt to secure the visas of the members of Cuban bands Arrabio and Adictox. Inspired, Brown and Earles offered to help plan the Eastern Canada leg of the tour.
Back in Montreal, Brown and Earles booked shows in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, and Sherbrooke. Unfortunately they learned that the show would have to be cancelled. A week before it was set to begin, the bands were refused visas. This was their third rejection from a government bureaucracy whose job it is to keep certain people out of the country.
“Their job is to screen people because they need to assess people’s intentions to return to their own country, and if Canada doesn’t deem that that individual has enough incentive to return to their country, then they’re going to say no,” says Brown. “But how can you prove that? Especially for somebody who lives in a communist country where it is not a simple matter to prove how much money a person has in a bank account.”
Undeterred, Brown and Earles committed their energy to facilitating another tour, this time planned for September. Although the process was hampered by the same bureaucratic delays and paperwork, their countless hours of dedication proved effective, and visas were issued at the last minute – two days before the bands were to play their first show in Toronto.
The key to their success, says Brown, was persistence, and meticulously documenting every single detail of the bands’ stay in Canada.
“The [Canadian] Embassy wanted to see more paperwork,” says Brown. “So we documented every single element of the tour as a cultural exchange. We received food donations from The People's Potato and Coop les Jardins de la Résistance. We had local community members offering their houses for the band members to stay at. We had some of our friends volunteer their time to cook the donated food for the band members while they were here.”
The tour, which included a handful of shows in Montreal and across Canada over the period of a month, would prove an immense success.
“People felt really inspired," says Brown. "For a lot of people, seeing Adictox and Arrabio play here was just incredible. A lot of people from so many different scenes came out to their shows. The energy and the passion that they played with, and the excitement of them being here, just came through in so many ways.”
Earles, who plays drums for Dethfox, adds that his involvement with the project has revitalized his passion for the music. “It’s really fascinating to see the serious differences between [our situations],” he says, citing a Cuban friend’s two years’ military service spent coating Soviet-era landmines with wax in a munitions storage facility. “But at the same time, we had a commonality in punk music, and that made me more deeply contemplate what it means to be a punk rocker. For these bands to stand up on stage and to say things that are pretty commonplace in public here is a real political act, and a pretty meaningful and inspirational thing to see.”
Earles and Brown hope that the fundraising concert this Friday will continue the success of what they see as a long-term cultural exchange. Proceeds will largely go towards fixing and transporting donated materials as well as meeting the costs of  the bands' transportation while in Cuba, but leftover funds will be invested in future events in the service of establishing broader ties between the two communities in Cuba and Canada.
The fundraiser will take place this Friday, from 9 to 1am, on the third floor of the DIY venue, the Loudhouse. Directions and information on what kind of donations  are being sought can be found on the Facebook page.
For more information on Cuban band Arrabio and the issues facing the punk rock scene in Cuba, see Arrabio's interview on Equalizing Distort, the punk radio show on CIUT. 
For a history of the Cuban punk scene, see the Radiolab podcast 'Los Frikis' 

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Topics: Arts
Tags: Montreal

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