1- When I interviewed you in Mexico a little more than 30 years ago we started our dialogue with a phrase of Martí: "Why read Homer in Greek when he is alive, his guitar over the shoulder, about the American desert?" In my view, Martí is present in tunes like De donde crece la palma [From where the palm tree grows], Yo te quiero libre [I want you free] or El vigía [The lookout]. Can your work and thoughts be said to be influenced by Martí?
Your question takes me to La Edad de Oro [The Golden Age], one of the first books I read, especially to historian Emilio Roig de Leuchsering's edition in 1953 in honor of the centenary of the Apostle's birth. He had the good idea of writing a foreword, which he called Martí as a child, for that book which the writer dedicated to children. In it, he tells us of Martí's ethics from an early age. Since I read it, the José Martí I have by my side is the human being, the child, the friend and the comrade he was, as well as the patriot with the cosmopolitan spirit. Also with me are his rich and beautiful verses.
2- This book can be read as a sort of balance. What do you remember about that young man who made his debut in Música y estrellas one Tuesday the 13th in 1967?
Now, that was a confused young man, who had finished his three years of compulsory military service just the day before. Things had changed so suddenly overnight that it was a miracle he didn't go crazy. But I not only remember that young man; I still think he's got a few things in common with the sexagenarian I am today. The sense of confusion, for one, or the fondness of mysterious things.
3- Your preamble for Cancionero is almost entirely about the importance of the lyrics… to what extent is poetry a part of your training and development?
Cancionero is a collection of lyrics from songs I have recorded and others that never were. I explain how I was influenced by some notions of poetry when I wrote down my first texts, since as a child I learned that poetry existed, something I owe to my father Dagoberto. My old man was an agricultural worker who read the works of Rubén Darío, Martí, Juan de Dios Peza, Nicolás Guillén… Then, in the first years of the Revolution, they used to broadcast a TV spot on Rubén Martínez Villena, his picture showing those shiny, strange eyes he had, while a voice offscreen recited La pupila insomne [The restless pupil]. It made me search for Rubén's poems, and he's been one favored bedtime reading since. Once in a military camp I met a soldier who used to read Saint-John Perse aloud, captivated as he was by the lushness of his images, and I also fell for that since.
It was around that time when I met Emilia Sánchez, a girl from Camagüey province who introduced me to César Vallejo, the cholo who condemned me to live in endless contemplation. In between such findings I started to write songs and search for poetry, as if I sensed it was the course I needed to set for. I spent my last few months in the army working for Verde Olivo [Olive Green] a magazine then edited by Luis Pavón Tamayo. He taught me to read José Zacarías Tallet and Eliseo Diego, two poets who shook my foundations a couple of times. From him I also borrowed a wonderful bilingual edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, which I was stupid enough to give back to him twenty years later.
4- In Mientras tanto [Meanwhile] one of your first songs, you say: "I have to speak, sing and shout / to life, love, war, pain". Do you still feel that way?
Back then I thought song themes and words needed to cover more ground. I had the feeling almost every song was about the same subjects, and more or less with the same words to boot. I already knew some poets who worked for the literary magazine El Caimán Barbudo [The Bearded Alligator] with whom I talk about all this. Why is the word tool never used in a song?, one of them wondered. Or shoe?, another one added. So I spent some time looking for words no singer would ever use to put them in my songs, and as a result I sometimes found words usually ostracized by mainstream morality. That's why my tune La era está pariendo un corazón [The era is bearing a heart] was said to be counterrevolutionary, because some deemed the verb parir immoral, so much so if it was used in a song. In other words, saying that I wanted to ‘sing and shout to life, love, war, pain' was nearly a sacrilege. I must admit, though, that I'm still fond of challenging subjects, for what's forbidden is always intriguing, mostly when it goes beyond the ‘I-bet-you-wouldn't-dare' game.
5- One as-yet unpublished song in Cancionero is Una canción de amor esta noche [A love song tonight]. Since the beginning of your career, love has been in the middle of contending opposites: company-solitude, fullness-death, expectation-hopelessness, search-disagreement… Is it one major strand of your work?
