On Friday night, when Escape take the stage at South by Southwest, their 40-minute set will end a two-year wrangle between activists and government officials over whether the Cuban heavy metal band would be the first to perform on American soil.
Until the moment they arrived in Miami on Sunday, it was unclear whether Escape – one of three Cuban metal bands cleared to travel to perform this week in Austin – would achieve this unprecedented effort, a process that hinged on whether a grassroots movement and a U.S. congressman could effectively navigate Cuba’s bureaucratic labyrinth and evolving travel policy.
“That makes it even more phenomenal and more outrageous and more improbable and more amazing, not only to get the music but share it,” said filmmaker Tracey Noelle Luz, who co-founded UnBlock the Rock, the movement that first approached SXSW in 2011 about booking Escape.
Funding, paperwork and limited Internet access complicated any hope for an efficient process, even for a festival that traditionally works with international bands.
“In all of the years that I’ve been working with the festival, this has been an eye-opening experience and one of the most complicated situations that we’ve dealt with,” SXSW coordinator Alicia Zertuche told Rolling Stone of working with the U.S. embassy in Havana. While Cuba no longer demands its residents apply for an exit permit, the U.S. still requires them to obtain a visa to enter the country. Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who represents Austin, assisted with securing visas for members of Escape and the other two Cuban bands, Ancestor and Agonizer.
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“Even if all the travel restrictions were lifted tomorrow, financial reality would keep most bands trapped on the island,” wrote David Peisner, who secured Escape’s SXSW invitation, in Spin last year. He noted that Fidel Castro took more than 40 years to reverse his ban on the making and selling of rock music, and that the government now regulates how musicians get paid. Peisner assisted Escape with raising enough money to travel to Austin through sales of The Red Album, UnBlock the Rock’s metal compilation.
Formed in 2000, Escape play a fusion of thrash, goth and industrial metal, likened to a Slayer-meets-Sepultura sound, which earned them Best Metal Band honors at last year’s Cuerda Viva Awards. Luz’s film, They Will Be Heard, documents Escape’s evolution and the story of metal against the backdrop of Cuban-American relations. Luz founded UnBlock the Rock with the band’s former keyboardist, Jennifer Hernandez, who immigrated to New Jersey in 2010 and now manages Sam Ash Music in Manhattan. On Sunday she reunited with Escape in Florida to make the drive to Texas for this week’s long-awaited show.
“It’s not fair that you have to remain in one place without the opportunity to share with the world whatever art it is that you’re making,” she told Rolling Stone.