Interview by Claudio Vergara published by La Tercera, 27/11/21
Silvio Rodríguez’s 2021 diary has been divided between his artistic past and Cuba’s present. On the one hand, he released a solid album that rescues songs that he recorded in Mexico in 1991. On the other, he has observed the unprecedented street protests against the island’s government. In this interview he delves into both topics.
The 2021 blog of Silvio Rodríguez (74) has two fundamental chapters. Although also very different.
On October 1, the singer-songwriter released his most recent work, ‘Silvio Rodríguez with Diákara’, which recovers numerous songs recorded on a couple of mornings in 1991 in Mexico, with the Diákara supergroup, made up of some of the best instrumentalists in Cuba. It was his own lost album, a kind of time capsule that he kept for decades, remodelled for today with a few bits of technology and new instruments.
“Of course, between one thing and another I recorded other records, I toured, well, I lived a life. Sometimes years went by and I forgot that I had those recordings. But whenever I found them again, the desire to show them returned. At last I have been able to finish them, 30 years later (I took advantage of the pandemic to liquidate several pending jobs) ”, the artist adds, in an interview [with Culto of La Tercera, daily newspaper in Chile] from Havana.
But as he took on the project, the most popular and influential of the island-born singer-songwriters must also have looked at the present. On July 11, a series of street demonstrations took place in his country against the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel, demanding greater freedoms and social and economic improvements, which shocked the world because it was a nation not accustomed to mass demonstrations against it.
Rodriguez speaks of both issues, the artistic and the political, the personal and the collective, in this interview conceived via email.
– Did these protests surprise you too or did you hope that at some point they could happen?
[SR] After the merciless blockade that the imperial regime has imposed on us for 62 years and Trump’s 243 extra suffocation measures; after hoping that Biden would at least lift Trump’s measures, as promised in his election campaign, and failing to do so; after having named us a country prone to terrorism, empire of evil, backyard; After the suspended remittances, the decline in tourism (our first industry), and to top it all after 18 months of pandemic, it was quite logical that expressions of exhaustion would appear…Sometimes I wonder how any other country in Latin America would be – Chile itself, for example, if they had been tortured for 62 years, without interruption, by the most powerful empire on earth. Without being able to do bank transactions or obtain loans, without the shipping companies or ships being able to go neat its coasts or avoiding millionaire sanctions, as they do to us Cubans.
–Before the demonstrations, Díaz-Canel appeared on television ordering the revolutionaries to take to the streets to silence the protests and defend the legacy of the Revolution. He also attributed the discomfort to the US embargo. Do you think that the blockade is the only thing responsible for what happens in Cuba? Or can you detect other internal situations, of the government itself, that have brought citizens to this point of annoyance?
Of course, the blockade is not solely responsible for our difficulties. But if those who design it did not believe that it is fundamental, they would have already lifted it. That would have been the ideal policy to demonstrate the failure of the Cuban thesis. So why don’t they lift it? Is it because they don’t want the world to see what Cuba can be without blockade? They surely suspect that we would be an even more supportive country; a country that would possibly make vaccines and distribute them in all the countries where there are none, in so many places where those who govern do not take care of their peoples. Without a blockade, Cuba would be an even more generous and supportive country, that is, a terrible danger for universal selfishness.
According to data from Cubalex, an independent legal representation agency, more than 800 people were arrested on July 11, and many more in subsequent raids. A month later, 371 people were still in detention. It was also recorded that there were cases of police abuse. The government called most of the protesters “criminals”, “mercenaries” and “confused”. Did Díaz-Canel respect human rights and the freedom to demonstrate?
A government may err in assessing the people who make a protest; but it is one thing to be wrong in words and quite another to send battle tanks and troops armed to the teeth at the protesters, firing shotguns at the crowd, killing and removing eyes, as I have seen happen in other countries.
-Days after July 11, you made a call to the Cuban authorities on your blog, asking for the release of the detainees from the protests that “were not violent,” promote “more dialogues” and exercise “less prejudice, less desire to hit. and more desire to resolve the mountain of pending economic and political issues ”. Do you think that has been fulfilled?
