Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 22) transports me up a narrow spiral staircase to a tiny third floor apartment in the Kairos Center, a part of the First Baptist Church in Matanzas, Cuba. It was there in October 2010 that I spent a lot of time recording guitar tracks for what Wanda Hernandez, the Administrator of the Center, called one of her many proyectos locos. This particular crazy project involved recording some of the favorite hymns and praise songs of the churches in the Fraternity of Baptists, but adding a rock and roll twist to them. I did my best to channel some Clapton and Page, but I eventually learned that what they really wanted was some Slash and John Petrucci, some serious shredding, that is, ultra fast screaming solos and whammy bar dive bombs, which is not in my bag of tricks. This was my introduction of sorts into a part of Cuban culture that had remained hidden to me for the first fifteen years of my exposure to the island. As it turns out, there is an underground world there obsessed with heavy metal. The pastor of the church, Orestes, is a huge Metallica fan; he’ll enthusiastically engage you in conversation around the documentary Some Kind of Monster. One of the young girls in the youth group is really into the post-hardcore group Escape the Fate and regularly goes to clubs to hear the music and take her chances in the mosh pit. One of the twenty-somethings, a fisherman named Pavel, is into Nirvana. The cooks for the Center, Julio and Marlen, are crazy about the Brazilian death metal band Sepultura. I learned more about this hidden scene from Duvier Quirots, a member of the church’s AA ministry. He gave me the book, El Rock en Cuba, enscribed to him by the author Humberto Lopez. This history of the underground rock music scene in Cuba includes a description of the death, doom and grind band Duvier played drums for, Sectarium.
It’s quite a journey from praise and worship music to death, doom and grind music. But these Cuban Christians seem to have no trouble with the transition. Reading today’s Psalm made me think that perhaps the ancient Hebrews shared a similar journey. Their hymnal (the book of Psalms) includes much more of the range of human emotion and experience than does ours. Our worship music is generally like a Norman Vincent Peale soundtrack, focusing on the power of positive thinking, emphasizing God’s abiding presence and love and care. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a hymn or gospel song based on the words of Psalm 22 that Jesus screamed from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. The rest of this Psalm’s bitter cry of abandonment and despair is left out of our praise music as well. But King David didn’t have an underground club complete with mosh pit to visit and vent his frustrations, or contraband CDs to listen to and give voice to his deepest despair. So he used the only outlet he had; he put it in the hymnal. While the pastor in Matanzas sings Grande Gozo (great joy) in church and Unforgiven in his living room, Pastor David had the faith community singing hymn number 23: The Lord is My Shepherd I Shall Not Want right after number 22: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me.
As well-informed as my Cuban friends are about music (much more so than me), they didn’t know about one genre of music that exists in our country – the world of Christian heavy metal. So I told them I was going to bring them some to hear on my next trip. I think I’ll start with the group, As I Lay Dying (nothing like having a heavy metal group that reads Faulker!). For a connection to Psalm 22 and Jesus’ words on the cross, I’ll give them the group’s song Forsaken: We’ve built our confidence on broken dreams now left for dead, yet we’ve been condemned. Founding member and vocalist Tim Lambesis explains that while all the members of the group are Christian, they don’t want to be preachy, and they sing about parts of life that don’t entirely fit in a spiritual category. Or maybe, from the Psalmist’s perspective, there isn’t a part of life that doesn’t fit into that category. Feeling a God-forsaken despair might be about as spiritual as it gets, especially if you take Jesus’ call seriously to take up your cross and follow him.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.