Dionisio Arce, the lead singer of heavy metal band Zeus, spent six years in a Cuban prison in the early 1990s for having long hair and playing the music of the capitalist enemy. A decade later, the group was part of the Communist government’s Rock Agency.
By joining the Castro regime, did Zeus sell out or did the band make a necessary compromise to continue playing their music and bringing more cultural and artistic freedom to Cuba?
This is one of the main questions posed by the new documentary Los Últimos Frikis, out now by video on demand and Diffusion. The film, produced in association with the Moving Picture Institute, was shot between 2009 and 2019. It traces the rise and fall of Zeus after a period in which the Cuban Communist government imprisoned and tortured musicians, artists, activists, writers and others. Free-thinker “freaks” or frikis in Spanish.
Rock music had become a popular outlet for the angst and aspirations of young Cubans by the 1970s. In the 1980s, however, government officials began cracking down on these anti-authoritarian bandits, whom they called the work of dangerous “ideological diversion” of the revolution. Zeus lead vocalist Arce had been part of a forward-thinking heavy metal band called Venus which was banned from performing entirely.
Until the early 90s, many rockers continued to be imprisoned, including Arce, who is the central character in the film. But after the fall of the Soviet Union cut off Cuba’s main source of income, the country’s dictator Fidel Castro faced near-total economic collapse and was forced to agree to some cultural and trade liberalization.
To attract foreign investment, the government aimed to give the impression that ordinary Cubans had cultural and artistic freedom. The Castro regime turned the tide of rock and began giving heavy metal bands like Zeus the freedom to perform openly through the government-sanctioned Rock Agency, as long as they remained in the bands. limits of acceptable expression. Around this time, Arce was released from prison and he gained even greater fame as the lead singer of Zeus.
But as director Nicholas Brennan recounts in the documentary, Cuba’s post-Soviet openness to rock came with conditions. The government presented the group with a Faustian deal: partnering with the brand new Agency of Rock, and in return, Zeus could perform in front of huge crowds in Havana’s only big rock hall.
Produced, written and edited by Justin Monticello; audio production by Ian Keyser
Photos: courtesy of LOS ÚLTIMOS FRIKIS; Ernesto Mastrascusa / EFE / Newscom; Yander Zamora / EFE / Newscom; Marcelo Montecino, CC BY-SA 2.0