This past July 22, Giovany Milhet and Fanny Tachín, leaders of the six-piece metal act Hipnosis, launched what’s guaranteed to be the longest, strangest trip of their band’s life to date.
Along with their four bandmates, Milhet and Tachín headed from their Havana homebase to a supposed gig in Oakland, California — with a layover in Miami. As you might guess, they never made it to Oakland, becoming arguably the first full hard-rock act to defect at once from Cuba to Miami.
And last Sunday, the group played its first real U.S. rock and roll show at the very smoky and punk Churchill’s Pub in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.
Who are Hipnosis and why do they matter in the overall scheme of Cuban rock?
Hipnosis was, up to now, probably the biggest hard-rock act in Cuba. Though the metal field isn’t too crowded on an island still obsessed with tropical music and Latin urban sounds, the group still stood out for a couple reasons.
The first is that rather than trying to put a “Cuban”-type spin on metal, founder Milhet wanted to perform largely in English. Second, his other concept was to feature women prominently in the band. The lineup has shifted over the years, but it’s always featured two or three women as guitarists, bassists, singers, and/or keyboard players.
The group first found real fame a little over a decade ago, when it appeared on a Cuban reality talent show called Cuerda Viva. Since then, it’s gained a following around the island but has never been able to leave to perform elsewhere.
Because the band lived walled away from the rest of the heavy metal world at large, its look — kinda goth and theatrical — lags a few years behind current trends. But its blend of thrash, symphonic, doom, and various other strains of metal spews out tightly and forcefully.
Did the band perform in Cuba with the approval of the Cuban government?
Yes. Though the Cuban government regularly censors performers and casts a side-eye at youth culture, Hipnosis, at least on the surface, was generally allowed to do its thing. The group was “signed” to the Agencia Cubana de Rock, an organization that functions sort of like the official ministry of rock and booking agency. (To legally make any money off performances, bands must sign to the agency to be deemed “professional” musicians.)
The Cuban press regularly previewed the band’s gigs. In fact, Suffering Tool, a side project of erstwhile Hipnosis singer Ramiro Pupo, enjoyed a glowing profile just this past April in no less than Granma, the official Communist party newspaper.
What kinds of gigs did they get to play in Cuba?
The group was a regular headliner at Havana’s official club, Maxim Rock. In fact, they were such regular headliners that it caused reported scene grumblings that they played there a little too often, according to the Cuban communist party web site CubaDebate. They also appeared regularly at the government-organized Caiman Rock festival series.
More interestingly, side project Suffering Tool also played at the August 2011 edition of Brutal Fest, the closest thing the island has to a fully independent, heavy-music festival. It’s organized by French national David Chapet, the head of Brutal Beatdown Records, a label dedicated to sharing heavy music in and from Cuba.
“I was about 27 when I came to live in Cuba, and when I got there, I got interested in the little local [metal] scene. I discovered an underground movement that was pretty important,” Chapet wrote by e-mail in French. “But there was no real support for them from the national institutions or record labels. So I decided to create Brutal Beatdown Records.”
If Hipnosis was doing okay on the island for so long, why did they finally decide to leave and plead asylum in the U.S.?
It’s unclear whether or not the band had been planning an escape for several years. The night after the group arrived in Miami, I found Archie Pantelmann, a Canadian listed as Hipnosis’ North American contact on an English-language web site for the group.
In an interview for WLRN, the Miami public-radio NPR affiliate, Pantelmann told me he had originally tried to organize a Canadian tour for Hipnosis in 2011. He said he got the sense that if the group were to make it to North America, they would not be returning to the island. He also said he felt that Cuban government officials got the same sense, and refused to grant the band’s travel visa.
Meanwhile, though Hipnosis played with official approval, more or less, and played all the available metal clubs and gigs on the island, the market for heavy music there is still limited, to say the least. And the government, too, has been increasingly cracking down on musical expression.
In 2011, the government pulled the plug on the Rotilla Festival, the island’s largest multi-genre music festival, fearing its 20,000-audience-member-strong power as a temporary autonomous zone. This past December, Fusion’s Manuel Rueda reported on a government crackdown on reggaeton lyrics.