On Tuesday, June 1, Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez held a press conference at S.O.B.’s, a world music club in downtown Manhattan.
The audio file with the entire news conference in Spanish is here:
Silvio Rodriguez press conference
The following is an approximate transcript, with many of the questions truncated. (And of course, translation is mine.)
Q: It’s been 30 years since you’ve been here. How do you explain that absence?
My absence is owed to the fact that they didn’t give me a visa. I’ve tried to get one on various occasions for different reasons. Some to sing and others for private reasons and they never gave me one. The reason I’m here now is because they gave me one. (Laughs). In reality I’d lost faith a little—it was a very logical matter, I would say because it was Pete Seeger’s family that had solicited me. I thought it was a very appropriate occasion to clear up that situation that existed. And I never got it. I think I never got it for reasons of time, evidently. We asked for it with much urgency, we were in Paris at the time. And it got there about 20 days later. Finally, I’m very happy to have been able to return to the U.S., which is a country, although many won’t believe it, I admire in many ways, in many senses. I’m happy, I hope to do a good job and that it’s worthwhile for the people who are going to listen to us. Definitely that’s the object of this.
Q: Do you think it’s a change in politics in the U.S? Has the US changed?
Without a doubt it’s changed a little, the politics of the U.S. You can tell. They have taken measures. The situation between the two countries has returned, it seems to me, to where it was before Bush. They’ve left it right there. I don’t think they have advanced more than that. It’s a shame, because sincerely I believe that this situation that exists between the U.S. and Cuba should end. Too much time, too much anguish, too many absences, too much lacking, too much pain. It’s something that should end for the good of everyone.
Q; What would signal that change?
According to me—everything is according to me (laughs). To me it seems important that they would lift the blockade. It wouldn’t only be important to re-start relations between the U.S. and Cuba but also to achieve a renewal of Cubans’ internal life. That would help us a lot as well, I believe.
Q: What kind of change? Change in the revolution?
I believe in the revolution, I continue to believe in the revolution. What I think is that the revolution has in some aspects has grown old and so that we can continue to maintain the conquests for the people that have been accomplished, like health, education, which are things that have been recognized by many non-political international organizations, social achievements that Cuba has, to continue maintaining all that. I think it’s important to evolve in certain ways.
Q: Why did you interrupt the exchange with Carlos Alberto Montaner?
Well, I had explained that. For Carlos Alberto it was like going to his office, it’s what he does every day. But for me no. I have to rehearse, I have to make music for concerts, for films, for things like that. I explained it. He said the next day that the government had sent me to…he’s a person with a lot of imagination, Carlos Alberto.
Q: This change has to do with Obama? Have you had contact with him?
Without a doubt. He suggested before taking power, proposed a different vision towards Cuba. And in general, the foreign policy of the U.S., I think that he has tried to carry out that policy. Evidently he is a man who has his hands completely filled with things, and it’s not easy. Also, undoubtedly he will change the policy toward Cuba—maybe a president who didn’t have so many problems on so many different fronts could do it unilaterally. But having so many problems, economic problems, international ones, the problem of health care here in the U.S., those changes that he wanted to make that would be of great benefit to the population, and they are things that have a lot of opposition, and that I suppose that he has to invest a lot of time and energy to, a lot of dedication. At any rate it would be nice if he could dedicate some of that every once in a while to Cuba.
Q: Do you have hope that he can change things like lifting the embargo?
I don’t think so. Lamentably, I don’t think so. Ojalá. Let’s raise a toast to that.
Q: For about 3 years now, Fidel Castro has been like a virtual leader. Is that how it is for you?
No. It’s a virtual image. He doesn’t appear. They say he appears in the streets, because he walks or runs. There are people who have seen him—oh, we saw Fidel on the corner of so and so. This is rumored, no? But he hasn’t appeared, unless there’s a visitor, who he receives, a head of state or a personal friend, he receives him and then we see it in photos, but that’s all we know.
Q: Do you believe he’s still alive?
(Laughs) And kicking. And kicking.
Q: Do you have a message for the Latinos here?
