It might have taken him 50 years of waiting, piles of paperwork and visa applications, and multiple flights to get there, but the "Godfather of Double Bass" finally made it back home. We're speaking, of course, about David Lombardo: Slayer's co-founding drummer, current member of Suicidal Tendencies, Dead Cross and the Misfits, and proud first-generation Cuban immigrant.
Born in Havana in 1965, Lombardo spent less than two years living under the harsh Castro regime before emigrating with his parents to Los Angeles, seemingly never to set foot on Cuban soil again (thanks to a little thing called the Cold War). Though a U.S. embargo against the Latin American country remains in place, warmer relations between the two nations are enabling more and more travel opportunities. At long last, in January, the drummer made his homecoming, joined by his fiancée and his 86-year-old mother. The trip would ultimately change his life forever. (It was so amazing, in fact, that he'll headed back soon to play two shows with Suicidal Tendencies.)
Revolver caught up with Lombardo for a full lowdown on the transformative visit, from experiencing his family's tumultuous past firsthand to meeting with a Cuban metal band that has been jailed for making the music they love.
CAN YOU GIVE US SOME BACKGROUND INTO THE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH YOU LEFT CUBA, AND HOW YOU CAME TO THE UNITED STATES?
DAVE LOMBARDO Between 1959 and 1966, when I left, the Cuban revolution was happening. Fidel and his army were revolting against the current regime, or dictatorship, or whatever you want to call it: Batista. There were a lot of explosions and gunfire during the day. Things were randomly happening, and that puts fear into anyone. When Fidel took over, one of the things that he said was that he was going to start recruiting children between the ages of 13 and 16, to train them to send to possibly Russia, and some of the wars that Cuba was fighting at that time. Not too sure about that, but my parents took that to heart. They didn't want their sons to be put through this, so through the Catholic church, there was this program called Operación Pedro Pan — Operation Peter Pan. It was this program where you would apply through the Catholic Church and they would hook up your sons and daughters with these Catholic families throughout the United States. So my parents applied, and my brothers were sent to the states. My mom was pregnant with me at the time. So they sent my brothers on a plane to the States, and they were like, "OK, we'll see you in three months," because that's how long it took for them to get the visa to get out of Cuba, and then they would defect or somehow stay in the U.S. by permission from the U.S. government as well as the Cuban government. So it was all legit.
But by the time they sent my brothers over to the states, the Cuban missile crisis happened and the wall went up. Everything stopped. All communication with the states ceased, and my parents weren't able to see my brothers for five years, as opposed to the three months they thought they'd be waiting. Within that time, they felt a lot of stress and resentment for sending the brothers over. It caused a lot of problems with the family. Then, in 1966, they were able to get over here, and at that time, I was born, and I've been here since. Going back to Cuba and retracing my parents' roots, and visiting family and these locations that I was told about for years since I was growing up, it really put everything in perspective in understanding what went on.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANYTHING FROM WHEN YOU WERE LIVING IN CUBA?
No. The only thing I remember is growing up in Los Angeles and living in a Cuban household. Once I stepped foot out that front door, it was America. But everything inside my home was Cuban — the food, the music.
DID YOUR BROTHERS RELOCATE TO CALIFORNIA, TOO?
By chance, they were sent to Long Beach, California. This was a state that my mother was always interested to visit and potentially live in, so we got lucky in my brothers being sent over here.
WHO WENT WITH YOU ON THE TRIP? WAS IT JUST YOU, OR DID MEMBERS OF YOUR FAMILY GO, TOO?
It was just my mom, my fiancée and I. I've been wanting to do this with her for a long time. She's going to be 86 this year, but she has a lot of fire and energy. Although she's a little slow getting from point A to point B, she's in pretty good health, so I told her that we had to do it. I knew the visa would take about 50 days, and I told her that as soon as I received those visas, I'd be booking the flight to Cuba within 24 hours. So from one moment to the next, it was development after development. OK, we've got the visa. We got the flight. We're leaving in a couple weeks. My fiancée, Paula, was like, "What? I can't believe this is happening already!" So we had to tie up some loose ends business-wise, and then we jumped on the plane.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE VISITING ALL THESE PLACES WITH YOUR MOTHER?
There were definitely some emotional moments between my mom and I in understanding my dad and his personality. My dad was an entrepreneur in Cuba. He owned three butcher shops, two in La Cumbre, the town my parents are from — it's right outside Havana, in the same province — and one in Vedado, which is by the ocean. My parents were stripped of what they worked so hard for, and then they move to a country where they don't speak the language — and yet, my father was able to get a job at a meat market in Vernon, working on the meat assembly line. He worked for over 30 years at that company, retired, bought a house and lived the American dream. But I was able to understand his pain by returning to Cuba, and realizing that my father had it made in this country, but had to leave because of the corruption, and the revolution, and everything ... I know it was by his own choice, but it had to have been rough. A lot of immigrants go through that: You're stripped of what you're used to, and it's a whole different language, and the parents do it for the kids, so that they can have a better life. My brothers definitely had a great life, as well as my sister, and I've been able to achieve things that most people could never imagine, or ever think of. So it was definitely a risky choice for my parents, but it all turned out pretty good.
