Harald Himsel: In Search of Silvio Rodríguez

Photo by Jorge Mejía Peralta — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Harald Himsel is a German documentary filmmaker, who is also the managing director of a consultancy firm that works in developing countries. He is currently working on a project to capture the music, legacy, and influence of Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez.

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 posts from his most recent trip through Havana.

I am standing with Michael Hornstein, my friend and co-producer, at a bus-stop in Habana Vieja. We are on our way back where we are staying, a “casa particular”, a kind of private bed & breakfast lodging in Havana. It’s the P-5 bus we have to take to bring us back from Havana Vieja to Bedada, a part of town where the houses are not in danger of collapsing. The bus is on time — no surprise here — and we get on. It’s half empty, which in Havana means that you can stand comfortably and not risk missing your destination because you can’t get out.

Today is Sunday. The bus driver plays loud music through the intercom of the bus. Most of the songs are known and the passengers sing along. Some dance, and since there is only little space to move, all have to move in the same way. This creates a strange harmony of movements, as the bus drives through the corners of its route, brakes and accelerates, while the passengers follow the music. It’s the choreography written by the rhythm of Cuban life, the life in Havana.

I am searching for Silvio Rodríguez, poet, singer, song-writer and politician, and co-founder of the Nueva Trova, a style of music that poetically reflects the social and romantic aspects of real life in Cuba. Silvio is a superstar in Cuba, or better stated, in Latin America. He regularly draws crowds of tens of thousands. He is completely unknown in the US. Silvio is the opposite of Ricky Martin, Shakira, Santana and other mainstream artists, who are seen in the US as the very essence of Latin American music.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When I heard a Silvio Rodriguez song for the first time — about 5 months ago, played over the loudspeaker of my office phone — I was immediately taken by the incredible harmony of voice, music and poetry (and this, although I didn’t understand a word he was singing since my knowledge of the Spanish language was in a very poor state at that time). It took me only a beat to realize that the 2:51 minutes of the song would change my life. Because at that very moment the idea of a documentary about Silvio was born.

Today is Sunday. It is the end of my first trip to Havana. I have met people of incredible friendliness, I have listened to excellent musicians playing on the darkness and tightness of their small living rooms, where all that fit was a couch, a chair to sit and play guitar, and a piano. I collected footage, recorded music sessions, talked and talked (my Spanish is not very much better now but that didn’t matter). I walked through the parts of Havana that are dangerous, not because of the people, but because of the dilapidated status of the houses which might collapse any minute. I rode the bus, the “machinas”, the taxis. I immersed myself in the real Cuban life for a little time, but long enough to catch a glimpse of the reality, the soul of the “Nueva Trova”, of the poetry and the troubadours.

While searching for Silvio Rodriguez, I found troubadours such as Santiago Feliu and Frank Delgado who play out of the living rooms of their apartments for their audience.

I haven’t found Silvio yet. What I found is the fabric, the pulse, the poetry of life in Cuba. I haven’t found Silvio yet. But it doesn’t matter. It will happen.

I will keep you posted on my search.

- Harald Himsel

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2 Responses to “Harald Himsel: In Search of Silvio Rodríguez”

  1. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » USA Listens to Cuba, Again
    November 19th, 2009 23:12

    [...] New York Times Harald Himsel Reports from Cuba [...]

  2. KadmusArts Playlists » Blog Archive » In Search of the Nueva Trova Cubana
    November 27th, 2009 16:07

    [...] recent guest blog post by documentary filmmaker Harald Himsel talks about his quest for Silvio Rodríguez, one of the [...]

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