Coffee with Fidel

Habana Libre Hotel

Photo by Amy Goodman — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Harald Himsel provides a new blog post on his project to capture the music, legacy, and influence of Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez. (See Harald’s first post.)

Rodríguez was one of the founders of Nueva Trova Cubana in the sixties. Today, he is one of Latin America’s leading musicians with festival fans all over the world. Himsel is a German documentary filmmaker, who is also the managing director of a consultancy firm that works in developing countries.

I am sitting in a very comfortable chair in the lounge of the Habana Libre waiting for Michael to finish his Internet session in the business suite. Michael Hornstein is a renowned jazz musician, one of the best sax players in Europe, the co-producer of this documentary, and my friend. It is said that the hotel has the fastest internet connection in Cuba. This may be true, but it still takes Michael ages to download his emails from the server.

Picture the Habana Libre just over 50 years ago: the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista supported by the italo-usamerican mafia plundering and exploiting country and people is about to draw its final breath. Nonetheless, Conrad N. Hilton, the owner, opens the Habana Hilton Hotel with a glittering party. It is March 22, 1958. For more than a year, guerilleros led by Fidel Castro are fighting the Batista regime. Despite the support of the USA, the guerilleros have gained ground. The old regime will collapse within the next nine months. Fidel Castro enters Habana on January 8, 1959. For months he will lead the country from his new headquarters: the Habana Libre.

In the cafeteria, the waiters are dashing between the chairs, serving coffee, lights snacks, soft drinks, and rum. There is something different. Photos on the wall depict the days when Fidel and his comrades were the only guests — tired, exhausted, and sleeping. His brother Raul Castro, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos never stayed in the Habana Libre due to security reasons. The suite from which Castro led the country for three months escaped the hotel’s modernization in the 1990’s. The suite is left in its original state, but not open to the public.

When Fidel Castro moved into the Habana Libre, Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez was just 12 years old. He was was born in San Antonio de Baños, Cuba in November 29, 1946. His parents were tobacco workers. In 1961 he joined the alphabetisation programme, one of the great achievements of the Cuban revolution. In 1964 he was drafted, and during his time in the military, he started his musical career singing for his fellow comrades. This musical development culminated in 1967 when together with Pablo Milanés and Noel Nicolá, Silvio Rodriguez formed a new Cuban style of music, the Nueva Trova. The songs are messages of life, joy, love, sorrow and death; the songs are about the Cuban people, the revolution; the songs would become known all over Latin America; the songs that would encourage the resistance fighters during the unbearable years of Franco dictatorship in Spain. These songs of freedom, liberty and justice are the songs which many artists in Cuba subscribe to and demand for themselves now, in Cuba today.

Silvio is still a star, playing in front of tens of thousands in Cuba and throughout Latin America. He has produced twenty CDs, the latest soon to be released. His songbook has close to a thousand pages. Silvio has performed all over the world, except for one country. Last year Pete Seeger invited Silvio to come to America to celebrate his 90th birthday with him. Silvio was unable to come: the US denied him entry.

Michael is back from the martyrium of slow Internet access. Before traveling with me to Habana he finished his new CD. The long email exchange has been about the CD cover. He sinks into one of the huge fauteuils, orders a coffee while I switch to a Margarita.

Later on that day, Michael and I will visit Santiago Feliú, a singer/songwriter, a virtuoso at the guitar, a performer par excellence. Silvio was his mentor. Santiago plays for us La Vida, a song, which has stayed with me, and will stay with me forever.

- Harald Himsel

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3 Responses to “Coffee with Fidel”

  1. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » State of Cuban Dance
    February 10th, 2010 23:05

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