What would the ritual of human mating be without so-called "love songs"? They have been a sort of thread that links all times and places, an inexhaustible topic improved with new traits by every human group of every epoch. You don't have to be new in this field to make love songs with a meaning.
6- Death is another, almost parallel axis you always touch on, for instance, in songs like Muerto [Dead], Testamento [Last will], etc. Do you agree?
All we need to sing about death is realize that the miracle of consciousness is just an accident. Then you find out that ancient art teems with icons and poems linking love and death. John Keats, who only lived for 26 years, wrote his own epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water". The lamas say the sense of their doctrine is to prepare us for our reunion with eternity. All of that led me to think that by magnifying an artist's role we are made to look like vain people who long for something similar with more selfish purposes.
7- Your lyrics have an intimate, confidential tone about them that never turns high-flown even in your most socially-oriented topics. It's a tone that often glides over to a listener, like in Vamos a andar [Let's move on]. In Amigo mayor [Greater friend] you say: ‘Sé amigo manantial en mi desierto' [Be, my friend, a spring in my desert], and Yo te invito a caminar conmigo [I invite you to walk with me], as yet unpublished, is along those same lines. Is this dialogue in your poetry held with a fellow traveler? Is ‘us' the underlying message?
As a child I took to the streets to support the Revolution with great enthusiasm, but as soon as I started to sing I took good care not to make pamphlets. What little praise I've signed is usually exceptional even in the title, with an almost Brecht-like detachment. Canción urgente a Nicaragua [An urgent song for Nicaragua] is a good example. Oda a mi generación [Ode to my generation] had and still has challenging implications in the eyes of a generation that lived through the Moncada garrison events that still thrives and at times becomes too paternalistic. I've chosen to take these risks because there are plenty of specialists who make propaganda, but also because I'm the kind of person who can't suck up to those they respect. I think the Revolution is a beautiful project WE -with capital letters- have made for all the facts that might cast a shadow over its nobility. The ‘us' that you seem to discern in those songs comes from the singer's need to make it clear he's part of a collective sense of dignity.
8- There's a group of your songs where legend, children's stories and allegory intermingle, like with the witch in Es sed [It's thirst], and also in La leyenda del águila [The legend of the eagle], El rey de las flores [King of the flowers], Sueño con serpientes [Dreaming of snakes], Canción del elegido [Song of the chosen one] and El reparador de sueños [The dream mender]. Did you use to read that kind of stories as a child?
I did and still do. My father also had a volume of Aesop's Fables, and I find [Hans Christian] Andersen and the brothers Grimm more than just wonderful. I still go over The Arabian Nights and devour as many tales of dervishes, shamans and genies as I can get my hands on. Have you read Anthony de Mello's The Prayer of the Frog? I love the wisdom of Sufi parables; I wish my songs were half as helpful.
9- Some of your songs are in half-way between self-portrait and a personal manifesto, as in the case of La maza [The mace] or the verses in El necio [The fool] that go, ‘I'll die the way I lived', a stance you now take again in a couple of songs: the unpublished Los compromises [The commitments] and one to be released in your next CD ‘Trovador antiguo'. Do you think you are defined by those lyrics?
I'm not sure whether they can be seen as my own definition, but it would be good if they at least show who I thought I was when I wrote them.
10- Quality and persistence are the most outstanding features of your work, but there's also a critical eye always on the alert to defend its human nature from those who judge, demand and dictate rather than do… Is your hitherto unreleased Defensa del trovador [Defense of the songster] a good example?
When I started to sing, the only revolutionary songs were the apologetic ones, like those written by the singular songster Carlos Puebla. Committed self-criticism was a new phenomenon in Cuban music, and those of us who first embraced that style were utterly misunderstood. It was the encouragement we gave one another as friends that kept us going. Then Haydeé Santamaría and Alfredo Guevara helped us through their institutions, which was obviously important to our political identity. But at an individual level, each of us had to cope with rejection, censorship and official suspensions as best we could. I took it into my head to hold red-hot dialogues with my few fans, mainly youths, for whom I made no concession whatsoever. Rather than sing for them, I was undergoing shock therapy. Even if Defensa… may seem to be out of bounds today, it's a kind of archetype of my work those days, when every new song I launched left people gasping for breath. That's why I decided to include it in Cancionero.
