Sunday 3 July 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I was recently rummaging through old papers, poems and short stories I had written aeons ago and columns and reviews I had penned for various publications when I chanced upon a few articles I had submitted to the now defunct newspaper Noticias. This was a monthly free magazine for the Latin American community in London which purported to be the voice of the Latin diaspora. Whether it ever achieved that objective or not it's a moot point now that it no longer exists, but at least we, Spanish-speakers had our very own paper at some point. A friend of mine I had met in Cuba a few years before, had been asked by the editor at Noticias to produce a special supplement in English to attract Anglophone readers. The new section would have a didactic approach as some words and phrases would be highlighted and their meaning given so as to provide a better understanding of the Spanish language and culture. It was in this context that I wrote a few columns on various subjects such as: race, music, sports and poetry.

The pay was low and my cheque very rarely arrived on time, but I had a lovely time writing for the publication. I was given free rein in regards to the topics I could cover, which was manna from heaven to a free-lance writer. As for word limit, they were pretty relaxed in the magazine.

I don't normally write in Spanish on this blog. There are many reasons as to why, but one should be enough as an explanation: I live now in the UK and cater mainly to an Anglophone audience. Yet, sometimes the Latin-Caribbean in me wants to wax lyricial in my own mother tongue and indulge in the aphorisms, neologisms and slang we use in Cuba and other countries of the Hispanic diaspora.

Which is why I will be posting some of the aforementioned columns that first appeared in Noticias on my blog in the next few weeks. Fret not if you can't speak or read Spanish, there will always be a translation.

I'll kick off with an article on how Latin American pop and rock was influenced by both British and US musical trends, but it also drew from its own roots. The original feature is in Spanish and the English translation appears below it. The translation was carried out by Lise McDermot Jones, who was the person in charge of the special English supplement at Noticias. And I would like to use this space now to thank her for giving me the opportunity to contribute to her section. All names of bands or soloists that appear in the Spanish version have been highlighted and links to videos on youtube have been included. I encourage you, dear readers and fellow bloggers, to follow those links and discover a different side to Latin American culture. The musician mentioned at the end of my piece is Santana, who, at the time of writing the article, had just won a clutch of Grammies courtesy of his album "Supernatural". I hope you enjoy this column.

De 'Lads', 'Dudes' y 'Latin Boys'

La persona que dijo alguna vez que el rock era un fenómeno solo de la cultura anglosajona estaba, o escuchando a Travis cantando “Mata Siguaraya” o pensó quizás que harían la versión algún día.

Se que estoy bailando en case del trompo. Por una parte la música británica ha producido talentos de la talla del dúo Lennon/McCartney, de grupos como Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, Oasis y solistas como Elton John, Sting y Tom Jones. Por otra parte, “Yanquilandia” no se ha quedado de brazos cruzados y así hemos tenido a Aerosmith, Metallica, Janis Joplin y Jimi Hendrix. ¿Entonces, con todos estos truenos donde está nuestro rock latino?

Nuestra identidad roquera tiene mucho que agradecerle a la música anglo-norteamericana, pero también tiene progenitores propios. Salió de la mezcla de aquella canción protesta de los 60 y 70 con el terremoto social-político que azotaba a nuestro continente. Eran años cuando Bob Dylan cantaba que “la respuesta, mis amigos, está soplando en el viento”, era asesinado Víctor Jara en Chile, le daban a Benedetti cuarenta y ocho horas para abandonar Argentina y el mundo de pronto se encontraba al borde del cataclismo nuclear debido a la Crisis de Octubre. Nuestro rock, o rock-pop, viene de nuestra Mercedes Sosa, de la poesía de Neruda y del folclor de Atahualpa Yupanqui.

El primer contacto que tuve con el género fue a través de Los Prisioneros, grupo chileno y Fito Paéz, músico argentino. En el caso de los primeros fue una cinta pasada de mano en mano y, que por supuesto, dejaba mucho que desear en cuanto a calidad. Pero el frescor anarquista con que los chicos se enfrentaban a los problemas de Chile en los años 80 era intoxicante.