SO WHEN YOU RETURNED TO THE SITE OF THE ORIGINAL BUTCHER SHOP, WHAT DID YOU FIND?
[Sighs] Oh, wow. It's destroyed. It's in shambles. One of the other butcher shops, all of they have is a stack of eggs sitting in there. There's no refrigeration or anything like that. The conditions are rough, like in a lot of Latin American countries. I didn't see much of a difference between Cuba and a lot of the other Latin American countries I've traveled to in my years. But it's pretty rough. The streets are rough, the outside roads. I was able to rent a car and drive around the city I was born in, La Cumbre. I was able to visit the house that my parents had built. I have a picture of my mom where she's pregnant with me, so we took a picture in the same area of the porch where the original photo was taken. [See above]
DID YOU GO INSIDE?
When we pulled up to the house, the woman that was inside the house came out. She's been living there for over 50 years. She was part of the first family that moved in there after my parents left. She was curious as to who'd lived there before, and neighbors had told her all about the Lombardos. So when my mom got out of the car, she called out, "China!" My mom's nickname is China. My mom was pretty confused, so the woman explained that she'd heard about her, and knew she'd come back some day.
She led us through the house to look at all the bedrooms. There was even furniture that my parents had bought, as well as some glassware, coffee cups and plates. It was really old, but it was still there. In Cuba, they take care of what little they have. It was quite the moment. She broke down a couple of times, going through the kitchen and the hallway.
I remember my mom talking about this small, modest house that she had designed, that my father had built. My father was undecided on whether to move to these luxury apartments down by the water, a half a block away from the Airbnb we'd rented. So I saw the apartment my parents were considering, right by the beach. I chose an apartment by the streets my mom remembered. It was cool that we was able to stay nearby, that we were able to walk to the market and the smaller restaurants nearby. Just a lot of interesting moments.
WHERE ELSE DID YOU VISIT?
I visited cousins I'd never met before. One of the cousins — his name is Raul — he looks exactly like my dad, and that was shocking and quite emotional, too. His mannerisms, certain gestures, even his stature ... everything. It shocked the hell out of me, and put me through a moment of reminiscence about my dad.
I rented a car and drove around at night. The people in Cuba are so friendly, so welcoming, so inviting. Just walking down the street, if you need directions, everybody's helpful and willing to listen. Then they'll ask where you're from. I'd tell them that I was born here but had moved to Los Angeles, that I hadn't been back in 50 years. The next thing you know, they're talking to you about the country, and the places, and my mom's interjecting, and then they're asking her what schools she'd went to, where she was born. The people's kindness blew me away.
My fiancée and I went out for a walk one night after my mom went to bed. It was two or three in the morning. Totally safe. I didn't feel threatened in any way. I didn't see any military police. I could count on one hand [the number of military police] I saw, and I had driven and walked all over.
There are lots of misconceptions about Cuba. I see that a lot of documentaries — on Anthony Bourdain's documentaries, on CNN and the Travel Channel — everything they say is true. It's awesome to visit there, but for some reason, politically, we've kept the country at a distance. I can see it, and I can understand the reason why, but on the other hand, I see a peaceful country. The Cubans went through what they went through in the past, but it should in no way — at least from what I've experienced — shape how they portray it now. I see that there are economic issues, but they're finding their way. I don't like politics: I don't like what it's done to people and children, so I try and stay away from that, but all I know is what I saw. There are struggles, but there are struggles in other countries, as well, and I don't think we should create these embargoes, or build these walls to keep the Cubans distant.
DID ANYONE RECOGNIZE YOU WHILE YOU WERE THERE?
[Laughs] There were a couple tourists. I walked into this market and there was this one European guy — tattoos, long hair, a little goatee — and my fiancée turned to me and asks, "Did you see that?" I said, "No," and she told me that he'd had a moment. I figure he was like, "Dave Lombardo? What the hell is he doing in Cuba? How random is that?" He didn't say anything, but we noticed that he took a second glance and questioned himself. There was another time it happened, but not much. I didn't go to any metal or rock clubs — which there are — and stayed more low key.
I did, however, have a meeting with the Agency of Rock Music in Havana, and a journalist for the government newspaper, and David Chapette, a record company owner in Havana, as well as the metal band Zeus, who've been around almost 30 years, who've struggled and been jailed for playing metal, harassed ... They've gone through it all, and they've got some stories to tell. A documentary about them is supposed to be coming out this year called Hard Rock Havana. My director friend [Nicholas Brennan] put it together, and asked me to write the music for the documentary, so I've been working on that. He showed the band what he'd put together so far, and they were definitely impressed and excited, and pretty emotional about it. They say it depicts exactly what's going on in the Cuban music scene, all the hoops you've gotta jump through to make it happen.
YOU'RE PLANNING TO GO BACK TO CUBA IN THE COMING MONTHS. WHAT'S ON THE ITINERARY FOR YOUR SECOND TRIP?
Suicidal Tendencies will be doing two shows in Cuba: one in Havana, and one in Holguín, which is further east from Havana. It's the first time that I'll be returning with a band, obviously, and we anticipate a really good turnout. It's kind of a historic event.