The Life and Death Of Cuba's Largest Counterculture Music Festival
By Daniel Rivero
In 1998, the cultural climate in Cuba wasn't exactly conducive to
artistic freedom. While a thriving underground music scene did exist,
official radio and television channels were notoriously selective, only
airing artists who echoed the Communist Party line.
But soon came the Rotilla Festival, named after the beach where it
began. Conceived among friends as a way to promote electronic music on
the island, this seemingly impossible task only served as motivation for
its founders. The dream came to life when in only a few short weeks the
group acquired all of the official permits to launch the largest
counterculture music festival in modern Cuban history. The first event
drew a meager 200 to 300 people, but it was considered such a success
that the producers held a second one within months.
In a few years, the festival exploded. Youth from around the country
started to see it as a place of cultural convergence within the Cuban
arts community. Anything underground and without government sanction
became fair game. By 2008, the festival encompassed everything from
hip-hop, rock and electronic music to independent film.
Something very different had taken root, with people referring to the
event as the "Freedom Festival." From its original focus on blacklisted
artists and musicians, attendance at the final event in 2011 reached
close to 20,000 people. That's when the government pulled the plug.
Now filmmaker Diddier Santos and his company Matraka Productions have
produced a documentary called Ni Rojo, Ni Verde, Azul, about the final
days of the festival. Matraka had been involved in the production of
the festival since 2004. Santos is on his first visit to the United
States, where he has been showing the film and generating awareness
about state of artistic expression on the island.
The final free showing takes place tonight at 8:30 p.m. at Blackbird
Ordinary in Miami's Brickell neighborhood. Santos will be on site to
WLRN spoke with the filmmaker recently about his work.
WLRN: What did the government think of the Rotilla Festival at first?
Santos: Well, it's hard to say exactly what they thought at first, but
it's easy to see the evolution of their thought as the festival became
the biggest free cultural space in the country. There was always a shaky
relationship between Rotilla and the state, with the government
questioning even the smallest details.
WLRN: What happened the day the government put an end to it?
Santos: We had an informal meeting in a parking lot. It was Noel Soca,
director of the Recreation Commission of Mayabeque Province, (film)
director Michel Matos and myself as director of production. We were
going to ask for a meeting to coordinate the logistics of the next
event. We were told that we no longer had anything to do with the
production and that the government was going to handle all of it. It
was a governmental order that came from above.
A few days later we heard that the Ministry of Culture was going to
throw the event. We had been thrown out of our own party, very politely.
It was at this moment that we realized the government was completely
stealing this from us so we decided to act. We filed a lawsuit accusing
the officials involved, issued a statement explaining what had happened
and sent more than 9,000 emails. It was at this moment that we decided
to make the documentary, to make sure that everybody knew what had
happened. We were robbed.
WLRN: It is your first time in the United States. Can you describe what
your experience has been like? Has it been what what you were expected
or different in some way?
Santos: Well, yes it's my first visit to the US, and it's way different
that what I expected. All my life I was raised watching TV, and
listening to the radio, hearing that here in this country people were
assigned to a certain class, and that it was ugly. That was a huge lie.
I've found that people here live normal lives with very human
experiences. They wake up every day with a willingness to work and be
better people. In the end I see Americans are human.
Another thing that I have come to see is that there is so much cultural
freedom here, and that art thrives with no government censorship. I see
a well-organized and respectable society with humble people, rich people
and poor people.
I haven't had the pleasure of seeing the plagued and unhappy society
that they showed me in school, on TV and on the radio in Cuba.
WLRN: Where have you gone during your stay?
Santos: I've been able to visit New York, where I participated in an
event with many young Cubans and people of other nationalities. Since
then I've been here in Miami, a place that makes me think of Havana's
WLRN: What is your impression of the people of Miami? Have they received
you with open arms? Please, tell us a little about your interactions
with the locals, especially the Cuban-Americans you have gotten to know.
Santos: First of all, a lot of my friends live here in Miami, old
friends (from Cuba) who I grew up with but who later left. I also have a
lot of family here.
I've met a bunch of really agreeable and nice people who want to learn
more about Cuba. But the biggest and best surprise that I have gotten is
the ability to get to know Cuban-Americans. The truth is that before
this visit, I didn't really understand what a Cuban-American was. It was
always something so foreign to me.
But now I can say that it has been a huge pleasure getting to know a
bunch of them. I see that they are just as Cuban as I am, and they love
and want to help Cuba however they can. I can see it in the eyes of my
I also feel a lot of frustration knowing that even though we are so
close, we are so far from each other. I hope in the near future, we
will be able to join together and create a new nation of our collective
dreams. What the Cubans here dream of, and what Cubans on the island
dream of-- are the same thing.
WLRN: What do you want the world to learn from your documentary?
Santos: I want everyone to know the truth. We want to expose the
violations, abuses and injustices against artists in my country in hopes
of defending a more righteous path.
WLRN: Why is it called "Ni Rojo, Ni Verde, Azul? (Translates to "Not
Blue, Not Green, Blue")
Santos: It was the name of a campaign that we ran in Rotilla, It was
our way of saying that we want to form a new generation with no
political or military ties, and that we are part of a new revolution
that Cuba has needed for years. We stand for different economic,
political and social models. After they took the festival from us, we
cling to this idea even more than before because we are utterly
disappointed and frustrated with the current system.