Fito llegó a Cuba de la forma más anónima posible y se fue convertido en una celebridad. Con un par de tenis de colores diferentes el uno del otro, pelo largo y rizado, nariz colosal y espejuelos enormes, fue su capacidad de “dar su corazón” lo que nos creó una “Fitomania” que todavía nos dura. Su influencia lo demuestra el hecho de que cuando Mercedes Sosa oyó “Yo Vengo a Ofrecer mi Corazón” por primera vez, le dijo al músico rosarino que estaba interesada en cantarla.

Esa misma noche un grupo de “milicos” tocó en casa del compositor y le dijeron: “No jodas más y no te metas donde no te llaman.”

Si es cierto que nuestro rock ha servido de tribuna y de arenga, también ha servido de reflexión.

Pongo por ejemplo a Carlos Varela, músico cubano, que supo expresar las dudas y conflictos de la juventud de la isla caribeña a finales de los 80. Canciones como “Guillermo Tell”, “Cuchilla en la Acera” y “El Gnomo” están impregnadas de un sentimiento inconformista, de anarquía inocente y de rebeldía adolescente muy propia de aquella Cuba pre-período especial.

Para terminar esta breve defensa de nuestro patrimonio roquero, me basta con decir que el músico que este año barrió con los Grammy en Estados Unidos es muy latino y ha influido en muchas generaciones de jóvenes no solo de nuestro continente sino del mundo entero. ¿Qué no puedes adivinarlo? Entonces me marcho, pero primero, “Oye como va, mi ritmo, bueno pa’ gozar, mulata…

Esta columna fue publicada originalmente en junio del 2000.

Of 'Lads', 'Dudes' and 'Latin Boys'

Whoever said that rock was a phenomenon solely of the Anglo-Saxon culture was either listening to Travis singing “Mata Siguaraya” (the song made famous by Benny More) or perhaps thought that they would do a version one day.

I know that i am probably stepping on some toes here. On the one hand, British music has produced talents of the stature of the Lennon/McCartney duo, groups such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen and Oasis and soloists such as Elton John, Sting and Tom Jones. “Yankeeland” has not been idle either and has given us Aerosmith, Metallica, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. So, with all this going on, where does this leave Latin American rock?

Our rock identity owes much to Anglo-American music, but it also has its own forebears. It came from the mixture of those protest songs of the 60s and 70s with the socio-political earthquake that shook our continent. These were years in which, whilst Bob Dylan sang “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”, Victor Jara was assassinated in Chile, Benedetti was given forty-eight hours to leave the country and the world suddenly found itself on the brink of nuclear disaster with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our rock, or rock pop, comes from our own Mercedes Sosa, the voice of the Americas, from the poetry of Neruda, from the folklore of Atahualpa Yupanqui.

My first contact with the genre was through Los Prisioneros, a Chilean group and Fito Paez, an Argentine musician. In the case of the former, a tape was passed from hand to hand, which of course, left much to be desired with regard to quality. But the anarchistic freshness with which they confronted the problems in Chile was intoxicating.

Fito arrived in my home country of Cuba in the most anonymous manner and left a celebrity. Wearing trainers of different colours, with long, curly hair, an enormous nose and huge glasses, it was his ability to "give his heart" which started a "Fitomania" which continues to this day. His influence is demonstrated by the fact that when Mercedes Sosa first heard "Yo Vengo a Ofrecer mi Corazón" she told the musician from Rsoario that she interested in singing the song.

That same night the military knocked on the composer's door and told him "Don't mess with that doesn't concern you".

Whilst our rock has served as platform and pulpit, it has also been used for reflection. An example is the Cuban musician Carlos Varela, who expressed the doubts and conflicts of the Cuban youth at the end of the 80s. Songs such as "Guillermo Tell", "Cuchilla en la Acera" and "El Gnomo"are saturated with a nonconformist sentiment, with an innocent anarchy and an adolescent rebellion very much of pre "Special Period" Cuba.

To conclude this brief defence of our rock heritage, it is enough to say that the musician that made a clean sweep a tthe Grammies in the United States this year is very Latin and has influenced many generations, not only in our continent but all over the world, You haven't guessed yet? Well, I'll finish here, but first "Oye como va, mi ritmo, bueno pa’ gozar, mulata…”

This column was originally published in June 2000.

© 2011

Next Post: “The Secret in Their Eyes (Review)”, to be published on Wednesday 6th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Qué bueno es poder leerte en español. I look forward to more of these in the future.

  2. Por nada. Muchas gracias a ustedes.

    Saludos desde Londres. :-)



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