If you took away the language and blurred a cultural detail or two, Nick Brennan might have thought he was back in Portland.

He was actually in Cuba – Havana to be precise, at the epicenter of a raging heavy-metal music scene that he did not expect and could not fathom.

But after being away from home and out of his element for three months, he was entirely comfortable.

“I instantly felt transported back to when I was a high school kid going to shows at the State Theatre,” said Brennan, who grew up in Falmouth. “The scene was so similar, I felt at home. It was the band, the lights, the fans. They were all so familiar. In such a different society, that shared cultural connection really drew me in on a really personal level. The unexpected nature of finding something that I could see myself in was one of those unexpected connections.”

That was in spring 2009, and Brennan, now 25, was in Havana on a study-abroad program through New York University. He was studying filmmaking, and in that unexpected moment of joy in Havana he had his subject: A short film about Havana’s burgeoning metal music scene, which was bubbling underground but very much bubbling.

He made an 11-minute movie about the Cuban metal scene. That was just the beginning.

In the four years since, Brennan has been back to Cuba many times and collected 120 hours of footage. His movie, a documentary called “Hard Rock Havana,” is moving into the editing phase. Brennan launched a crowd-funding campaign through Kickstarter to edit the footage and finish the movie.

He’s about halfway to his goal of $30,000 with the days winding down. The campaign ends Wednesday.

The feature-length documentary will focus on the most legendary metal band in communist Cuba, Zeus. The band has been playing American-influenced metal for 25 years, and attained rock-star status in country where politics allows only one celebrity and where music is controlled by the government and rock ’n’ roll largely prohibited until recently.

“They’re the Metallica of Cuba,” Brennan said, referencing the American metal band. He calls Zeus “Cuba’s loudest citizens.”

The movie will tell a story of Cuba through the songs, sounds and sights of the band, their fans and the country’s underground metal scene. “Hard Rock Havana” is a story about artists committed to their art and themselves, who test the limit of expression. It’s also a story of a country that has been largely misunderstood and stereotyped for most of the past half-century and continues to evolve toward openness and artistic expression.

When Zeus lead singer Diony Arce began performing in the late 1980s, the Cuban government forbade rock ’n’ roll. Police broke up shows, and performers sometimes ended up in jail.

As Cuba has evolved into a more open society, the music scene has emerged under the auspices of Cuba’s official Agency of Rock, which is led by a woman who claims the title of Director of Rock.

Bands can now perform more openly, Brennan said.

But it’s still difficult. In recent years, several bands have defected to the United States, and the most recent SXSW Music Conference in Austin, Texas, dedicated a session to Cuban rock.

The centerpiece of the film is an 11-show, nine-city national tour that marked the band’s 25th anniversary. It was the band’s first cross-country tour, over a two-week period. Brennan accompanied the band on the trip, capturing Zeus in action, the mosh pits and the passion of the fans.

Growing up in Falmouth, Brennan played in bands as a drummer. He could play whatever he wanted, and attend shows whenever and wherever he wanted – the State in Portland, friends’ basements. Coming from an open society, Brennan was most impressed with the lengths the musicians and fans in Cuba went to express themselves and enjoy their music.

He called the situation “absurd” relative to what he was used to in the states.

On the other hand, Brennan had an arduous process working with his own government to make the movie. He applied through the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is a part of the U.S. Treasury Department, for permission to make his movie. The office administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy.

He and producer John Logan Pierson navigated what he called “an insane bureaucratic process,” and enlisted the help of the Congressional delegations of both Maine and New York.

One of the people that Brennan interviewed for the film was Alex Sanchez. He and his brother published an underground fanzine in the mid-’90s. Their enterprise was illegal, and they risked arrest or worse for their efforts.

They published 23 issues over 12 years.

The brothers Sanchez attended their first concert in the mid-1990s when oppression was still rampant. They were teenagers, maybe 15 years old.

“There was a grunge band playing,” Sanchez said, in a phone interview from Houston, where they now live. “The cops were outside, in two big trucks.”

He remembers the scene all too well.

“It was brutal that night. That was my first experience with rock ’n’ roll repression. I saw it. Nobody can tell me it didn’t happen. I saw it myself. I saw the beatings.”

Police detained, arrested and beat the kids who attended the show, Sanchez said.

He and his brother were not arrested, or even harassed. He thinks that’s because they were so young. This was their first show, and they had an air of innocence, he said. “We were very young. The cops looked at our faces and did nothing to us.”

The experience was exhilarating. They loved the music, the risk and the camaraderie of the moment.

That feeling never left them, to this day. It set them on a music-first path that led to the fanzine that they published with dedication for many years, and eventually to Texas, where they came last spring for SXSW, where they participated in the discussion about Cuban music.

They stayed in the states after attending the conference, living with family. They work in the restaurant business.

Leaving Cuba was difficult, Sanchez said. His bond with the musicians and fans runs deep, and he hopes Brennan’s movie gets attention so more people around the world can learn about Cuban rock.

The scene down there is one of absolute dedication, he said.

“The music, the rock ’n’ roll scene or the metal scene, is very genuine and real, and very in your face. It’s very straight. There are no record labels, no music stores. There are no stores that sell instruments,” he said.

“The musicians have to get equipment from people coming from aboard. They invent their own pedals, make their own amps. They play music by the heart. They are not influenced by any trend, any musical label or the music media. They just play very real.”

That’s what drew Brennan in. Music was pure expression, without commercial motivation. Even a band like Zeus, as popular as it is, makes little money.

The purity of it all reminded Brennan of all the high school bands he played with, and motivated him to make a movie.

Lynn Kippax is a mentor to Brennan. He’s a Mainer, with experience in politics and movie-making. He’s also an NYU grad like Brennan, and has helped the young man by offering guidance and advice.

He liked the idea of “Hard Rock Havana” as soon as Brennan pitched it to him.

“We all have preconceptions,” Kippax said. “When most of us think about Cuba, we have images we share – old cars, Latin music, a government that may or may not be changing. But Nick is telling a story that no one would expect.”

He hopes Mainers support this film by helping Brennan fund it. It won’t make millions of dollars, he said, “but it will turn millions of heads.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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