Silvio Rodríguez on the U.S. led blockade, Cuban dissidents, music and the media

Silvio Rodríguez: “They’re the same shameless ones who’ve blockaded us for fifty years…” español

By Karina Micheletto

Página 12, Argentina

Translation: Machetera

Silvio Rodríguez is in a not particularly comfortable position: while he carries a symbolic weight, and his name alone recalls an era and particular kind of song – made possible by that very era – the passage of time has presented the challenge of perfecting himself as a troubadour.  The way he has surmounted such a daunting challenge can be heard in Segunda cita [Second Date], the album he recently completed.  The album contains beautiful, powerful songs that are musically enriched by the acoustics of the jazz trio that Rodríguez chose as his accompaniment on this occasion.  “We can’t be eternal prisoners of our past, because we have more tomorrows than yesterdays awaiting us,” says Rodríguez in the interview he granted Página 12 via email, the way he’s preferred to communicate in recent years – during which time his concert appearances have also been scarce – about his new releases, himself, and above all, his country.  What he says poetically, but also clearly, is all about Cuba, and his position is not a comfortable one: his loving and heated defense simultaneously implies a critical view of concrete subjects.  In his new album, his position can be felt in subjects such as “Sea señora” [Be a Woman], a vote for Cuba’s political evolution.  There he says, “Place desire opposite disenchantment.  Go beyond the “R” of revolution,  repair the decrepitude I see, but leave me Maceo’s arm as the driving force and his reason to lead the way.”

Another piece from the same CD, “Tonada del albedrio” [Song of Free-Will] has a special meaning these days, in these parts.  “Guevara the human being said that no intellectual should be paid to think officially.  To be an artificial man ought to be a cause of sadness and coldness, a head without will, a conditional heart,” he sings, and in the liner notes he explains that the verses were inspired by the official line imposed daily in a variety of ways by the media.  Rodríguez also speaks of these “owners of the so-called mainstream media” in his interview: “the same shameless ones who’ve blockaded us for fifty years from everything except their sacrosanct information.”

Between the ballad, the bolero, danzón, son, and jazz – these powerful Cuban musical frameworks – Silvio moves forward through Segunda Cita’s stories.  “But let me begin by mentioning the great musicians that accompany me: Roberto Carcassés on piano, Oliver Valdés on drums and Feliciano Arango on bass,” he says when asked about his musical approach, emphasizing the importance of the sound achieved by this jazz trio, highlighted on the CD.

Segunda cita comes after Cita con ángeles [Date with Angels] (the CD he recorded in 2003) and this time all human beings are invited to think of themselves as cherubim, not necessarily all-powerful.  The titles as well as the cover art suggest continuity.  Why this?

When I released Cita con ángeles, it was an album motivated by the aggression against Iraq, and I knew that it was quite probable that a Segunda cita was on the way.  It was logical up to a certain point that after that universal adventure, there would be a return to the same terrain, on the same terms of inquiry.  Or at least that was how I was inspired and once more I tried to go with that.

In the CD you say that “Song of Free-Will” was shaped based on the media misrepresentations about  Che  [Guevara].  Could you say a little more about the “reports” that set off this song?

They weren’t news reports.  In recent years it’s been more like a systematic effort to disparage revolutionary symbols, among them, the example of Che’s altruism.  They’re bothered that he has become an icon for the youth of the world.  They began to say that his image was being marketed, in spite of his being an anti-capitalist.  It was precisely because he was murdered by capitalism that the legend has emerged and the contradiction in the selling of his image.  If Che had won the battle, there would have been no sense in using him like that, nor would he have permitted it.  Today there are those who dedicate themselves to undermining his memory with grotesque lies.  I realized it was no accident and I said to myself: “here they go again.”  I took textual phrases and put them in a transparent context.  Living as I do in a socialist country, I highlighted the idea that socialism has no need for salaried intellectuals for official thought.  I’d played with something similar some time ago when I sang “I want you free / as I lived / free of other sorrows / and free of me.”

In the liner notes you say, “Those who govern the information media draw the ideological landscapes.”  The penalties associated with a new media law, in addition to the investigation about adoptions carried out by Ernestina Herrera de Noble during the Argentinean dictatorship, opened a debate on the subject in Argentina.  Are you aware of the situation?

I’m not aware of the media law, but yes, I know about the long and painful struggle of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, insisting on being informed about the fate of their loved ones.  I suppose that for some, confronting what happened might be painful, but many others have gone decades living in a nightmare of absences and questions.  It seems to me that all these questions absolutely deserve a response.

Recently it was reported over the wire services that when Pablo Milanés was consulted about the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas Hernández, he expressed his disagreement with the Cuban government’s attitude toward the dissidents.  What is your position?

