Gorki Águila is the lead singer and chief songwriter in Cuban punk band Porno Para Ricardo. To call him a controversial figure within the oppressive political climate in Cuba would perhaps be an understatement. When I conducted this interview in May 2010, Gorki had just arrived back in Cuba, following a trip to the US promoting the band’s new album ‘El Disco Rojo Desteñido’ [‘The Faded Red Disc’]. There had been a genuine concern that he would be allowed back into the country at all following this trip. However, we met in the building site that is to become the band’s new recording studio to discuss primarily the band’s music and place within Cuba’s celebrated, yet often restrictive, musical hierarchy. In the days following this interview, we got news that Gorki had again been ‘detained’ by police in Havana. We await further information.
This interview, unlike many Águila has given, attempts to steer away from the more overtly antagonistic ‘political dissident’ persona and engage with the musician. This is not because of any self-censorship and, as will be obvious below, politics is never far from the topic of conversation. However, in other interviews I have read and seen with Águila, all references to music seem lost; overshadowed by Águila’s uncompromisingly frank assessment of the island’s political situation (but also omitted by journalists with their own motivations). In this interview, I wish to show the musical side of Porno Para Ricardo; they are a band first and foremost.
The interview was conducted in Spanish, and has been translated into English. Occasionally there is the odd colloquialism that is less than straightforward to translate. In these cases, I have left the original Spanish word with a tentative translation in square brackets.
TA: Tom Astley (Interviewer)
GÁ: Gorki Águila
MR: Mariley Reinoso (Translator)
TA: which musicians do you think have influenced you and who do you identify with?
GÁ: since I was a child, let’s see, you live in a given environment. I say sometimes as a joke, sometimes seriously that the first influence is my mother. And when they ask me what influences do you have in the band as a musician, I always say well, Led Zepplin, which is one of the bands I have listened to most since I was a teenager and the sex pistols. and then I said my mum, because my mother always had a musical environment in the house. She used to work with music. She used to put the radio on – radio progresso –and she’d put these long radio shows on with music – like a disco – so the environment surrounding me was rural music and boleros and the like, and mum used to love to sing whilst she was working so, right now, I like bolero and Cuban music in general just as much as I like rock and roll – well I like rock and roll a bit more, but I like Cuban music just as much. In fact, in the latest album, we’ve recorded a bolero. 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 live 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.
TA: how has the music of the band changed over time? And Why?
GÁ: obviously we now play a bit better [laugh] we make better arrangements maybe. In this latest album you ca notice the experience a bit more. So the latest album is a bit more accomplished [musically] and, well, I imagine that time and perseverance is the main factor that makes you evolve, and most of all passion and the interest you have in your project, that’s what keeps you. It must also be that it was always clear to me that I didn’t create this band to get ‘hevitas’ [girls] women, or just to ‘pepillar’ [to show off, be cool on stage] and pretend that I had a band, obviously I had deeper interests. That’s why the band has lasted so long, and also because, of course, it has had recognition – that’s very important for an artist, that he is recognised, that people come and tell you ‘conjo compadre, tu sabes que riquisimo, no?’ – sometimes I play your band in the house! And I start singing, sometimes I’m at work and I put it on to play the bad guy in front of my boss the song of ‘comandante’ [laugh] that’s why, no? this is why I imagine we’re still here, because of perseverance and passion. And optimism – positivity.
TA: in that same question, how do you think your music has changed – which things do you do now that you didn’t do before musically?
GÁ: perhaps before, I was trying to make music in line with what is allegedly and stereotypically thought to be ‘punk’. Now I don’t ask those questions as much. For me, punk is something else which is much broader. In that sense perhaps I have evolved, but basically, we can say that PPR is the same since it started, but it has evolved in concept, musical concept. That is, we don’t concern ourselves so much with accepted conventions, that for me are prejudices, that allegedly belong to the genre, to the style.
MR: so how is it different now? Tell us about the new album?