I think that, for the U.S., of course, we are a neighboring country, although we’ve spent 50 years pulling each other’s hairs. We are neighboring countries; geographically we are condemned to that. So then we have to get along, sooner than later. And for Latinos, of course who are a tremendous satisfaction for me to sing to, and I join their chorus of demands to be treated like human beings, to be treated with respect in this country and whichever country they go to, to work honorably.
Q: With respect to that, can you tell us, what do you think is happening in Arizona, and what is your new musical project. What is your solidarity with this problem in Arizona?
In Arizona I see they want to make a law that is quite controversial, a harsh law that practically what it unleashes is a persecution. A law that seems to be poorly conceived, and for that reason has awakened all that repudiation and rejection. And I think that rejection is good because it doesn’t treat human beings well.
Q: Spain and Cuba have always had a special relationship. Do you think Spain could help lift the blockade?
I think so. I think Spain is doing something even though the opposition in Spain tries to prevent it. Very evidently. Including this whole so-called “Campaña Mediática” which is unleashed because of the death of a prisoner in Cuba because of a hunger strike, something that I respect very much,f that person who decided to do that, I have never condemned that or anything like that. All of that has been used quite a bit by the Spanish right wing to try to undermine the intentions by the Spanish government to change the common opinion in the European Union with respect to Cuba. And they’re launching one campaign after another. They make a platform, the next day they do another crystal tower. Every day they do a different event in that direction.
Q: In the concert in PR, you spoke of the 5 political prisoners in the U.S. and also of the political prisoners in Cuba.
There are people who think that an exchange has been discussed. To me that seems absurd. Because they are two very different situations and also, I don’t know, I personally would not exchange those 5 Cuban prisoners that came to spy on those terrorists that were sending us bombs and things to Cuba. People that were conspiring to do physical damage in Cuba, I couldn’t compare them. Really for me they are two very different things. I think that the so-called prisoners, or the Cuban political prisoners violated laws and for that reason they were sanctioned. I also think that the sanctions were overly harsh. I think that they should all be, if not all, for the most part, on the street, of course those who are in poor health. And I think that our heroes, because those five that are here we call them heroes, should be free; they have been imprisoned for more than 10 years. Under completely absurd charges. I understand that the process of trying them carried many irregularities, a lot of appeals that were not allowed, because it was a trial that took place under a lot of political incidents in the moment it took place. That was also in 2003, approximately, there were moments during which there was a strong irritation between Cuba and the U.S. It was during the invasion of Iraq, and when some Cubans in Miami said, “Today, Iraq, tomorrow, Cuba.” And they started with that over and over. They were preparing public opinion for a direct aggression, so they could jump all over us. And in reality we didn’t like that at all. We didn’t want them to attack us. So what we did was defend ourselves.
Q: You have spoken of evolution and revolution. How is it that in these times, evolution is compatible with revolution?
I’ll be brief with that, because revolution is a circumstantial event, a revolution. And evolution is a constant necessity for societies and human beings. That’s why I say it. Because we always need to evolve, and sometimes, make a revolution.
Q: How is it that you reach young people even today?
That question is not for me. It amazes me that young people come to my concerts. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. What occurs to me is that since I began to compose when I was young, I’ve maintained a little bit of that same mental attitude in the act of composition and in the act of music, and in the act of poetry, and in the act of the necessity of communication with others, I’ve tried to maintain that spirit that was the one I began with. I’ve tried to keep that alive, and it’s probable that by way of my intent to communicate, which are my songs, well, there is a little bit of that calling and that’s what communicates something younger. That’s the only way I can explain it. I have no other way.
Q: What do you have stored up over 30 years to communicate with us in New York?
Nothing more or less than a trajectory through my preoccupations, my occupations, that are reflected in my songs. What have been the things that have preoccupied me; what have been the themes that I have decided for most of my life to bring to my songs? One decides to bring to one’s songs the things that you consider determinedly are important. Although the next day, it might not seem that way. Sometimes that happens. But sometimes that circumstantial moment that makes you write a song, or say something, although as a moment it’s transitory, in a song, it remains alive. And it serves other people in other moments in history because we all have a life that is not similar, but we have it in common. And things happen to us that are sometimes quite similar. What I intend to do, no more or no less, is sing songs where you can find yourself.
