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A raw, edgy–but–lyrical singer–songwriter, achingly funny and hailed as one of the finest trovadors of his generation. By anyone´s standards, this young man is a huge musical talent. So how is it that a few years ago, tremendously impressed by a solo concert, I asked for a CD and instead was given something scribbled on the back of an old bus ticket? It was the address of friends in Havana who, he said, had all his songs on their computer. But, hey, no problem (they´re lovely people), I should call round with a blank CD so they could burn them all for me. And when I went to a concert this year and an Italian friend asked the same—for a recording of his music—the answer was, frustratingly, unchanged.
Roly Berrío—37 going on 18, in old jeans and crumpled T–shirt, guitar always close by—may be the best young Cuban Trova musician since sliced bread, but he still doesn´t have a solo album recorded, a recording deal in process, nor, by the look of it, imminent possibility of either. And this, despite one of Cuba´s top labels, EGREM, offering him a deal two years ago. So what on earth is the story?
Born into a poor but educated, cultured family, and during a period of intense intellectual activity in Cuba´s third city, Santa Clara, Berrío´s first love was acting. He was expected to study theatre but—“a real blow”—was turned down. He then chose music and, during the hardest years of the Special Period (1991–94, with the fall of the Soviet Union), he worked intensively on his own songs and began to develop what was to become a singular voice in the world of Cuban Trova. ??Santa Clara gave Berrío the opportunity to be part of a pioneering group of musicians, artists and writers.
It was there, too, that he found a cultural home in Ramón Silverio´s famous community arts centre, El Mejunje. During this period, he co–founded the very successful and prize–winning trio En Série. Together they performed all over the island, recorded an album (Unicornio label), and toured in Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia and Spain. Finally, in 2003, after 12 inspired years together, two of the group left for Europe and Berrío, staying, decided to go solo.
These past few years have seen more of the same success in many ways. Employed as a musician by the State, still innovative and prolific, Roly has given concerts in almost every Cuban province and has played gigs and festivals from Cyprus to Venezuela, Argentina and Spain. Then, in 2007, came the offer to record with EGREM. But now we´re midway through 2009 and he´s still not got a CD for me. I ask him to explain.
“Some of it,” he sighs ruefully, “is because I´m simply not ready. I haven´t written a new song for over a year now because I´ve been totally immersed in arranging old ones. That´s a very slow process for me because I´m a composer, not an arranger. I need to find an arranger to work with, someone who really understands my vision, someone who will see it all the way through. I´m very conscious that I´m spending far too much time on my own, arranging, instrument by instrument, and that´s just not my forte. The other thing is that I work much better and more quickly in a team. Oh, and I also need someone to organise and produce me. I just can´t do that. But the thing is, I know all of this means money and that… that I definitely don´t have! I have all the songs and most are pretty much arranged, but… ” he trails off.
These wonderful songs—he has actually written over 300—range from ones of love lost and found and of hitching back home, to the very funny Cucaracha Song (“Don´t squash the cockroach! It might be a princess or a woman from a past life!”). The lyrics are poetic, searching, often humorous.
“Ideas come easy,” he says. “For me, music is an overwhelming necessity, this necessity I have to write, to play. My songs are a fusion but very Cuban in that I take the essence of certain styles—cha–cha–cha, guaguancó, filin, for example—and then make it my own. My aim, of course, is always to find a ‘voice´ that´s mine, that´s different.” He plays weekly in his beloved home city and, apart from being contracted to perform around the country, also has a fortnightly solo peña (small, informal concert) in Santa Clara. But this kind of talent needs more than a hometown public, no matter how devoted, and Roly knows that he has to push, to really focus on getting his music out there. Google his name and out spill pages and pages but he doesn´t have (for lack of Internet access) a MySpace page. A recent prize–winning TV short about him sits in my computer. His computer is presently broken and although his 30 dollar–equivalent monthly salary is generous by Cuban standards it won´t cover repair costs nor, remotely, buy the other equipment or people he needs for his work. Add to this a house that really is falling down and a son to support, and you can see life is productive but pretty tough.
Berrío says he has already achieved what he dreamed of as a boy: he has met Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, has acted, had his music used in film (Habana Blues) and has written and performed consistently. And so, what more? The “more” is that none of us have his music in our hands, on our ipods or in our homes and so we are missing out on something unique, exciting, inspiring. So… if anyone out there reading this has a couple of grand to spare and would like to support this exceptional Cuban trovador, please write to me. I have listened to many musicians from all over the world but, in my books, Roly Berrío is a one–off, distinctive talent that needs help to at least get his work out… here, there and everywhere.