Your stutter and beard took me by surprise, up to then I was only used to the millions of whys, that with your verses and notes you asked of the state, your voice was full of concern, in it not a trace of hate. A key part of the New Song Movement triptych you were in those years, although there were also others it was always so clear, that Silvio, Pablo and you were blazing the trail, which to thousands of Cuban youngsters was our own Holy Grail.
That night at the theatre, the first time I saw you live, not for a single second the thought crossed my mind that one day would arrive, when I would not only mourn your untimely demise but the impact you had on thousands of Cubans who have now bid you goodbye. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht via Silvio’s dream of snakes, there are singer-songwriters who sing one day and do not make many mistakes. There are others who sing one year and manage better, compared to the former they are musical go-getters. There is a third group who can go for many lustra, countless plaudits they receive like a heavyweight boxer. Yet there are also those composers and performers who inspire generations, who sing, not just to their own country, but also to other nations. We call them the indispensable ones, without whom life would be dark, bereft of the sun.
That night at the theatre I realised you were that person, so did everyone else, of that we were certain. On the way to the show, my mates by my side, we sang and we joked, we still had our pride. We were the chosen ones, we kept hearing, for us there were neither borders nor for that matter a glass ceiling.
That night in 198_, however, you gave us a wake-up call, metamorphosed into song, it surprised us all. You asked how it can be that a man can change his mind to the point where his prejudices and narrow-mindedness make him blind. How is it possible that his principles can be traded so easily for a car, a secretary, a desk and a life to be lived lazily? Suddenly the white sheets we had seen hanging on clotheslines on the way to the theatre looked no longer normal but frightening creatures. Like white flags of surrender, they ominously warned of a false splendour.
“What became of the communist Quixote?” was your next question, was the windmill that broke his spear to blame for so many concessions? Or were his hopes dashed by too many hallucinations?
On the way back home we all were deeply silent, quiet, disturbed even, but also defiant. We were the generation that would pay the price, for the disaster over which another bearded man was about to preside.
As I write these lines I still remember that night, the palm trees, Revolution Square, the moon (it was so bright!). I also remember your beard and stutter, but guess what, I remember more the words that you uttered.
This post is dedicated to the Cuban singer-songwriter Santiago Feliú who died a few weeks ago on 12th February at the age of 51 from a heart attack. I first saw Santiaguito (as he was known) at the Covarrubias Hall, National Theatre in the mid-80s. Along with Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez and Pablo Milanés, Santiago was a key part of the New Song Movement in Cuba and Latin America. Unlike the former two who eventually became part of the status quo, Santiago was a rebel, a real rebel who, through his songs, influenced generations of young Cubans like me. Rest in peace, brother, and thank you for the music.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 9th March at 10am (GMT)