I started by doing it myself, because I spoke with the opponents. But there are orthodox sectors of the Cuban government that have obstructed changes that were even announced in the two most recent party congresses. In my opinion, Díaz Canel and his government understand the need to break a certain inertia and are working in that direction. Laws have recently been passed to prove it; specialists from various sectors are also being debated and listened to. There is evidence of scientists and academics working with the government right now. All of that is hopeful.
-The most eloquent demonstrations against the government have come from young musicians who make so-called “urban music”. The most famous case is that of Yotuel Romero, Descemer Bueno, the duo Gente de Zona and the rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, who made the song ‘Patria y Vida’. Did you hear it? Do you have an opinion on the song that modifies the motto “Patria o muerte” used by Fidel Castro?
It does not seem fair to me that in that list you have ignored Silvito el Libre, an outstanding Cuban rapper who for years has been at the forefront of these styles (Silvito el Libre is the son of Silvio Rodríguez, and openly critical of the Cuban government). On the other hand, there is a video of Fidel, speaking in a school, where at the end he says the phrase ‘Patria y vida’ [homeland or life], inspired by a girl present. Look it up, it’s on the internet. Alfredo Guevara [former director of ICAIC] used it years ago, at the closing of a film festival in Havana. Patria y Vida [Homeland and Life] is a beautiful motto, I have no qualms about repeating it, although it is essential for me to say ‘Down with the Blockade’ [Abajo el bloqueo] first. And about the song that you mention, I have been told about it, although I have not listened to them. By training I prefer another type of music.
– Regarding the same, do you think that there is a young generation that no longer believes in the Revolution?
It is true that there are young artists who are active in the opposition and that they are widely publicized. It is also true that artists who are not active in the opposition are not disclosed. It is evident that everything that the Cuban government faces is being used as never before. Much of the world press is focused on that. Every day we are on the front pages. At the same time, the pandemic has been used not to lift the blockade, but to tighten it. This occurs just after the generation that started the revolutionary process, and also when in several congresses in Cuba systemic errors are recognized and changes in the economy are announced that may improve our results. It occurs even when Cuba is the only third world country that has five successful vaccines against Covid-19. Nothing is accidental. They do not want us to advance, they want to tighten the siege more and more by dint of propaganda and suffocation measures. It is the punishment to Cuba for having dared to be herself.
-Many musicians of your generation were very critical of the government’s actions as of July 11. Pablo Milanés, Leo Brouwer, Chucho Valdés and Paquito D’Rivera expressed strong words against the system that prevails in Cuba. What reflection does that deserve? Music was for decades the best ambassador that Cuba had and many principles of the Revolution reached other countries thanks to the songs, especially yours. Have historical musicians also started to move away from the legacy of the Revolution?
I know and admire the musicians you mention. I heard what Leo [Brouwer] said and of course I share it. He did not mention a single thing that he did not say in Cuba. We have been friends for more than half a century, I am aware of his humanism, his deep commitment to our country and even his radical anti-imperialism.
-One of the concepts that critics repeat the most – both domestically and abroad – when referring to Cuba is that of “dictatorship.” What do you think when you hear or see that word linked to the government of your land?
There is not a single society on earth, not a single government, that has had everyone in agreement. Confucius said so. They have been suffocating Cuba for more than 60 years, attacking it, slandering it, and when it defends itself it is dictatorship. It may be, that they have forced her to be to some extent. Who forced her? The greatest dictatorship on the planet: the one of selfishness, the one of money, the one that doesn’t believe in love but in usury, the one that says “give me or I’ll make war on you”, and all those who devoutly applaud the crumbs it distributes.
-In your new album, you recover a very rocky and vigorous version of one of your classics, ‘El Necio’. What meaning did that song have for you at that time, in 1991?
