Interview with Silvio Rodríguez by Rosa Miriam Elizalde - Español
Silvio Rodríguez will soon be touring Puerto Rico and the United States. It’s not the first time that he’ll have visited both countries – refusing to view Puerto Rican territory as a North American estate – but this time the first hints about of the trip were muted until the Daily News in New York unearthed the news: the trova singer will perform in Carnegie Hall on June 4th.
The Daily News called Silvio a “Cuban music legend,” emphasizing that only living legends perform at Carnegie Hall. And it’s no exaggeration. Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, James Gang, Nina Simone, Stevie Ray Vaughan…the Beatles in 1964…all have performed there. When the U.S. music industry closed ranks under McCarthyism, the legendary band The Weavers, with whom Pete Seeger sang, found itself forced to break up in 1952. The musicians from The Weavers reunited again at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and in 1980 they repeated the performance in the same theatre, something which served as the subject of the famous prizewinning documentary “Wasn’t that a time.”
With the tour to Carnegie Hall and Puerto Rico confirmed, his excellent performance in Segunda Cita (Second Date) and the fact that we haven’t seen him in concert for some time, it’s a scoop that summons the inevitable desire to ask questions: “I’ll answer them with pleasure, have at it. Don’t delay,” Silvio answered via email. The answers arrived a few hours later.
What is the program, who will accompany you and what repertory will you present? Will it be Segunda Cita?
My compañeros from more than five years will accompany me: the trio from Trovarroco, the drummer and percussionist Oliver Valdés, and Niurka González on flute and clarinet. There will be moments in which I’ll also perform solo on guitar. Out of necessity I’ll have to reprise all my eras because it’s been 13 years since I’ve been to Puerto Rico and 30 since I’ve been in the United States. I decided to include three pieces from Segunda Cita: Sea señora, [Be a Woman] Carta a Violeta Parra [Letter to Violeta Parra] and Demasiado [Too Much]. The sound and production crew that always accompany me at my concerts will also go with us. We’re rehearsing while we wait for the visa.
During your 1978 U.S. tour you wrote two songs, “Leyenda” [Legend] dedicated to the Antonio Maceo Brigade and “Tu imagen,” [Your Image] an evocation of absent love that all Silvio fans know by heart. Why these songs there and not somewhere else?
The Antonio Maceo Brigade, made up of young emigrant Cubans, some of whom were victims of Operation Peter Pan, and the Venceremos Brigade made up of U.S. citizens, were responsible for that first visit of mine. My closeness with the young really enthusiastic Cubans brought forth “Leyenda.” It was the summer of 1978 in New York. I spent those days in an apartment building on New York’s East Side, where my sister Maria lived, who at the time was married to our ambassador to the U.N., Raúl Roa Kourí. Looking out of those windows onto the Hudson River I composed the two songs. “Tu imagen” appeared one morning upon awakening, and it refers to the impossible history of those New York days.
What memories do you have of the trip you made with Pablo Milanés to that country in 1980? Did you ever imagine that it would be three decades before your return?
It was February and it was said at the time that it hadn’t snowed so much for fifty years. I thought then that the same thing happens in cold countries as in hot ones: in Cuba you often hear that it has never been so hot since such and such a year. But for sure, the night that we were going to sing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) the snow set us back two hours. At the University of Massachusetts where we were sharing the program with Duke Ellington’s band, it was dreadfully cold. Same thing in Poughkeepsie, Pete Seeger’s hometown. I remember too that we visited Orlando Letelier’s widow and children. We also became acquainted with the children of the Rosenbergs, who continued to defend their parents’ dignity. The open-air museum in Washington is marvelous. And in New York, the Metropolitan and of course MOMA, where we saw Picasso’s Guernica and Lam’s La Jungla. And just to make you laugh, Christopher Reeve in Superman which had just premiered; I saw it with a bag of popcorn in one hand and a Coca-Cola in the other. Since I went twice nearly back to back to the United States (during the Carter years) I never imagined that the future would be so difficult. And also considering that I was a lot more politically pointed then than now.
According to Joseba Sanz’s book*, the New York press picked up on your remarks regarding the reasons that brought you to the United States in 1978. “We helped to break the blockade, not just economic and commercial, but cultural, imposed by Washington on Cuba.” What would you say today, 32 years later, to the same question that provoked this response?
