It was the year 2019 when I was finally able to go to BandEra Studio. I’d heard of them some time before and I was excited, like any young person who gets involved in the Cuban rock scene would be, to make a connection. BandEra was the project that many of us longed for, and whose presence became increasingly necessary. A community of quality rock creation by and for Cubans, and that offered free musical production help for new bands.
In November 2016, the studio had emerged to alleviate the need for independent production for a group of bands from Havana. The name was the first thing that caught my attention because of its ingenious play on words, but my curiosity was satiated in my first minutes in the studio when Alejandro Menéndez, the brains behind the project, started to tell me its origin and its objectives. Regarding the origin of the studio’s name, he sat on the couch and spoke resolutely:
We had a Stones flag [bandera] that we all signed and threw to Mick [Jagger]. I took a photo of the moment that Mick grabbed it in the air. The printed photograph is in the studio.Alejandro Menéndez
Startup Cuba: Why BandEra?
AM: BandEra because of that year when the Rolling Stones visited Havana. Almost all of us founding members were there at the concert, and the idea of creating our own studio and music label was in the air. We had a Stones flag [bandera] that we all signed and threw to Mick [Jagger]. I took a photo of the moment that Mick grabbed it in the air. The printed photograph is in the studio.
That flag returned to us two years later through a friend whose brother was part of the band’s security team and managed to get it back. That symbol became our banner. For design reasons, we changed the letter “e” to a capital “E” to anglicize BandEra, which in some capacity also had a lot to do with what we wanted to achieve: an era of bands commercially functional, with creative independence and that also produced 50% of their music in English.
The goals of the project were nothing more and nothing less than titanic. Rock music in Cuba is without a doubt marginal and carries with it the stigma imposed on it during the first years of the Revolution, under the already tragicomic seal of ideological division. Nevertheless, the desire to create was strong and the members of the project, even knowing everything that the Cuban context implies, were optimistic. Bands with recognition and a loyal fanbase like Collector, Miel con Limón, Hector Téllez Jr and Tracks made up the BandEra team and generated within us, the young musicians and the public, great enthusiasm.
I now happily remember how I anxiously awaited every new idea and action of the project. I see myself yelling at the top of my lungs in unison with those on stage at La Tropical during the two festivals that they managed to put on; see myself, small, at the packed Karl Marx for the Kurt Cobain tribute that they held together with the Proyecto Lucas in El regreso de los dioses; see myself going to the studio as often as I could to ask that they share the live sessions of the bands that recorded there.
After two events, we only generated debts and no official sponsor could associate itself with us since festivals are practically prohibited and ours weren’t officially recognized by any institution.Alejandro Menéndez
Between then and now, however, the name BandEra has disappeared from the streets, leaving a noticeable void. Behind every step that the project took and that the public happily devoured, innumerable obstacles had gotten in the way. My curiosity and closeness to BandEra made me want to know what happened, and perhaps clumsily, I contacted Menéndez again in search of answers.
Startup Cuba: BandEra seemed to be on the upswing after putting on two festivals at La Tropical. What happened?
AM: The BandEra festivals took place thanks to the wonderful team behind BandEra Studio and others, who from the outside, took a great interest in what the project wanted to create, like La Rueda Productions. The experience provided us with the opportunity to generate content our way, to our taste and with our possibilities. But commercially, it only brought losses. The lack of legal representation, and the total apathy–even disparagement–by the Institute and the Ministry were just too many hits to withstand.
After two events, we only generated debts and no official sponsor could associate itself with us since festivals are practically prohibited and ours weren’t officially recognized by any institution. Only the Agencia Cubana del Rock offered us support, but its financial resources are extremely limited and its influence in government decisions is nil. The artists who participated did have a lovely experience, and that’s what we’ve decided to remember most. X Alfonso, Cimafunk, David Blanco, Athanai, Beutnoise, together with BandEra bands and artists like Collector, Miel con Limón, Hector Téllez Jr. and Tracks, accepted the invitation and accompanied us to have a good time. The public really enjoyed it and that was the best part of those events.
I wanted to know the future plans the team had for BandEra. I should note that it took a while before I dared to read the answer.
Startup Cuba: Tell me more about the homage to Kurt Cobain that BandEra co-organized with the Proyecto Lucas [the organization responsible for the Premios Lucas, one of Cuba’s premier music awards shows]. Were there also difficulties with that event?
AM: “Lithium” was the name of tribute to Nirvana that we held alongside El Proyecto Lucas. I think this is the event that I remember most fondly of all the events that I myself put on. Cruzata gave us all the support that they could find and we were able to assemble a strong creative and executive team. The script was written by Charles Wrapner, Laura Martín Llana handled the production, Alejandro de la Torre managed the design, and Zammys Jiménez (lead singer of Los Locos Tristes) was the actress and lead vocalist. Putting on the show was complicated, voices off, information on screens, the use of strings, and around ten different bands taking the stage, among other complications. I wanted to rehearse for at least several weeks, but they only gave us two rehearsals because of the cost of rehearsing in the Karl Marx theater. In the last general rehearsal, just before the debut, there were many technical issues with the lighting and the beat. I remember that when we finished that rehearsal, which to me had seemed disastrous, I told all the musicians, “If something goes wrong keep playing; this is a tribute to Nirvana, and if the music is good, the public will forgive the rest.”
The night of the show, I sat in my seat expecting the worst, but every segment went decently well. The music was spectacular and the segments flowed. Little by little the public responded and accepted what we were giving out. When the last song, “Lithium”, started with all the musicians of the event, the audience was already on its feet. The theater was full of people screaming and I couldn’t believe it. For me, that was really the first decent general rehearsal. That show wasn’t ready to go on, but even so, it went even better than I had hoped and it was a very welcome surprise. I haven’t wanted to watch the filmed final result because I’m sure it’s going to be disappointing, but at least my memory of it is nice and my gratitude to everyone who participated is infinite.
Listening to Alejandro’s anecdotes made me feel alien to the heart of the project. I know that it’s because of the excitement of having known that something like this was being created in our streets. Maybe I was naive to think that every action BandEra took wasn’t preceded by the project’s effort and the stupid resistance (I can’t think of a more appropriate adjective) by Cuban institutions.
I was able to ask one last question: I wanted to know the future plans the team had for BandEra. I should note that it took a while before I dared to read the answer. Menéndez had responded:
BandEra is very dismembered. Each of us has been trying to manage the reality of these past few years, which has been very difficult. Some of the bands/artists [like Sweet Lizzy Project] are in Nashville and others in Havana. We’re all part of various projects, but there’s no unifying plan at this moment. BandEra is a project that I keep very close to my heart and that in the long-term, I intend to make sure works, but it requires resources and new attention. It requires that we achieve a few things first: we need legal and financial independence. We need to fall back in love with Havana and its music scene, find ourselves again within it. I want to build a new studio and maybe a concert space. BandEra sleeps for now, but ask me again in a year.