If it were up to me, I would have given amnesty to these hundred prisoners that some refer to as “prisoners of conscience.”  I believe one has to overcome Cold War logic and that our politics should not be articulated on anyone else’s political terms.  It wouldn’t matter to me if they said that I’d liberated them as a result of pressure.  I would know that I did it because there has to be a change in the old logic, because we can’t be eternal prisoners of our past, because we have more tomorrows than yesterdays awaiting us.  On the other hand, our press – initially for defensive reasons – got used to being very circumscribed and triumphant.  We’ve criticized that a lot, but until now the will to overcome it has not been apparent.  My position is that we all ought to have the right to information, to creating a personal opinion for ourselves about each thing, and to unlimited commentary.  As you will understand, I’m pretty idealistic, because whatever one reads, even critically, tends to influence one.  And when it comes to the news, it’s not just the quality that matters, but also the quantity.

Let’s return then to the previous question, and to your “Song of Free-Will”

Yes, as Chomsky says, the majority of the information that circulates in the world is driven by the rightwing, so you can already imagine what’s constantly put out about Cuba.  In other words, the island is in a hard spot because despite being demonized, it has the sacred duty of not denying rights to anyone.  Against this dilemma, does the news need to be rationed?  Measured?  Censured?  Australia ended up telling Google that it has the right to choose what will be read within its territory.  I believe that Google was the only one to protest; the rest of the world didn’t pay the slightest attention to the news.  However, if China says the same thing as Australia, weeks are dedicated to tearing apart the anti-democratic Chinese Communist Party.  I’m not positioning myself here: I’m saying something that is an elemental truth of our time.  And furthermore I want to say that every second, Cuba is disparaged even more, the majority of the time without any basis, simply because it is what the paying owners of ninety percent of the internet and the so-called mainstream media want; they’re the same shameless ones who’ve blockaded us for fifty years from everything, except their sacrosanct information.  You haven’t asked me, but I would like for you to know that in the recent school term only two piano students have been allowed admission to each Cuban conservatory.  It wasn’t that long ago that a dozen children could enter.  Here’s the “glorious achievement” of this blockade that so many applaud.

How have you managed all these years to juggle your work as a musician and as a deputy in the National Assembly?  Excuse the repeated question, but it’s just that from here, your double profession appears to be a strange combination, practically an oxymoron…

I haven’t been a deputy for two years now.  I was voted deputy for fifteen years by popular vote, not because I ran for office.  In Cuba there are very few professional deputies.  The majority of the [People’s] Assembly is made up of workers from different sectors and they meet twice annually in ordinary meetings.  In any case, while I was a deputy, there was no professional contradiction between being a member of the Assembly and a musician, because it was understood that my work would constantly take me from one place to another.

You say in the prologue to the Songbook [Anthology] edited last year that “When I was twenty years old I was sure that poetry could save the world.”  At sixty-three, what power do you assign to poetry?

Poetry is revelation: it contributes to knowledge, to spiritual improvement, and therefore also to physical well-being.  That’s what I believe.

Your project “Expedition to the center of man” took you to Cuba’s prisons.  How were you enriched by the experience?  Are you thinking of repeating it?

In 2008, painters, filmmakers, writers, poets and musicians of various types participated in this project.  One of the loveliest things was the artistic participation of the prisoners; they have a strong artistic movement.  We always ended up singing together because in many prisons there are very good musical groups.  We were in sixteen prisons, before 40,000 prisoners.  Afterwards I noticed that in Spain they were doing this with opera and it seemed so beautiful to me that I thought of something similar for Cuba, perhaps with chamber music and, why not, symphonic music as well?  But this dream will have to wait.  Under the current economic conditions, I see it as very difficult.

You’ve said that you are not thinking of singing much longer, but that you’ve also publicly expressed your desire to act in Colón.  Is that still on?

As for Colón, it was delayed because it’s being repaired.  I don’t know how that’ll go now…

If you could know how the last years of your life would go, how would you plan them?

I’d keep busy, of course; I’d try to carry out some dreams.  But I believe that I’d spend most of the time with my family.

Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the author and translator are cited.

3 responses to “Silvio Rodríguez on the U.S. led blockade, Cuban dissidents, music and the media

  1. It seems like Silvio has not lived in a capitalistic country like the USA. He seems naive to the power of the media and government to control people’s minds through propaganda.

    • Sorry, I’m not sure I understand the comment.

      “…every second, Cuba is disparaged even more, the majority of the time without any basis, simply because it is what the paying owners of ninety percent of the internet and the so-called mainstream media want; they’re the same shameless ones who’ve blockaded us for fifty years from everything, except their sacrosanct information. “

  2. lovely words from silvio translated by you.

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