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BEHIND THE SCENES with Luis Trelles (LT) and Tim Howard (TH)


Luis, how did you first come across the story of los frikis? How well known is this piece of history in Cuba?

LT: I set out to do a radio piece on the Havana rock scene in February of last year. I had been talking with Daniel Alarcón, the executive producer of Radio Ambulante , about the crazy, intense vibe that rockers in Cuba have. He saw the potential in that story and Radio Ambulante sent me to Cuba to report on it. And that's when I started hearing about a group of really extreme trashers and punks who had decided to inject themselves with HIV back in the late 80s and early 90s. I was shocked, of course, and started digging deeper. But it isn't a well known story, even inside Cuba. Old school rockers talk about it, but my sense is that people outside the scene don't really know that it happened.

Tim, what about this story made you think that it might work for Radiolab ?

TH: Sometime mid-2014 I had a conversation with Luis about a story that he was doing for Radio Ambulante . The short version is that they were working on a piece about Cuban punks from the 80s and 90s, and a government official named Maria who had somehow become the godmother of the scene.

And then there was this one detail that Luis mentioned: during a period of repression by the government, some of these punks had decided to inject themselves with HIV in order to be allowed to live in the sanatorium.This was unthinkable moment and we both wanted to know more. I knew this would work for Radiolab if we could get inside that world and experience both the problems the frikis faced, and especially the weirdest part: that moment in their lives when they'd found a kind of freedom and sanctuary. My original pitch to Radiolab was focused on the thing Luis had heard about frikis forming a rock band after entering the sanatorium. The staff response was basically, "whaaaaaat?

Luis wasn't going to have time to tell this story in his Radio Ambulante piece, so we decided to start researching it for a future collaboration. Once we discovered that a Cuban exile - Vladimir Ceballos - had made a documentary about friends of his in the sanatorium, and that he was such a great storyteller, that was big. That felt like access and richness. Then Luis tracked down the friki couple that still live in the ruins of the sanatorium, and he was able to get them to agree to talk to him. It was amazing to hear tape of them walking around the sanatorium, listening to music, shooting the shit.

Could you talk about your process of adapting the story for Radiolab ? What factors (audience, style, etc.) did you grapple with most?

LT: From the moment I started working with Tim I knew that there would be two versions of this piece, one in Spanish for Radio Ambulante and another in English for Radiolab . In the end, the Radio Ambulante episode focused more on the punk survivors I met in the abandoned HIV/AIDS sanitarium in Cuba, while the Radiolab story had a wider lens. It took a closer look at the origins of the rock scene in Cuba and the first frikis that injected themselves to get into the state-run sanitariums. I worked closely with Tim throughout the whole process, and learned a lot from his approach. He was looking for details that would spark curiosity and an emotional arc that would connect with listeners. Most of all, he was interested in the question of "why?" Why would a group of mostly young men make such an extreme decision.

The whole process of working with the Radiolab team was very exciting. Jad Abumrad set it off by asking questions about the self-injected kids that would bring that whole scene to life. At the same time he would zoom out to place the whole phenomenon in its historical context. We had two key conversations that were recorded and they ended up being the basis for the tracking. Both conversations had a casual vibe that established the rhythm and the pacing. Last thing: it really caught Jad's attention that these frikis had different relationships with their decision. Some, like Papo, stayed defiant and unflinching even as their friends died, while others clearly didn't know what they were getting into.

Why did you choose to begin story with Obama's lifting of sanctions?

LT: The fact that the story begins on the day that Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba was a thing of chance. A lot of the reporting for this piece was done before anyone had a clue that the rapprochement between the two countries was in the works. But as it happened, Obama and Raúl Castro made their announcements on the same day that Tim and I were set to interview Vladimir Ceballos, one of the main voices in this story. Vladimir shot a documentary called Cursed Be Your Name Freedom in the early 90s which was the first piece to break this story. The first wave of frikis who injected themselves with HIV were his friends, and he set out to document what they were going through. He got a lot of grief for it too. The Cuban authorities were so angry about his doc that he had to go into exile in the U.S. So Obama's announcement had a profound impact on him and he was very emotional on the day that we interviewed him. In a way, including that tape brought the story to the present.

How did you choose to approach translation (or lack thereof) in this piece, and why?

LT: Tim Howard is a fluent Spanish speaker, and that made a huge difference. Although he claimed at some point that he was more familiar with Mexican Spanish, I'm sure he didn't miss a word of the Cuban español that we had to work with. He approached the material like a big conversation where most of the people spoke English, some spoke both languages and a few spoke only Spanish. And it turned into this dialogue where the people who spoke Spanish talked in their own language and then the people who are bilingual would step in and translate.

TH: The translation question is a good one. By that point in the production process, a couple weeks before the release, I had actually left Radiolab (I'm a bastard!), so I'm not totally sure how Jad and Matt Kielty decided that. But I know that all along we'd wanted to use Spanish in a more interesting way in Radiolab pieces in the past, and with multiple approaches. For me it started with the Galapagos episode, where at points we included untranslated Spanish that would enhance your understanding if you did get it, but wouldn't detract if you didn't. The idea being that hearing a foreign language would give you a more visceral sense that you're in a foreign place.

For me, that's the role that it plays in the Frikis piece, and I just love it. Just to witness what the guest talks like, even if you don't understand the words, it gives you a real emotional connection which is worth trading for extra comprehension. I love hearing Spanish on the radio that doesn't get volume-dropped and spoken over in English... it creates a few seconds of disorientation that make the story much much more interesting and alive. Let the listener wonder.

Luis, in addition to making radio, you're a filmmaker. What were the benefits (& drawbacks) to telling this story only in sound?

I started out producing documentaries for public television in Puerto Rico, where I'm from, and it was always very frustrating when I managed to get amazing stories from the people that I interviewed on camera, but then they would fall flat during the editing process. In a visual medium it's all about showing, not telling. So when you're working on a historical piece like this one, you either have amazing archival footage to go along with the talking heads or the story just won't be as exciting. In the short time that I've been working with the medium, I've found that radio is really about the telling. I started collaborating with Radio Ambulante last year, and I took an instant liking to the way that audio storytelling works. It can transport the listener in a very unique way. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where there's a rich oral tradition and people are used to telling each other stories so casually, this can be very powerful. And that proved to be the case with "los frikis." The rockers I talked to expressed themselves with a lot of passion and conviction. I don't think that they would have been so open with a camera in front of them.

The kill-your-darlings question: was there a moment or scene from an earlier draft or that was particularly painful for you to lose?

LT: There was a draft of the Radiolab piece that included a scene of the punk band that was formed inside the main sanitarium in the story. It was hilarious, because it showed these kids that were trying to put a band together with rickety old instruments from the Socialist Block. It was all done in the spirit of Cuban DIY punk: they would reconfigure radio speakers and use them as amps, they had a bass that only had one string. But that was their dream, and they made the most of it. That scene was cut from the final version, but I had a lot of fun listening to it while it was there.

TH: I'm with Luis. It was hard to see the band forming inside the Pinar sanatorium go. My best guess is that it's because we didn't have the recording of that band, which was a bummer. They were called Metamorfosis, and Gerson (who Luis featured in his story) was the singer, and Papo played guitar.