GA: you see, I think the new album – I notice that it is like – it retakes things from the first one – ‘Rock Para Las Masas (Cárnicas)’ so its similar but, like I said, the arrangements are more achieved – accomplished – I play a bit better the guitar and more independent when making riffs and singing. Ciro has also evolved. He is a better guitarist now and he’s defining himself now more as a musician. I have now heard him now saying things like ‘I am like this, I am like that’. Before, he wouldn’t talk like that. He has also matured in relation to his social and political ideas. After 11 years, it’s clear, that we have changed. But it seems we haven’t changed that much, because the beginning was pretty solid. From the moment we began – it must be that. Same as with telecaster – why change it so much when it was so good from the beginning? [laugh] you know what the telecaster is? The guitar. It’s the same.
TA: following on from the idea of making recordings, we were talking a little bit about yesterday. This idea of the DIY culture as such a crucial element in the rock scene. And you were saying yesterday that you couldn’t accept there was a rock scene in Cuba because they rely so much on official sponsorship and support, so this idea of DIY culture – explain what it means here in Cuba and what is the significance of DIY to your music in particular.
GÁ: DIY is super important. The band was always a little DIY because we had to pay a price. We knew from the beginning that if we had to confront the politically correct norms imposed by the system, we had to pay a price with the media and with the institutions. The price was that we wouldn’t exist. That is, a band that confronts what is officially established – an artist that confronts this is erased from the list and put on a black list, which means he doesn’t exist. And so, obviously, we had to renounce the ever-important part of being [able to be] in direct contact with the audiences and devote ourselves to recording. And to make up somehow for the lack of being able to have direct contact with the audience. And to see how your music works directly with the people that listen to it. In fact, the second album, called the diptych [soy porno and ] I don’t know if you’ve heard it – it has a lot of parts which are non-musical, have you not heard it?
TA: we only have ‘Rock Para Las Masas’ and ‘Soy Porno…’
GÁ: that last one is the one I call diptych, because it comprises two – ‘A Mi No Me Gusta La Política Pero Yo Le Gusto a Ella Compañeros’ and ‘Soy Porno, Soy Popular’ that’s a diptych – we recorded it – it has 23 songs but many more tracks, because it has jokes, ideas, recorded performances invented by us whilst we were recording. And so, a little bit to make up for this part that we used to do with the band, which was to talk between songs and we made jokes to confuse people. We would break up a Russian guitar. That’s because at the time I started the group, I saw that a lot of bands would play the song on stage and then the next song, and there was no contact, and on top of that they would sing in English – allegedly – and also guttural [impersonation of heavy metal voice] and so I saw that there was no communication with that music. So I said ‘if I want to listen to the music I like, I will have to create my own band’ so I have to found the band, so I said ‘let’s have fun’ I would tell people, people in the audience ‘create your own band so you can have fun because this is great’ and so many people said to us ‘compadre, I’m go to see your band, not because of the music, but because of what you say’ that is because of the extra-musical part. Since there were people from extreme metal that didn’t like punk so much, in spite of the fact that extreme metal came out of punk, but people here don’t know anything, so they would say that to us ‘I come to see your group because of what they say, not so much because of…’ we came up with crazy things. You never came to see one of our performances?
MR: I didn’t know you at the time.
GÁ: we once sold a cassette of the band, and then we threw the money towards the audience. People never though something like that could happen. For example, we would provoke the audience who were very much ‘metal-heads’ by burning a t-shirt of ‘metallica’ or ‘cradle of filth’ and people would go ‘de pinga!’ [laugh] or we would tell them, for example, in Pinar del Rio, we would say ‘all Pinareños are partia e singaos [a bunch of fuckers] because we beat you in baseball’ and people would get de pinga [furious/ upset]. But sometimes people would understand the joke – there would be three or four – a minority – who would understand the joke and would ‘descargarle’ [litt. Download/enjoy] the band. The most ‘ricas’ [best/ enjoyable] parts were the breaking of guitars because we gave a meaning to breaking a guitar – that is the Russian guitar. In rock music you break a guitar with the intention of an exorcism, or as a catharsis, but we gave it a local meaning for our country that is to break up with Russian colonialism. It was about breaking a Russian guitar that was really bad, almost useless – very bad instruments that the Russians sent down here. Any guitarist that had a Russian guitar suffered. We would break them as a symbol [laugh].
TA: when you see in Cuba to amount of people who have the ingenuity to make things – fix things – and find a way around problems – why doesn’t that same culture exist within rock music?
