Interview with Buena Fe singer Israel Rojas, from CubaDebate.
On a computer screen you can see the roof of a house in Havana. You can see palm trees that sway in the wind and, also, the face of a man from Guantanamo who likes to make songs that through art tell the reality of a country and its people, their feelings and their values, as well as their sadness. They are musical pieces that feed on recognition by the people.
The face of that guajiro is that of Israel Rojas, singer-songwriter from Buena Fe, a fusion pop group, which makes intelligent music at the service of ideas, one of the most successful in Cuba. He is recognized by the people of the island and, although it sometimes attacks him, by the diaspora.
The duo is led by Rojas, an outspoken leftist revolutionary, along with Yoel Martínez, another “crazy” from Guantanamo who plays guitar and sings second voice.
If someone follows the work of Buena Fe, they know that it is quality music, critiquing life on the island, because there are detractors who say that in Cuba “nothing happens”, but on the island “life does not stop, because if you stop, you die. Here something beautiful or sad enough always happens that it deserves a song… ”, comments Israel in an interview with La Jornada.
More than 20 years have passed with 11 albums by Buena Fe, which makes songs “that are part of the life of Cubans,” acknowledges the singer-songwriter.
Buena Fe prefers “a thousand times to go out and give its soul singing to their people, than to fill huge auditoriums”, although the Malecón in Havana and the Karl Marx Theatre, in the capital, have been filled too. “I prefer the prize of applause from the people of the smallest town in Cuba than to fill, for example, the National Auditorium of Mexico.”
“Defending eclecticism is not easy”
The group can be a metaphor for what happens on the beautiful island. “That’s right,” says the musician, knowing that they are an eclectic case, like Cuba. But “defending eclecticism is not easy”, even more so, “positioning our message”.
Israel affirms: “The complicated thing has not been creating. The hard thing comes when all that recording does not find its place in the cultural industry that rewards productions that seem more and more packaged. Its a bastard, because we’re running away from being packaged; you run the risk of not knowing how to sell yourself or of people not knowing how to buy you ”.
Isra, as his friends call him, insists that throughout the time of their existence, first as a duo and then as a band, they have seen that there is another problem: “We do not say that we are from the left. We are militants of the left and when you really are, it is very easy to be called a ‘Castroist’ and ‘privileged’. To be a left-wing intellectual you must have a sharp point, in practice. And that’s what Buena Fe has tried ”.
Another issue that should not be forgotten is that, in Cuba, “it seems that the interesting area of ideas was left to nueva trova. It is as if the industry said: ‘There is already a Silvio (Rodríguez) or a Pablo (Milanés) there cannot be others’. Almost always to succeed coming from my country you have to make ethical and aesthetic concessions that divorce you from the people you represent, but, fortunately, we have not lost our way”.
In the news you hear or read: “Guantánamo”, and the gaze turns to the atrocities of a prison and military base of the United States on the island, but what actually appears there are flowers that embellish the best gardens in Cuba.
With hunger it is difficult to fight for utopia, he says
Israel studied law, but he has always liked making songs. He went to university in Santiago at a difficult time for the country, full of concerns, ideas and questions (Cuba’s special period of economic austerity in the 1990s). “With hunger it is difficult to defend utopia.”
After returning to his hometown, Guantánamo, he continued creating pieces until he met Yoel Martínez, who “was a musician. We started as a duet, supported by the Hermanos Saiz Association, which organizes trova festivals throughout the country. And what started as a game ended up being a job, because in 2001, Egrem, the Cuban label, offered to make a record (‘Let me in’) and that was a success ”.
The songs became popular and they had to get used to going “from a couple of normal guajiritos to people that others recognize on the bus (truck), and that drove us to make sure we must keep our feet on the ground.”
Why sing pop?
Because what it is about is liking people. We said to ourselves: “It is difficult enough to defend ideas that are not always popular in themselves because they carry a level of analysis, so we can’t be complicated musically as well”. The aim is that people hear one of our songs, and it makes them think.
