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Silvio is back in the barrio

Silvio is back in the barrio

During the summer of 2011 the popular Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez and a team of collaborators embarked on a project whose goal was to perform in the less advantaged neighborhoods of the city and reach out to audiences who owing to the lack of habit, or money, do not usually attend the few concerts given by the musician in the capital’s theaters, always to capacity audiences.

Places like La Timba, El Fanguito, Romerillo, Jesús María, Lutgardita, or Bello 26, which make many Habaneros frown and maybe even swear under their breaths, were chosen for the performances by Silvio and a small group of musicians made up of his wife, flutist Niurka Rodriguez—one of most outstanding musicians today, gold medal graduate of the Paris Conservatorire; drummer Oliver Valdés; the Trovarroco Trio, with guest performances by classical guitarist Victor Pellegrini; singer Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista Social Club fame; the vocal group Sampling; and singer Kelvis Ochoa, among others.

Driven by the desire to know on site how audiences so different from the trovador’s regular followers—professionals, writers, artists and university students—would react, I decided to attend the concert scheduled for October in the neighborhood known as El Canal in the municipality of El Cerro, residential area of mid-19th century bourgeoisie, whose rundown former luxurious villas are stony witnesses of the time when the wealthy families emigrated to El Vedado and El Cerro was filled with the working class.

An exhaustive study by MSc. Octavio Danel Ruas has identified the principal problems in this municipality as “social indiscipline, school failure and dropouts, children with behavioral problems, voluntary unemployment, domestic violence, high rate of alcoholism, problems related to drug abuse, prostitution, the reintegration of ex convicts into society, the overall situation of housing and water systems.” So armed with a very modest camera, I went to El Canal, which has a population of little over 20,000 thousand people, mostly black and mestizo, and takes its name from the old cast-iron water pipeline covered with stone arches, known as the Fernando VII Aqueduct—the second one built in Havana—which rises to the surface precisely in this territory and carries the water, without pumping, to the neighboring municipalities of Plaza de la Revolución, Centro Habana and Old Havana.

The concert was scheduled for 7:00 pm, but I arrived around 5 so as not to miss the preparations. Silvio’s diligent crew was already there supervising last minute details. The platform that was to serve as stage had been mounted on the corner of Salvador and Recreo Streets. Someone said that the President of the People’s Council of El Canal—a kind of small village mayor—had arrived. He became the first of several surprises which that Sunday evening had in store for me. His appearance had nothing to do with the typical Cuban officials of stern expression and conventional attire. Rogelio López, a well-preserved man in his fifties, wore shorts and T-shirt, had a tattoo on one arm and wore an up-to-the-minute hairstyle.

Noticing my surprise, he said that he had been “born and raised” in El Canal, was a Math teacher and had devoted more than half of his life to the neighborhood, first as a delegate to the Poder Popular in a constituency, and then as president of the People’s Council. Eloquent and confident, he did not conceal the area’s social problems, or his commitment to transform them. He spoke proudly of small victories and of the merits of his community with a great sense of belonging and a spirit of solidarity among neighbors. And on the pretext of showing me El Canal, he gave me a tour of the surrounding streets.

Back at the street corner where the concert was to take place, a few minutes to go before the concert began, I saw only small scattered groups of onlookers, and some children trying to climb the light towers. But Silvio’s crew seemed not to worry. With 19 performances prior to this one, they felt confident: “When the music starts, this fills up with people.” At almost 7 o’clock, the troubadour made his entrance and quickly headed to a humble home, whose owner had more than willingly accepted to make it the artists’ dressing room. Right on the dot, escorted by Niurka, Oliver, Trovarroco-Rachid López, Cesar Bacaró and Maikel Elizarde, Silvio went on stage.

Silvio’s entrance was met with applause and cheers from a crowd which had grown out of the blue and already packed the street. The more fortunate ones had taken over balconies and rooftops, which gave the better view of the show. As an admirer of Silvio for many years, I have followed his presentations in Havana, and while on business trips abroad, I have also been able to attend some of his performances. Always, I have felt a subtle distance interposed between him and the audience, perhaps because of his avowed shyness. However, a smiling, warm, composed Silvio appeared on stage, ready to reciprocate the love he received from so many people in Cuba through his songs. He briefly explained the main reason for his tour of Havana neighborhoods: “to take the music out of theaters and concert halls and bring it to where the people live.”

For nearly an hour and a half, Silvio sang for a compact multitude which continued to grow with nightfall. Old well-known songs such as “El papalote,” “Óleo de mujer con sombrero,” “Te doy una canción,” “Unicornio,” “La maza,” and other more recent ones like “Cita con ángeles” and “El escaramujo” were chorused by the crowd. When he sang “Ojalá,” the multitude sang along with the solemnity of a hymn. The audience asked for more and the trovador happily acceded to their wishes with disregard to the program which had been carefully prepared.

He sang about love, his country, significant events and the hopes and frustrations of ordinary people. It was the usual Silvio, the one I had always known, and yet a different one, this Silvio who has sung at Carnegie Hall; who has toured prisons in Cuba singing to the inmates; the very young Silvio who was banned from Cuban TV in 1968 and is nevertheless branded as pro-government; the one who has sung with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leo Brouwer, and with Juan Formell’s Van Van band. Whites, blacks, mulattoes, men, women, old, young became a perfect giant chorus which backed the excellent performance by the musicians. When the concert finally ended, Silvio left the stage in the same way in which he had come—smiling amidst applauses, shouting and outstretched hands.

Then, the poet Juan Nicolás Padrón took the stage to present a donation of books that Silvio, with the collaboration of several Cuban publishing houses, was making to the El Canal People’s Library and two schools there. He also presented the next perfumers: the popular singer-songwriter Kelvis Ochoa and his band, and the guest musician, prize-winning pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa. Kelvis’s music got the people singing and dancing, happily and unrestrained, As I walked away from El Canal that evening, I decided to attend another of Silvio’s concerts in another of these modest, working-class barrios, where etiquette is blown to the four winds, and feel the magic of the evident tight communion between the people and the singer. September 2012

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