Why Hipnosis Looks Like Cuba's First Heavy Metal Band To Defect

Jul 25, 2013

Credit via hipnosiscuba.com

Meet the latest unexpected international arrival on Miami's rock scene: Hipnosis, straight from the semi-illicit metal scene of Havana.

On Monday, July 22, the six-member group likely became the first full band of its heavy ilk to plead asylum in the United States.

As reported first by Wilfredo Cancio Isla for the independent news site Café Fuerte, Hipnosis was ostensibly headed to Oakland, California for a recording session and promotional tour — accompanied by a Cuban government official and censor.

As Cancio Isla details it, this functionary seems to have almost annoyed the band into officially defecting during a layover in Miami.

“This lady started to give us rules about what we could and couldn't do on the trip,” Giovany Milhet, the group's guitarist, told Cancio Isla in Spanish. “With all of her pressures, we think she really helped us to escalate things.”

Later, the band's bassist, Fanny Tachín, told Agence France Press it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to follow the lead of frontman Ramiro Pupo. His daughter lives in Miami and he had already decided to defect, Tachín said. “Once we saw that we all decided to follow,” Tachín told AFP.

But that might not quite be the case, according to the band's last known official North American representative — who also had no idea the group had finally managed to leave the island. Archie Pantelmann, listed as a contact on this English-language web site for the band, sounded surprised when WLRN reached him at his home in a small town in Ontario, Canada.

Pantelmann, it turns out, had previously tried to bring Hipnosis to North America for a Canadian tour proposed for 2011. An occupational health and safety specialist with a Cuban-born wife, he first became familiar with Hipnosis by befriending a friend of the band, Angel Ramiro Lopez Rojas. Lopez Rojas was then working at a resort where Pantelmann vacationed, but he later moved to Havana and began managing Hipnosis.

Lopez Rojas later reached out to Pantelmann, his only North American contact — never mind the fact that Pantelmann had no real music industry experience. Still, the would-be Canadian tour promoter saw something special in the group's theatrical take on metal, with heavy gothic and symphonic flourishes.

“Their style is pretty dark, [but] the night I went to see them in Havana, they know how to move a crowd,” he said. Pantelmann said he then signed a “memorandum of understanding” with manager Lopez Rojas and the rest of the group that was valid for six months. He then set to work arranging a Canadian tour.

This was in mid-2010, and travel restrictions out of the island had yet to be relaxed. Negotiating with Hipnosis regarding travel meant negotiating with the island's Ministry of Culture, Pantelmann said. And as he worked at securing venues, printing promotional cards and paying for the design and hosting of the band web site on which he was listed, talks quickly deteriorated.

“Because Canada does business with Cuba, I tried to do it the proper way. But their Ministry of Culture — what they wanted in contract concessions was totally unrealistic,” Pantelmann recalls. “We had things arranged for here in Canada, and they would get a reasonable amount of money for performing. But the government said, 'Oh, no, no, that's not enough. They've gotta have this, and limousines, and hotels.'”

He surmises this was likely a roundabout way of preventing the musicians from leaving Cuba at all — as they had already indicated, perhaps, that they would seek asylum in Canada. And after six months of attempted wrangling with the Ministry of Culture, Pantelmann finally threw in the towel.

“We did anticipate that if they came to Canada, that they would not be going back to Cuba,” Pantelmann says. “I got the feeling from the woman with the Ministry of Culture that those were her feelings as well, and that's why she was looking for a contract that would really be beneficial to the Cuban government. They didn't want to say, 'No, you can't go,' but they made it virtually impossible by way of the contract negotiations.”

Despite being heavily monitored and hampered by the government, Hipnosis still played with its tacit approval on the island. The band first formed in 2001, but got its first big break in 2003 via the television show Cuerda Viva, an official program of Television Cubana, the government's official network.

In recent years, Hipnosis also performed at events like Brutal Fest, a completely legal festival mounted by Brutal Beatdown, a metal label based in both France and Cuba.

And just this past April, the group gave a rare video interview to Havana Culture. The online music video and interview series is produced by Havana Club Rum, again with the government's approval, and in it, Milhet Tachín discussed the band's origin and the Cuban metal scene:

According to AFP and Café Fuerte, besides Pupo, other band members have family in Miami. And for the time being, the group will remain here to pursue its musical career.

Hipnosis meets a potentially tricky musical climate in North America, however. Living without the free flow of information, musicians in many scenes in Cuba often find themselves nearly a decade behind global trends.

Reggaeton, for instance, is just now causing a government panic on the island, years after most of the genre's founders have moved on to different sounds. And in the world of heavy music, symphonic and dark metal — especially the strains accompanied by vaguely gothic costumes — now remain a fringe interest at best, with other subgenres currently ruling the roost.

What seems subversive on both the physical and intellectual island that is Cuba can be met with a shrug here. (See, for instance, this 2010 story by Erik Maza in the Miami New Times, which detailed the middling stateside success of two Cuban punk rock defectors.)

Further, Hipnosis may even effectively lose a chunk of its repertoire. As Cuba does not respect copyright laws, bands raised under the regime regularly perform and record other artist's songs as though they were their own.

“The one thing I did warn them about when I was in Cuba, and I really impressed on [manager] Ramiro, is that they have to be really careful with what they play,” Pantelmann says. “A lot of the music they perform, I said, 'Hey guys, you would not be able to perform that in Canada. What you're doing is infringing on another band's copyright.'”

In any event, at least one part of the defection story remains a huge question mark — the Oakland and California connection. Though the group was ostensibly traveling, by alternate accounts, to either perform or record in Oakland, nothing about Hipnosis and the city or the state turns up online.

The event calendars for many of the city's main heavy music-friendly venues (Eli's Mile High Club, Oakland Metro, Night Light, New Parish, Uptown, Stork Club, even Fox Theater) reveal nothing. Nor are there any listings for such an event in area publications like the Oakland Tribune or the East Bay Express.

And Pantelmann, who is still technically the band's North American contact, and who has remained in touch with Cuban manager Lopez Rojas, has no idea what the band might have been up to.

“It's almost like this blast from the past,” he says.

Which begs the question: Was there ever really an Oakland recording session or gig at all?

Meanwhile, Pantelmann says one drawn-out series of negotiations about Hipnosis was enough for him, and another attempt at a Canadian tour seems highly unlikely.

“The typical Cuban,” he says, “when they get an opportunity to go to the States, they take it.”