Q: Your music is obviously influenced by American music.
I think that the first North American music that influenced me was from film. I’m from a family of cinephiles. From childhood, they inculcated me. My mother brought me to the movies when I was 20 days old. It’s a story that’s told in my family. To the movie house in my town, in San Antonio de los Baños. So since then I’ve been listening to music, the decade of the ‘50s was, let’s say, the decade in which the music of film, the scores for film, in reality, some were magisterial. And they have remained as a reference in the collective memory of many people, and in mine as well. So I remember a lot of films that although weren’t musicals, they had some marvelous themes that would stay in your head, like “Vertigo,” for example. The music from “Vertigo” is something that doesn’t abandon you after you listen to it. The music from “The Man With the Golden Arm,” huh? I think it was Duke Ellington. I found out later it was Duke Ellington but at the time I came out of the theater humming, “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!” That contact with American movies that was a great transmitter of music, I think is the base, the fundamental thing that incorporated American music in my work. That, united with the Cuban music that I heard every day, that sound that I listened to in Cuba, that amalgamation was what little by little made the musician that later I became.
Q: Where do you see yourself at as a composer?
Obviously when I’m not hanging around journalists, I am a composer. I’m making music for films now. My most recent album is called “Segunda Cita,” which is the one I made later, just came out a couple of months ago in Havana, is an album of much more recent songs, songs from 2008, 2009. Some are from 2003 and it’s true that after so many years, you, it’s not that you get bored, it’s that you get tired and you want to do other things. You want to experiment, explore, and when you do music for films you have to get into that, you have to study, you have to try a lot of things, you have to give it some time. It’s not something you can do—at least I don’t have the formation that allows me to make music for a film in one week. I have to set aside two or three months at least. And I tell you, I’m interested in doing those things now, a little more than going on tour. That’s very good for your twenties, your thirties, for your forties, then come your fifties, and later your sixties and then it’s a little more difficult.
Q: It’s been said that in Segunda Cita you have made some critiques of the government. What were the reasons that made you address those problems?
There are a lot of problems in many areas. There are a lot of things in Cuba that have gotten old, like I said before and need revitalization. It’s also true that I have said that all of the criticisms that I make of the Cuban reality, I prefer to make in Cuba. The truth is that, I don’t know, I’m from the country. And they taught me in a way that you don’t go to your neighbor’s house to complain about what’s going on with your family, know what I’m saying?
Q: So then when does the moment arrive?
I don’t know, over there, I struggle and fight every day to make things better and so that things that should be done are done. But I like to do it there, in the breast of my society, and among my own, not to go to my neighbor’s house and complain about what’s going on in my house. That in reality, for my upbringing and my education, that looks ugly.
Q; So what has to change?
Eh, what has to change. The “r” in revolution. Concretely. Evolution—the revolution has already happened, now comes the e-vo-lution.
Q: How do you define evolution?
You can find that in any biology book.
Q: Evolution for Cuba?
Evolution, clearly, evolution for Cuba. Of course. I am referring to Cuba. Political evolution. Social evolution. Although in our society we have things that many countries don’t have. But I want there to be more.
Q: You aren’t afraid that the aspect of survival is stronger than evolution?
I think that can be controlled. I trust that it can be that way, no? But evolution cannot be stopped for that fear. It seems absurd to me.
Q: What might be different about the New York show from the San Juan show?
Many things will be the same but we’re going to change it a little.
Q: Your wife plays the flute with you. In the PR concert she was magnificent.
She’s always magnificent.
Q: I wanted to ask about that personal relationship, because…
We’ve had a relationship for 14 years, we have a daughter, who’s called Malva. She’s seven years old. We met thanks to music. She went to record in a studio where I was, it was marvelous. It’s 14 years she’s put up with me.
