Knucklehead guitarist Jimmy James ain’t short on accomplishments: For one, his 17-year-old melodic street-punk band is preparing for a 7-inch release on San Francisco’s Pirate’s Press — a label featuring all-time oi! greats Cock Sparrer, ’00s hardcore kids The Explosion and the folk-punk of Andrew Jackson Jihad. Beyond Knucklehead, he recently joined all-time pop-punk greats — and Calgo legends — Chixdiggit. And he recently toured Cuba with Vancouver bike club-cum-band Vicious Cycles, who also perform at Knucklehead’s 7-inch release show, as part of the Edmonton-based Solidarity Rock, an organization that brings Canadian punk rock to Cuba.
Not short on accomplishments, indeed. But his biggest coup in recent memory, and a true testiment to the success of Solidarity Rock,is the fact that the love travels both ways. After his trip to Cuba, James was influential in helping Cuban punk rock act Arrabio travel to Canada.
“Every Canadian punk band [that’s participated in Solidarity Rock] has met them,” says James, noting the band plays an ’80s New York hardcore style. “There’s a guy named William Garcia in the band, and he works for the AHS [a government agency which promotes arts and culture]. He applies for your visas, the band meets you at the airport, they translate for you, they find you places to stay — there wouldn’t be Solidarity Rock without them.”
Arrabio hasn’t yet received their visas — in fact, the band had to cancel half of their Canadian tour dates because of it. But, according to Solidarity Rock’s website, they’re hopeful the band will receive their papers before the Calgary date. And it’s of monumental importance because, he says, the significance of Arrabio’s tour transcends the band itself.
“Cubans don’t get to leave Cuba easily. Raising money to get them here — paying for flights, tours and visas — is a huge part of it,” he says. “But it legitimizes what Arrabio have been doing for 10 years — which is play hardcore punk. It’s a big deal, and not only for the band. It means that punk rock is taking people out of Cuba.”
Nurturing that embryonic punk rock scene — which, as James describes, eerily mirrors punk’s first-wave explosion in the West — is of critical importance to Solidarity Rock. The program has gathered instruments for Cuban bands, sent locals, including Edmonton punk act Slates, to perform on the island and raised funds to smooth along the process. (The Fight, Krang and Scrapbooker, among others, have participated in their benefit shows.)
The process seems exhausting — but James says he’s seen its fruits first-hand. “Rock was illegal until 10 or 15 years ago in Cuba, and before Solidarity Rock, people didn’t have that DIY culture, where you could just start a show [with minimal resources],” says James. “If you wanted to play guitar in Cuba, you couldn’t just go to a pawn shop. The instruments we leave have a huge impact — some kid picks up the instruments, and the next year, he has a career. And now, there’s a network of bands who know each other, can play with each other. That didn’t exist until Solidarity Rock.”
Touring on that network, says James, was an eye-opener. He learned plenty of insights about Cuban culture, and by proxy, his own, in discovering that “Cuba isn’t a consumer society like ours; they operate on a need as opposed to a want [basis].” He learned a thing or two about the kindness of strangers when Cuban families fed the band — a feat he estimates burned months of savings. And he learned that Cubans, with limited resources, embraced DIY: He speaks of dilapidated soap factories turned into art spaces, of bands dubbing and re-dubbing hand-me-down punk tapes and of a punk scene which, despite its isolation, has developed its own aesthetic.
The most transcendent moment, though, came in Figuero, on the final night of the tour. “Vicious Cycles are a motorcycle club,” he says. “And there’s only one motorcycle club in Cuba — the Latin Americans. So, at our last show, we weren’t expecting much, but 30 guys from [the Latin Americans] pulled up — they were riding pre-revolution bikes and wearing old English patches on their jackets. We spent hours riding their bikes and trying to communicate in broken English and Spanish. It was perfect.”