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Arts & Culture

The Life and Death Of Cuba's Largest Counterculture Music Festival


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.

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.

Credit BlackbirdOrdinary.com

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 future.

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 countrymen.

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.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.