Q: But she hasn’t been playing with you for 14 years…
No, she has her own career. She has a degree in flute playing in the Instituto Superior de Música de Cuba and she’s a professor in the Instituto Superior de Arte. She’s got a degree in flute in the National School of Paris as well. Diploma de oro for her year. She has her own career in classical music. She plays concert music, chamber music and that’s what she dedicates herself to constantly. This thing with us she does as something exceptional, in reality. She says that it interests her because it’s music and all music for a musician is interesting, things that benefit us.
Q: In the 60s you were known as the leader of nueva trova and that style of music at the time was known as protest music. How do you identify your style of music nowadays?
Look, I began thinking that I was a singer, or a composer or a troubadour of popular song. And then they began to stick us with all those titles. Some have fallen, some stayed up there half-turned around, half-faded—you always keep being what you are. Over there, the labels they put on you—you’re just a composer of songs who sings them, and that certain things were born at a time in your life, things that influenced definitively, your way of viewing the world and your way, of course, of singing. Period. La nueva trova was a collective experience because suddenly thousands of young troubadours appeared, wanting to sing and it occurred to the Union de Jovenes Comunistas to create a group to put all those kids into. We had all been singing for a while, and when they made that organization, it had been 5 years that we, that group, the initial nucleus of la nueva trova, had been singing.
Q: What kind of advice do you give the student strikers at the UPR?
No, I don’t give advice. They say that he who gives advice is one who can no longer set an example. I think that they don’t have anything they can learn from me. I learned a lot from them, seeing how they are conducting their struggle with that intelligence, with that aplomb, with that serenity, with that absence of hate and all to the contrary, something well thought-out, every time that they say something, their ideas are very clear. It is in reality admirable, how kids from different walks of life, of different means, of families of different levels, are together in that. How kids from different political orientation have united in tune with that marvelous idea which is to preserve the university for all. For all, for the poorest, above all. Because if they do what they want to do, within a few years, there won’t be a university for the poor. That’s the reality. And those kids are fighting for that. And I think that that’s an admirable struggle that is being fought in Puerto Rico and right now is being fought in Chile, and is being fought in other places in Latin America, because there is that tendency to privatize the universities and that is a tendency to exclude the poorest from knowledge.
Q: For someone who has song so much about freedom and has practically been the soundtrack for the revolution, what do you feel in this moment about the revolution?
I said it in a song, “cuando las alas se vuelven herrajes, es hora de volver hacer el viaje, a la semilla de José Martí.” It’s in one of the songs from my last record, “Sea Señora.” The answer to your question is there.
Q: Why didn’t you sing it in Puerto Rico?
Because we’re learning it and we don’t know it well enough.
Q: You inspired many people in El Salvador, and have inspired people to change the world.
What I said, in reality is that songs, poetry, music are not capable of changing the world. And it’s true, I maintain that. Those who are capable of changing the world are we, human beings. Logically, art can influence human beings, who are the ones who change the world. I don’t deny that.
Q: Did the Paz y Fronteras concert mean something to the people of Cuba?
A lot, a lot. Among other things, all that stuff about whether it would happen or not, and there people have their little heart, they want to listen, and want people to come and sing to them. Because the people who come to sing are friends of the Cuban people. Of course. There were more than 1 million people in the Plaza. I don’t know if you know that.
Q: What year was it when you came to NY with Pablo Milanés, and what was the expectation that you had of that visit?
At that time or now?
I don’t remember that visit very well.
Q: What parts of NY do you want to see? A museum?
I don’t know, do they let those of us who live in countries considered terrorist countries in those museums?
Q: Do you think there will be protests at the concert in Florida?
I’m sure they will be. But it’s their right. Let them do it.
Q: Silvio, are you going to see the Yankees? Or the Mets?
Isn’t that what you guys say?
3 thoughts on “He Says He Wants An Evolution”
I had a plan to visit this conference but had to cancel the visit due to some personal reasons but your transcript is good enough to get the things of the day. Thanks
Thank you very much for posting this transcript. I love this mans music. He is an amazing artist.
Do you know if he will have a press conference or give interviews in Los Angeles?