GÁ: because it’s not the same to eat as it is to make art. That is; people are far more pressured when it comes to eating. You have to eat two or three times a day, minimum. But to make art is somehow, not somehow, to a large extent an intellectual act. All art is intellectual. It’s conceptual, first you create the idea, then you make the object or the situation. That’s why I think this is the moment when ‘se traba el paraguas’ [litt. The umbrella gets stuck/ when things stop functioning] because art is an intellectual act, many people don’t think beyond and get stuck with what is already made; that is the institution and the rules of how to make rock. People… here there is a lot of copying [‘mimetismo’] a lot of copying of the fashion, of MTV or of what they see, and then, therefore because your mind doesn’t see beyond that horizon, you expect institutions to give you everything, because it is a totalitarian regime. The government controls everything, and it likes to think that you have to do everything with it and that everything is politics. That is; many intellectuals here also defend that, even friends of mine – that everything is politics – you cannot escape politics and I think so, even it’s utopian – I want to believe so. That it is my raft of salvation within this sea of chaos – of so much ideology and so many lies and so much demagoguery. So, that’s why I think that in spite of the fact that Cubans have to invent to survive, to eat I mean – Cubans don’t take that inventiveness to other areas of life such as art. This studio that we’re building is a result of s being very conscious of the price that we have to pay for confronting the government and the institutions in this country. To make a recording studio means a lot to us, because it gives us massive autonomy when creating our music. Like I said yesterday, it works for other artists that can come to record in this studio, to give them that opportunity and also to a great extent to demonstrate to them that if we could do it, they can also do it – which means it is possible to have a life outside of the institutions. It is possible to continue creation without the institutions, but people don’t think so. Of course they would have to pay a price like us, they have to take the risk and they have to stop being afraid. They must stop being afraid. Of course, we don’t expect everyone to be like us. It’s impossible. I don’t get in that critical mindset that I used to have before. I used to be a lot more radical in that sense before. But now, one has to put things in a balance.
TA: it says on the website, ‘we are not a nationalist band, but we are a Cuban band’. What do you consider the difference between ‘nationalist’ and ‘Cuban’ and what does it mean to be a Cuban band?
GÁ: it’s easy. We clarify it later [on the website] don’t take everything we say on the website too seriously. It was like a manifesto in the Dadaist way. Punk etcetera. Because it’s not the same to like sex as to be sexist, because it’s not the same to be nationalist as to live in a country and to like your country. Nationalism is a sick idea to me. Many of the things that are happening in this country that are bad are due to fundamentalism of those ideas – of nationalism. Same as fascism is nationalism. At this point in life, to continue believing in nationalism is, to me, obsolete. With each passing day, you feel like the whole world is your place to live, it’s not a little piece of land, and to defend your culture as better than others is stupid, I think. So, in my website, I say that we are not a nationalist band, but a Cuban band, because it was our geographical destiny [or assigned to us]. If we had been born somewhere else, we would have been something else. So we don’t give importance to the part of having been born in Cuba and that somehow the band wouldn’t probably work in another country, because we talk about our environment. It’s a way to explain that. So the band wouldn’t work in another country because as it could work here it’s made for the people that live in this country. Not by intention, but by disgrace fatalism – because it was given to us, and so we talk about what happens to us and around us.
TA: so how do you think your band fits into this? Because maybe it’s different here, but from an English perspective there’s a line of Cuban greats. There are certain names that are ‘Cuban musicians’ and that’s what it means to be a Cuban musician so how does the band fit into that, and do you consider yourself part of that line of Cuban greats?
