From Imprisoned to Government-Sponsored: What It’s Like to be the Last ‘Frikis’ in Cuba
“Stop controlling me. You don’t let me think. I only long to live without you next to me.” These are some of the distinctly anti-establishment lyrics that Diony Arce growls on stage as frontman for Cuban heavy metal band Zeus. When it comes to heavy metal, few bands embody its philosophy as unequivocally as Zeus—Diony even did prison time at the height of his metal career. So how did a band that was once a thundering symbol of rebellion become state-sponsored, backed by the very government that persecuted them? As Nicholas Brennan’s documentary “Los Ultimos Frikis” illustrates, Zeus’ story might feature a lot of black, but it’s not black and white.
Filmed over the course of 10 years, “Los Ultimos Frikis” (“The Last Freaks”) follows Zeus’s evolution from young, spandex-clad thrashers to Cuba’s most popular metal band, to arguably their most important role: the stalwart bastion of heavy metal in Cuba. Once considered the “capitalist enemy” of Cuba’s community government, long-haired frikis are now sanctioned and Diony has even been appointed director of the Ministry of Culture’s Agency of Rock, which aims to keep the guitar riffs reverberating across a changing landscape of musical styles.
In the film’s heartbreaking inflection point, Zeus goes on their first national tour only to realize that the once-guttural screams for heavy metal have been reduced to a whimper. It seems Cuba’s newer generations have abandoned shredding guitars for the monotonous computer-generated beats of reggaeton. This is when it becomes clear what the band’s real fight is, and it’s not with the establishment—it’s against obscurity. So when the Cuban government gives Zeus the power to keep heavy metal alive, any temptation to yell, “Damn the man!” goes out the window and, instead, you cheer for the ironic turn in the band’s hard-fought journey.
Topic had the honor of sitting down with Zeus frontman Diony and Dave Lombardo, founding drummer of legendary metal band Slayer, who served as executive producer and composer on “Los Ultimos Frikis,” to talk about their influences, hating reggaeton, and the future of heavy metal.
What was it like to be filmed and interviewed for 10 years?
Diony Arce: Truthfully I really enjoyed it. It wasn't like it was 10 years of nonstop exhausting filming, as people may think. It was done bit by bit and I ended up learning a lot from the process. Being filmed over the course of a long time, it gives you a chance to reflect back on your life as you see how it gets captured on screen. It was also interesting to see how the film itself changed and evolved over time, starting first as an initial short project and ultimately becoming this big finished feature-length film.
What drew you to the story of Zeus?
Dave Lombardo: Any topic regarding Cuba interests me. My older brothers were part of the historic clandestine mass exodus of over 14,000 children from 6 to 18 years old, called the Peter Pan flights. I was born in Havana in 1965 and I met my brothers in the US in 1967. That’s a story of its own. When Nicholas Brennan approached me with the chance to score a soundtrack to the documentary, I couldn’t say no. It was deeper than the score; it was connecting with my heritage and culture.
Do you see parallels between Zeus’s story and your own?
DL: The main parallel was the love for metal music and the courage to be different. Metal was a way for us to express ourselves musically and by the way we dressed. We would wear our favorite bands t-shirts, blue jeans, and long hair. It was in our DNA to go against the grain. Another parallel was our resilience, our inner strength. To make the best of the worst times and the will to press on for our love of the stage and music.
How did you get into heavy metal music? Was it from a young age?
DA: It all started in 1980 with my friend Roberto Armada, who I would go on to play in the band Venus with. He introduced me to this heavy metal music and we became part of the growing culture of “frikis” in Havana, people who dedicated themselves to and loved rock and roll. One day we decided, “Hey, we can make this music too.” So we started studying how to play.
He learned how to play bass and I started to learn guitar, which in the end wasn't for me. I instead fell in love with singing. As a singer, I was really influenced by the Cuban frontman of the band Almas Vertiginosas. His name was Jorge Conde. There was also Juan Camacho, who hosted a popular radio show in Havana during the ‘80s and also sang in a band. These two guys really influenced me to be a heavy metal singer and to create my own style.
In the film, Yamil cited Metallica as the band that started his love for heavy metal. Who are your biggest influences?
DA: In Zeus, our biggest influences are Sepultura and Pantera. Those are the two metal bands that had the greatest impact on the beginning of Zeus. But I think, for me, White Snake is really the biggest influence on me personally. That's the band that's had the strongest influence on me as a singer and performer. I'm a huge fan of White Snake and of their singer, David Coverdale.
What was it like scoring your first film?
DL: It was very exciting. I never thought that my first score would be for a documentary depicting the life of a metal band’s struggle in the country I was born in. I’m very grateful for the opportunity. It was also a bit emotional to see their strife and how different I had it in the US. There were times I had to step away from the scoring process to regain my composure. It was easy to picture myself in their shoes and live their pain.
How does film scoring differ from playing in a band?
DL: Both are on very opposite ends of the spectrum. Playing in a band you connect and create with other musicians in a very organic way. Four to five musicians with their instruments at high volume, rehearsing, writing, and sweating in a room. When you score, it’s you, the film, and director’s notes. That’s it. The process is left up to you to musically interpret the scene and deliver the emotion.
Now that heavy metal has become accepted by the Cuban government, has your feeling about being a metal musician changed at all? Is there metal without rebellion?
DA: I think heavy metal remains a rebellious and anti-establishment way of expressing yourself. Heavy metal in Cuba will always be a style of music with lots of attitude, rebelliousness, and in-your-face lyrics. In a way, we share this with hip-hop in Cuba too. Both genres are about protesting the way things are. The music reflects the situations we live and speaks to all our challenges, the taboos that we confront every day. So we're going to keep writing and making music like this.
I love that reggaeton is portrayed as a villain in the film. What does reggaeton symbolize for you and what do you think it says about how Cuba has changed?
DA: Oof, reggaeton. It’s basic and trashy, I don’t have a better way to say it. It’s not a style of music for me, obviously. But it is something that has influenced and impacted a lot of people across the country, that’s true, though I don’t think reggaeton has a part in changing anything for Cuba.
Where do you think heavy metal has the biggest presence and influence right now?
DL: I feel metal music’s presence everywhere. I’m seeing mainstream celebrities wearing metal t-shirts. Metal style of music in mainstream movie scores as well as my random trips to a grocery store seeing kids with their favorite band t-shirts. US and European festivals with countless amounts of metal bands on the bill. It may not be much, but it’s relevant.
Do you plan on continuing to score films or will you be behind a drum set again in the near future?
DL: I will continue to score films if they present themselves and if the story is one that touches me. It has definitely turned into a new medium of expression for me that I enjoy very much. I’m behind the drums every day, that is my first love. I am looking forward to returning to the stage this September and October for some very limited shows.
Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of Zeus! What’s next for the band?
DA: The band is right now working hard to prepare songs for an upcoming album we're going to put out with the Colibri label that's going to be a tribute to the band Venus, the first band of heavy metal in this country during the 1980s. So, we’re focused on getting ready to record 10 songs, the biggest hits of Venus. This is what we're dedicated to right now.
What do you see for the future of heavy metal?
DL: I see the future of metal like most genres rising and falling but never going away. It will always be there, like the legacy of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden.
What excites you the most about that future?
DL: Music. And the countless possibilities of new sub-genres that will continue to inspire us.
As the new director of the Agency of Rock, how will you ensure that heavy metal stays relevant in Cuba, for older generations and newer ones?
DA: Well, this is exactly my work here in the Agency. I can't let heavy metal die in Cuba. You've got to maintain what exists while also giving space to the next generations, supporting their work, their ideas, their bands. That’s the heart of my work here.