Rap, Peasants and Grammy

El Libre

KadmusArts’ blogger from Cuba, Harald Himsel, has been tracking the intersection of music and culture in his posts about Silvio Rodríguez and the making of a new documentary film. Himsel is a German documentary filmmaker, and also the managing director of a consultancy firm that works in developing countries.

We meet with Silvio Lian Rodriguez, better known in Cuba as ‘El Libre’. Rodriguez lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Vedado. Rodriguez is a rapper, often appearing together with ‘Los Aldeanos’, a rap group from Habana. Los Aldeanos started out in 2003 when they held their first public concert. The audience consisted of five people.

Los Aldeanos don’t think of themselves as the pioneers of hip-hop in Cuba, but as the creators of ‘rap consciente cubano’ (conscious Cuban rap). Their songs focus on the social, economic and political problems of today’s Cuban society. Without a doubt, they are anti-establishment, questioning the authority of the government to rule over the people.

The lyrics of Silvio El Libre are a far cry away from the delicate and revolutionary poetry of his father, Silvio Rodriguez. The son’s lyrics are hard and direct and at times no less vulgar and obscene than those of their colleagues in the ‘free’ world. These lyrics are not romantic; they don’t play with words and grammar; they are down to earth, the Cuban earth.

The day after visiting El Libre we travel to the Biosphere Reserve ‘Sierra del Rosario’, south of Habana. We are sitting in a nice, comfortable and air-conditioned bus from the Cuban travel agency. With us are several other Cubans and a few Spaniards. A part of the Sierra del Rosario is called Las Terrazas, formerly an old French coffee plantation and now an eco-friendly tourist attraction. Las Terrazas is an artists’ village these days, the coffee plants are merely decoration. Hanging attached to steel ropes, we are sailing 30 metres above the ground through the canopy of the forests, getting a bird’s eye view of the village and the Reserve. Las Terrazas was also the home of Polo Montañez. Polo Montañez was born Fernando Borrego Linares in Sierra del Rosario, Pinar del Río in 1955. From early on he worked on the farm, driving tractors, milking cows, assisting on the family farm. But he would also go from house to house singing. Within the borders of his village he became known as the Guajiro Natural — the Natural Countryman. But it was not until 2001 when he became known all over Cuba. His song “Un montón de estrellas” (A Mountain of Stars) became a top hit, and not just on Cuban radio. He sang about what he knew: the life and hardships, the joys and tears of peasants. Polo was a very humble man, charming not only Cubans but also more and more an international audience with his simple, moving music. At home he was engaged in many community projects, which he supported in many ways. In some of his songs he set music to the poems of Antonio Guerrero, one of the five Cubans imprisoned in the United States.

Polo Montañez died in 2002 as a result of a traffic accident. For a week, the doctors were battling for his life. All over the country, the people followed the news in agony. Numerous messages not only from Cuba but from all over the world were pouring in at his modest home in Las Terrazas, all expressing hope for his recovery. One letter from Italy stated that “A man like him — of the people, modest and ordinary — knows how to win everybody’s affection. He’s in all our hearts and we are proud of him.”

We are heading to Habana, just in time to attend Silvio’s free open air concert in ‘La Corbata’. La Corbata is one of those ‘barrios marginales’ where life is even harder than in the rest of the country. There are roughly 2000 people living in La Corbata, mostly in poor housing. A drunkard once tied a tie — una corbata — around a tree marking the entrance to this part of town. And suddenly the area had its name — a story too nice for reality, apart from the drunkard. The stage is set up on the main street of La Corbata; we are welcomed by our friends from Silvio’s studio. Silvio plays with his band from the Segunda Cita album — all of them outstanding musicians. Silvio’s wife plays the flute and clarinet. There is hardly any need to sing for Silvio. The audience, the people from the ‘barrio’ standing in the street in front of the stage or sitting on the rooftops of their small houses, has taken over the singing part. They are drinking in the lyrics from Silvio’s lips as if they were drinking ‘Habana Club’ rum (which in fact they did). We are standing in the middle of the crowd and right next to us stands a tall man in jeans and sneakers; wearing his white shirt over his jeans, half open. He has a dark beard showing signs of grey; his thick black hair flows long, touching his shoulders. His name is Abel Prieto Hernandez and he is the Cuban Minister for Culture. I am looking around: where are the guys with the buttons in their ears, whispering into their wrists? However, apart from two policemen standing more or less disinterestedly close to the huge sound mixer there is nobody. No secret agents, and no seemed to be a plain-clothes policemen under cover. Abel Prieto Hernandez is in intense discussion with some of the villagers. I can’t catch anything of what they are discussing but it is quite obvious: it has certainly has less to do with culture and more with the conditions of the ‘barrio’.

The concert ends with Silvio’s version of Pablo Milanes’ song ‘Yolanda’; the audience requested it.

A few days later we met Silvio El Libre again. He was just preparing to leave with Los Aldeanos for a three-months tour through the colleges of the USA. Meanwhile his father was nominated for a Grammy because of his latest CD Segunda Cita: Silvio’s musical homage to 50 years of Cuban revolution.

- Harald Himsel

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3 Responses to “Rap, Peasants and Grammy”

    October 18th, 2010 04:56

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    October 23rd, 2010 13:48

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