GÁ: it’s a bit difficult to answer this question. A long time would have to pass for me to be able to assess this time and to assess where we stand really. I think that’s the job of a music critic because it’s more of a conscious assessment. I’m simply an artist. But maybe I could give you a rough answer. Unfortunately, a band like us cannot be said to be part of a tradition. I’m telling you unfortunately it’s not part of a tradition. If the band had had members that were more in tune, we would have been perhaps stronger in the sense of not feeling alone when creating something new. When getting together and creating concepts. When planning a seed for a movement. At present, I don’t see a comparison. There has been bands, punk bands, but in my opinion, they haven’t been transgressing enough to do what we did. It may sound a bit immodest but ,well, this is the vision that I have. Within Cuban music I tell you, I owe to Cuban music. To Cuban traditional music. The one that was born and made here. Because what we make is Cuban music as well. Any music made in cuba is Cuban music. But the Cuban music that was originated here, that is rooted in this country I love, and I see a lot of similarities in many senses to rock and roll in many of its essences. Timba, for example, is unstoppable. It’s also an exorcism. It also serves to make catharsis. It has a level of violence that makes it un-danceable. If you are not knowledgeable, you put two concerts next to each other – one of timba and one of speed, of thrash [metal] and if you see how people move, you will say, the level of chaos is almost the same. [laugh]. Timba is danced alone – it is impossible to dance in couples. I’ve never seen – it’s very fast and it’s waaahh! Very expressive, very crazy and there is a lot of vulgarity involved. Timba. Very vulgar. I don’t know why they brand us as vulgar if anyway it’s [vulgarity] is a great artistic resource. Many critics try to separate what is popular from what is vulgar. Don’t you realise it’s the same, man? [laugh]. Same as people who say ‘I only watch erotic films, I don’t watch porn films’ come on, isn’t porn erotic? They make up these absurd terms. Very funny. That’s what I can answer about this.
TA: how does musical tradition fit into your song writing process?
GÁ: I don’t know anything about music. I do it by creative instinct. I feel the need for constantly creating something. It makes me feel passionate. And it gives sense to my life. Cuba is the ideal country to waste time and not to do anything. The everyday is crushing. So creating is a resource that I have to entertain myself and to give sense to my life in this country. My musical creation is a little bit chaotic, because I don’t have a method. If you see the way I write a song, on little bits of paper here and there. I suffer during the creative process, since there are so many roads to get to a song, I don’t know which one to pick, so I say ‘conjo, I am the owner of my song now’ so I write a line, but then I say ‘conjo, if I can write it in another way’ and that bothers me a lot. I suffer. But at the same time it’s fun. It’s difficult to explain. i think I’ve never voiced this. Many of the songs I have written, I have done so whilst riding my bike. When I pedal down the street, I’m always on my bike, I don’t like to take the bus. So riffs come to my mind [sings a riff] sometimes it gives me an idea for a theme, an idea for a song, so I start thinking about it and develop it and when I get home, I rush to my guitar to write it down – that’s how I do it. Ciro is more methodical, because he did study music, so he has many more harmonic resources than me, but I don’t. I put the chords that I see other people put. I look at how you do it and then, more or less, I follow suit. But to study – I studied very little. Just very basic things that I learned on the electric guitar. I don’t think I’m the only one, there are many people who write songs in that manner, mostly in rock and roll since it’s a popular type of music, many people have empirical knowledge. They didn’t study it.
TA: how is the band’s music perceived in different countries, particularly in America and how is that different to how it’s perceived here?
GÁ: it’s exactly the same, because the people that listen to our music speak Spanish and are Cuban. There are people in America that are Cubans but who left Cuba sometime in their lives. And in Spain there are also Cubans, but there are also Spanish people, also Argentinians. On the website you can find people who have written to us even from Japan, from Russia. But they are isolated cases. Mostly people that sympathise with the Cuban reality to be able to understand the things we sing about. They must be informed or have lived in Cuba for a while. When I was in Mexico, I perceived that people could appreciate the musical side without giving importance to the lyrics. Many people told me ‘it sounds good, I like the way it sounds’ other people didn’t give us any opinions. Maybe they didn’t like it, or thought it was shit. That’s just the way it is. I think the strength of the band is with those people that have lived Cuban culture or are informed about it. It’s possible that some people may enjoy the band just by its music, but it’s mostly those who share Cuban culture.
TA: a lot of things have been written academically speaking about the band, but they focus exclusively on the politics of the band. But for me, what instantly struck me was the musical elements.
MR: but almost everything is political
GÁ: of course.
TA: I was wondering, do you find that sometimes the politics is enforced upon the music by people who have an agenda, and that sometimes you find you have to focus on the politics and not on the music?