Cuba has always been a besieged country and so it is difficult to know the good things there. The virtual world suffers the same aggression as the real world. If you look at the media that have the best digital architecture, they are those that are not in Cuba. They are the first options on the internet to find out what is happening. They are always media adverse to the government and the Cuban people. Buena Fe is attacked for its position with the people who are here, but, no matter how much they attack, we always have a song that saves us.
Songs that can save or give warmth, such as ‘The Force of a Country’, which Israel composed “to honor all those Cuban scientists who gave birth to five vaccine candidates.” Buena Fe had the opportunity to sing to the Cuban scientists, whom he made cry. “Seeing tears in a listener is a tremendous joy.” And there are others, like ‘Das Más’, which inspired a person who suffered an accident and who, when he recovered, gave Israel her crutches. There is also the anecdote of a Cuban journalist from Miami, who wrote him an email that said: “You cannot imagine how badly I am attacked for it, but I admit that ‘Cuatro Cuentos’ is one of those tracks that I put on on Sunday, I pour myself a rum, light a cigar and I am with my family in Havana ”.
In 2014, Buena Fe went to give a concert at the Miami Dade Auditorium, in Florida, where several anti-Castro organizations demonstrated. “We try to respond as artists, from an ethical standpoint” Israel highlights.
“You cannot close your eyes”
What do you say to someone who claims that there is a dictatorship in Cuba?
“What I always say: that we do not live blind to difficulties, shortcomings and bungling. This is a country that is full of things that we could do better. But what nation does not seek to be better than it was yesterday? Denying ugly things that we could do better is the first step to shooting yourself in the foot. However, we must not close our eyes to an economic blockade committed by the United States by law, by “güevonada” and by arrogance. A blockade that is not imposed on a government, but on a people.
“Without the blockade, this country in 10 years would be wonderful, it would have all the good things of socialism and would not experience the shortcomings of every day.”
“Let this country develop”
He adds: “I am only asking that they remove the blockade and allow this country to develop, and if in that time we have not solved structural problems, then I will be the first to take to the streets saying that we have to switch to another form of government, one that, by the way, existed in the time of my illiterate grandparents, the poor of this land, who now have, at least, the opportunity to see their children graduate from a university. Of course, there are difficulties in the labour market due to the blockade. When they give us the opportunity to make those dreams come true, hell, we will talk.”
What are those institutional things that would have to be changed?
An example, in Cuba the issue of gender diversity has been one on which the revolutionary process has been most attacked; however, I can guarantee you that what has been achieved in recent years in this area is tremendous. It is not enough to legislate, because if people do not feel it, if that does not reach the family or the child in school, then it is simply an imposition.
“The problem this country has is that our economy is damaged. We live in a state of survival, but if you allow it to breathe, tomorrow, living in Cuba will not cost blood, sweat and tears, as it costs us every day.
“Why have we not succeeded? Because of the economic war against our nation. In the midst of the pandemic, Alibaba (a Chinese company) could not send medical supplies to Cuba because the planes refused to bring it because of the blockade, as if it were not enough for the United States government to dictate 242 measures of economic persecution.”
He accepts that political communication in Cuba “has been clumsy. We have had an orthopedic press when it comes to touching on our problems. We have played a part in screwing ourselves. Our mistakes have contributed to distorting our reality from outside ”.
Such is the quality of Buena Fe, which has been signed by the music label Metamorfosis, by Ricardo Arjona, whom “I have to thank for being a respectful artist. We were frank with him. We alerted him to what our anchor was. Despite this, he trusted in our work and in Cuba it was welcomed that the group signed with that label ”.
The recent work of Buena Fe is ‘Sea Inside’, an instrumental album that incorporates a book with life stories of the members of the group, and Carnal (2019) won an award at the recent Cubadisco fair, in the ‘trova-pop-fusion’ category. Now they are working on a new album, which Israel says is in progress, it is possible that by the end of this year it will be ready.