Ay la Vida: A Hippie in Communism

Santiago Feliu

Harald Himsel continues his journey through Cuba to film a documentary on the music and influence of Silvio Rodríguez. (See Harald’s other KA-Blog posts from Cuba.) Rodríguez, one of the founders of Nueva Trova Cubana, is still one of Latin America’s musical stars, with festival fans all over the world, and he is inspiring a new generation of politically engaged artists. Himsel is a German documentary filmmaker, and also the managing director of a consultancy firm that works in developing countries.

Habana is certainly the only place in the world where, when changing taxis, you can step out of a 1952 Chevy and continue your trip in a Russian built Lada. My co-producer Michael and I were on our way to meet Santiago Feliú, one of the younger members of the ‘Nueva Trova’, or better to say the ‘Novisima Trova’.

Fortunately for us, we did not need to change taxis. The ‘52 Chevy we were riding in was in immaculate condition. It is hard to say if the car had been restored to its former glory, or — and this seems more the case — was just kept in perfect shape and condition all those years. These old American street cruisers are part of Habana, and are part of the cultural heritage. This is why, much to the dismay of many collectors, these ‘maquinas’ are not for sale. Their export is prohibited. So, millions of dollars worth of old-timers are ploughing the streets of Habana — as taxis. They pick up people on their route through the city, drop them along the way, only to pick up new passengers a few yards further down the road.

We were rolling along smoothly. The interior of the car was a kind of turquoise, with the original steering wheel. I don’t know if the seats were still the originals, but they were white leather, of course, and you could see the years’ wear. A CD player had replaced the radio. The music was enhanced by the addition of many coloured blinking lights. Although the car would have been perfect for ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes,’ we listened to the latest pop songs from the US charts. Suddenly our ‘taxista’ switched to Compay Segundo, taking us back 55 years — before the revolution.

After a thirty minute drive, we reached our destination: a high-rise building somewhere in a rather unspectacular part of Habana. Nonetheless, as I was made aware right away when I began to take a shot of the building, this was a very exclusive building for only special people. In fact, this was the first and the only time when I was not allowed to film in Habana.

We went up to the 11th floor where Santiago Feliú was expecting us. He was casually dressed in Adidas sports gear, sporting a cigarette in his hand. His apartment was rather small. His living room was furnished with a sofa, a small side table, an armchair, and a piano. It was hard for me to set up the film and sound equipment, because the place was so narrow and tight. It was already getting dark, so the low light made it hard to film — but the space and light changed when Santiago started to play.

Santiago Feliú was born in Habana in 1962. Together with the other ‘cantautores cubanos’ such as Carlos Varela, Gerardo Alfonso, Frank Delgado, and Kelvis Ochoa, Santiago was part of the Novisima Trova movement in Cuban music. His musical influences range from Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Formell (the ‘Cuban Mozart’) to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, to authors such as Hermann Hesse, Michael Ende and Franz Kafka. In the early days of his career, Silvio Rodriguez was his mentor and opened the doors for him. His brother Vicente Feliú, also an acclaimed and well-known member of the Nueva Trova, supported Santiago, as well. It was not only the way Santiago played, but the composition of his songs that revolutionized the Trova: the guitar no longer served to only accompany the singer, but was used for a deeper, more sophisticated role. In Santiago’s songs, lyrics and melody are one. They are intrinsically intertwined.

His songs are poetic, with a touch of despair, of disillusion, of pessimism. They are telling us about his craving for Cuba as it once had been and, as he believes, no longer is. He sings about the meaning of life from a very personal point of view. Santiago regularly tours throughout the South American continent. His music gave him the opportunity to travel and to be exposed to other cultures, which are among the defining moments of his life.

In his travels, he always looked a bit eccentric. He was tagged as ‘A Hippie in Communism’. He went on the ‘Shining Path’ in Peru and joined the EZLN, the ‘Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional’ in the Chiapas region of Mexico. This non-violent movement is for Santiago the only dignified guerrilla organization that exists.

Santiago’s songs don’t offer solutions; they do not explain the world. They ask questions — about the revolution, about love and hate, about the very essence of life. During the interview, Santiago played five songs, one of which was my favorite: Ay la Vida.

While he was playing the song, I looked out of the window. The sun had set, peacefully painting the sky in myriads of colours. Outside, time stood still for a moment, nothing moved. It was as if Habana wanted to stop and listen to Santiago Feliú.

- Harald Himsel

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3 Responses to “Ay la Vida: A Hippie in Communism”

  1. Admiral Theater Cuban music and reshowing of first film :The Longtail Music Catalog
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