GÁ: if you listen to PPR’s songs, you’ll realise that not all of them are about politics. There are songs that are more intimate and metaphorical. I always wanted the lyrics to be very direct, mainly when it comes to speaking about anti-establishment because at some point I said that suggesting bad things about the government in songs was already done. We had to go past that stage. Those songs were necessary at another time, but now I thought we needed others. Now I couldn’t tell you if sometimes we comply with what the audience want to hear. Maybe sometimes we flirt with that. But we generally try to do what we feel like. I define PPR as a very spontaneous band. Sometimes we act from our instincts; do as we like. It’s difficult. I say that the band is not a political band. People always try to say the opposite, but because you make a stand against the system, that doesn’t make you political, you’re simply adopting a civic position. You criticise what bothers you. That’s it really. PPR are not a political band. It’s not a band that does politics. If people interpret you, if they use you in a ‘tribuna’ [on their soapbox] that’s unavoidable. You cannot avoid the consequences that your music generates. It’s impossible. You create from you as an individual. From there on, you don’t know which path your music will take. From then on, you are not responsible. I am responsible for my song and that’s it.
TA: why punk? Does it feel like a natural voice, and why? What does punk mean to you?
GÁ: I adopted punk to define the band musically and conceptually because I found it very sincere. Punk is like an essence. It’s the essence of many things within art. Punk states a sincerity. It’s like searching again for the human being, who in many art forms is disguised. The essence of people is often under make-up in many art forms. You can see it a lot in the lightest pop music. One of the things I like most about punk is how democratic it can be in the sense that you, without being an artist, can take on art at a moment in your life in a very easy [accessible] way. Punk gives you that opportunity. You can be an artist for a while without having to worry about the consequences or about which path you’re going to take in your life. That is; punk is for everyone because it is, allegedly, easy to make so its easy to take on. You can take on this creative courage to say ‘things don’t have to be the way people told us they were. Things can be the way I say they are’ and that’s very beautiful of punk. It’s genius. It has a very strong power. You, without being an artist, can take on that creative role, write a song today and then retire. Isn’t that fantastic? So it is for everyone. Anyone can write a song. It’s real, it’s true. I write a song now, you write a song, anyone can write a song. Maybe it’s not good, but you did it – you created something – you did something and that’s one of the things that interests me most about punk; it can reach anyone.
TA: so, can punk be a Cuban music? Is punk Cuban?
GÁ: of course it is! [laugh]
TA: one of the most important things about punk music is this idea of ‘no future’ – of existing in the moment. But some of the things we’ve been talking about now are about history and legacy. Do you feel that PPR are at the end of something in Cuban music, or are they trying to start something in Cuban music? Or do they just exist as they are, with no looking back or forward?
GÁ: that was one of the mottos of classic punk – no future – and to take on that motto today is a little like denying punk. That would be to take on punk as a stereotype. Punk has the duty of not being stereotyped. Of course, you always make concessions with those concepts because we all create stereotypes. Clichés exist to be repeated. But I don’t like to take on those mottos just like that. ‘no future?’, oh, well no future’. To me, there is a little bit of eastern philosophy in the concept of living the moment as it is instead of living a present that doesn’t exist. That’s what, to me, no future may mean. No future for Johnny Rotten – John Lydon – meant, since he wrote that song at a time when young people had no future, England was going through a crisis and he saw that and wrote a song that became a classic and a motto, but it was the media that turned it into a motto. There is something fake about it. There is something about it that doesn’t need to be taken in the strict sense of the word. I don’t think about what’s going to happen beyond right now. What we’re doing now is important and it’s a very difficult challenge that we’ve taken on. It’s a very significant event in the career of PPR, that is; to make this studio is an enormous sacrifice and a risk and it’s one of the most important ideas of the band, not only to work for the band, but also to do something concrete. To put forward and promote one of the band’s most important standpoints, which is of ‘no institutions’, anti-institutionalisation.
 Gorki is referring here to his song ‘El Coma Andante’ (Comandante being the name for Fidel Castro; the play on words making it ‘the walking coma’): see video at the end.
 PPR’s first album
 Ciro Díaz is PPR’s guitarist and occasional singer.
 ‘De pinga’ is a Cuban colloquialism with a number of possible meanings . in this case, it is akin to ‘fucking hell’
 The western most province in Cuba
 The name given to people from Pinar del Rio. Pinareños are traditionally the butt of all Cuban jokes.
 Timba is a more contemporary cousin of Salsa. The beat is much faster and the themes are more explicitly sexual.