Now as much as then, it’s not only been breaking the blockade that has motivated me. The United States is one of the most mythologized countries in the world, and what’s worse, we’re only 120 kilometers away and as we know, it’s ever-present in our lives. All that makes it plenty interesting, and I’m nothing more than a simple mortal. On the other hand, more and more people believe that the blockade ought to end and everyone pushes a little where they can, from wherever they are. It’s a push that happens from very diverse points of view but undoubtedly there’s a place where the underpinnings of political positions coincide. I believe that the end of the blockade will mean well-being not only for Cubans but for the world, because the blockade continues to be one of the most inexplicable aggressions dragging on from the history of the last century. And of course, I believe that U.S. leaders themselves will feel quite a bit of relief when at last they can rid themselves of this zone of their own intolerance.
There’s a well-known legend in New York that goes: “Whoever sings in Carnegie Hall stands in History, anchored by excellence.” But this also reminds me of the phrase by Mario Benedetti: “Silvio was never a myth; he doesn’t travel with a pedestal on his back.” How will you present yourself on that stage?
The first time I was in New York, I passed in front of Carnegie Hall. There was a young flautist sitting on the front steps with a small music stand, playing what seemed to me like music from Mozart. There was such a delicacy in the execution and sound that I thought, “This ought to be played inside there.” Maybe he chose that spot so that pedestrians would think that, but nevertheless he was good. For more than 30 years, at times, I’ve wondered what became of that boy. I hope he made it, I hope that all of us achieve what we deserve, by which I don’t mean to say that only prizewinners are worthy. Whatever I am, on any stage you’ll see me busy with the same things: working so that we musicians hear each other well in order to be able to communicate well together, and so that the public hears what we hope they’ll hear.
You’ll find yourself in a United States shaken by Arizona’s Anti-Immigrant Law, by the pathetic Tea Party brotherhood, by a pretend bomb defused last week in Manhattan, by a Wall Street so weak that it practically collapsed this Thursday over a simple spelling error. Aside from Lennon, how much of the utopia is definitively broken in that country and how much of its imagination?
What’s happening in Arizona has awakened universal revulsion, and for good reason. Putting any kind of bomb in New York seems to me to be unacceptable savagery, just as I think of bombs in Baghdad, Moscow or in Havana. Certainly capitalism seems to be shuddering although those who know about economics like to say that it’ll still recover. I don’t know if I’m saying something barbaric, but it seems that the non plus ultra of capitalism, stock market speculation, tends to develop into a kind of self-destructive cancer. There is a Catalan economist, Santiago Niño-Becerra, who says that the system is worn out and without a doubt is going down.
Have you considered performing in Florida? Would you accept an invitation to perform in Miami?
We might actually perform somewhere in Florida, although we’ve not planned on Miami. I know that the majority of the Cubans who live there are not as they are portrayed in their media and I’m so sorry about that.
This tour will start in Puerto Rico, once again with Roy Brown?
Well, if Roy or another compañero wants to perform, as far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome. Until now we’re prepared to fully produce the concerts but it’s not unthinkable that we’d add other voices. For example, if we end up somewhere in Florida, I’d invite my old trova compañero Carlos Gómez, who lives and sings there.
You said that when you thought of Puerto Rico, you didn’t see an island, but something else. What exactly?
I don’t remember that. What I said recently is that in my letters I have Puerto Rico among the Latin American countries and the United States in its own place.
Among your unedited songs from the 1960’s which you published in Cancionero (2008), there’s an anguished secret contained within “Defensa del trovador” [A Troubadour’s Defense]: “…singing is difficult/because the truth must be wanted/much more than the song itself.” Is it still difficult for Silvio Rodríguez to sing?
To begin with, singing is difficult because it means to do something that I consider exceptional, at least in my case. The secret that you mention shows that early on I’d understood that I didn’t sing just for the sound of it but in order to say something. Obviously that assumption has a cost. The anguish comes because it suggests that there are consequences for singing that which may not be pleasing to hear. This is a song that I wrote when I was 22. I won’t say that the trova I’ve done since then has been epic, but it has been risky. Much more risky than that which any sixty-year old could manage with any success. Those who find it difficult to sing today are guys like Los Aldeanos and Silvito el libre. Probably they need to go deeper in certain respects, but it seems essential to me to start by defending their right to express themselves. That’s precisely because I identify with the Silvio of the ‘60’s.
*Joseba Sanz: Silvio: Memoria trovada de una Revolución (1991)
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