11- One track in your forthcoming CD, Tonada del albedrío [Tune of free will], is dedicated to Che. Which facets of that "man with no surname", that revolutionary you turn to over and over again, are more important to you?
To me, Che's influence is always swimming against the universal tide. That a more just world is possible, at least in the ways pleaded in the 19th and 20th centuries, has become uncertain in the last two decades. I've seen exploiters who describe themselves as progressive, and how the freshness that all things revolutionary brought with them have ended up reduced to the most regrettable experiences of real socialism. I see media campaigns distorting the sense of human redemption even years after the collapse of Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, many scholars -like Chomsky, for instance- hold that most major media are in the hands of powerful right-wing consortia. Che has always been one of the revolutionary examples that globalization strives to crush. In Tonada… I touch upon three sides of Ernesto Guevara's thoughts that I deem cardinal: his lucid in depicting imperialism, the love that fueled his revolutionary character, and his concept of socialism, the kind which -in his own words- "must not create docile servants of official thought".
12- Last May the U.S. took too long to grant you a visa to participate in a concert in honor of folk singer Pete Seeger's 90th birthday, clearly an act of discrimination at a time when President Obama speaks of rapprochement…
Both countries are marked by many years of hostility. Many mechanisms in the U.S. are still operating within the obsolete framework of the cold war, and the same can be said of Cuba, mitigated by the fact that, historically, we have been the target of their attacks. I'd like to see what share we Cubans in the island will get from the change the new U.S. administration is blazoning. I refuse to believe the American government's goodwill applies only to the Cubans who live there or think like them.
13- At first you were also a comic strip artist -as a matter of fact, some of your vignettes appear in Cancionero- and composed a number of themes about characters such as [Cuban cartoon hero] Elpidio Valdés. Do you still find comic strips appealing?
My songs somehow contain a graphic substance that I got as a reader and a strip cartoonist. There was a time when those comic strips mushroomed in Cuba, but their proliferation was curtailed by economic problems. It's a pity comic strips never really developed in Cuba, even if some of our main artists turned to, and channeled their efforts into, animated films.
14- The New Song Movement was a spin-off of Cuban traditional music, but it was also a breakup with the old genres. In this connection, what other similar cases can you mention, and what Cuban musicians do you like today?
Sindo Garay has always been my favorite hero among all the original songsters. There's a film where he points out duets as one of Cuban folk music's key features. My generation of songsters was known for its diversity, since every one composed what they liked from their own viewpoints. Now and then we performed as duets, trios or quartets, but two-voice pieces were not exactly one of our distinguishing features. It's becoming a more common style among the younger generations of songsters, who boast interesting duets like Karma, Ariel Díaz and Lilliana Héctor, Enigma, and Lien and Rey, two youths from Matanzas province who are doing a great avant-garde job. I could also highlight the excellent string trio Trovarroco from Villa Clara province. But unfortunately the Cuban media seldom covers what goes on in this field of music.
15- Atahualpa Yupanqui is another Argentinean you sometimes mention in your interviews. Do you feel his example lives on?
Yupanqui was a poet whose improvisation skills no one could excel. He took on the music from the Andes and the Argentinean pampas and used it to create a school of universal impact, as masters of the guitar like Leo Brouwer have acknowledged. I first met Don Ata in February, 1985 in a snow-white Berlin, when he was already an elderly man. I had heard many of his records and even seen him on TV, but seeing him right in front of me really pulled at my heartstrings. On that evening, with his unique whispers and crooked fingers, he put together a perfect recital. There I discovered his song Los tres Pablos [The three Pablos], which he wrote for Neruda, Picasso and Casals. It was a masterpiece, and he was outstanding as he radiated his mysterious energy with his usual sober stagecraft. When you witness something like that you learn what art's unbelievable brightness is really like.
 Person of mixed race. (T.N.)
A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.