‘El Necio’ (‘The Fool’) is a song of resistance against abuse. It is a song that refuses to renounce mercy and solidarity. The Fool is a rebellious song and I think Christian.
There is a phrase from ‘El Necio’ that says: “They say they will drag me over rocks / when the Revolution collapses.” Do you think that any of that song can be applied in the current Cuba of the outbreak?
No system has used more power to perpetuate itself than capitalism, with all that it has stolen and killed in the world. That is why ‘The Fool’ also says:
“I want to continue playing on the losing side,
I want to be left-handed rather than right-handed,
I want to make a congress of the united,
I want to thoroughly pray ‘a son of ours’.
They will say that madness went out of style,
they will say that people are bad and undeserving,
but I will depart dreaming mischief
(perhaps multiply loaves and fishes) ”.
[“Yo quiero seguir jugando a lo perdido,
yo quiero ser a la zurda más que diestro,
yo quiero hacer un congreso del Unido,
yo quiero rezar a fondo un hijo nuestro.
Dirán que pasó de moda la locura,
dirán que la gente es mala y no merece,
mas yo partiré soñando travesuras
(acaso multiplicar panes y peces)”.]
-In your last album, and in your discography, you have been linked to Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz, fusion and even rock, a genre with which you connected after The Beatles. But this album seems to take the relationship with those sounds to a much more expansive level. There are electric guitars, keyboards, horns, there is a very resounding way of singing. Do you think that here you highlight a creative dimension different from that of the rest of your work?
(The album) ‘Todo Con Diákara’ is music composed and recorded in the transition between the 80s and 90s of the last century. Except for the horns and some woodwind, which we put in a short time ago, replacing some keyboards. The version of ‘El Necio’ is the first orchestration made for that song. It was a few months after having composed it. I added the voice and the choral parts a few years ago, and ‘El Necio’ was one of the two songs that we couldn’t finish in Mexico.
-How is your relationship with jazz and rock still?
In Cuba there have always been very good musicians of these styles, generally fused with our music. I have been fortunate to be born and grow up in a country where its talents have had very solid art schools, to be friends with musicians of all tendencies and to collaborate with many of them.
‘About parents’ is a very expressive track on the album, both in the lyrics and in its musical architecture. What vision of parents did you have at the time and how much did it change with your own parenting experience?
In 1969, when I wrote ‘About Parents’, we were barely out of adolescence and our songs, our way of seeing some things, and of saying them, went a little beyond the usual. Having inaugural and shock experiences in youth is useful later, when we become parents, because it makes us fully understand and respect our children.
-‘Song from the Past’ [‘Cancion del Pasado’] also seems like a very evocative song, but one that celebrates the past rather than longing for it. Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person?
I wrote ‘Song from the past’ for a documentary, in my time with the ICAIC Sound Experimentation Group. At that time, despite what Jorge Manrique said, it seemed to me that all the past times had been worse. The truth is that the past lives among us in multiple ways. When you have travelled a good stretch of life, it is normal to remember things from yesteryear, although, in my case, I always manage to have different plans and projects.
“Is there anything you have done – or haven’t done – that you regret?”
I regret not having studied more. I tried to do it twice, but it didn’t work out. Maybe I should have tried a third time.
– Are you worried about your legacy, what is said about you when you are gone?
I ‘ve been very lucky. In life I have been able to see that some songs that I composed survived several decades. I am deeply grateful for that, but I am under no illusions.
–In this album you sound exultant, vital, jovial. How do you remember that Silvio Rodríguez from 1991, aged 44/45? Do you miss something about that person?
That person is me, although I understand that you want to underline what happens when you live many years. It is not something you regret, much less if you appreciate what you have experienced.
–For the rest, what image do you have today of those recordings in Mexico with Oscarito Valdés Jr., Emilio Vega and Chucho Valdés, on tour, spending so few days in the studio, with a hectic and eager rhythm to record?
We had just finished a tour, we were prepared; each one did his part.
–What is the most important thing that Diákara gave you as an artist?
The wealth of working with very creative musicians and, obviously, this album.