Festivals of Varadero, Girasoles Opina, Bossa Nova in Havana… a parade of progressive and talented artists toured the country in the sixties, seventies and eighties. I followed their catchiest tunes and imitated their hairstyles and clothes. Humming “Who told you I was always laughing, never crying…” “What is it, what is it, that goes sighing through the bedrooms,” “Pedro Navaja, his hands always inside his coat.” I remember my sister laughing at me and saying that I had “Brazilian hair” because my profile reminded her of a table lamp, like the profile of María Betania and many other divas of that time. I adored that comparison! It was also a time when we frequently saw Ana Belén and Víctor Manuel on the national scene. Even “La Negra,” Mercedes Sosa, sang “Thanks to life,” in front of the national microphones.
However, these usual artists also stopped visiting us. Some died, others were disillusioned by the abuses and excesses of the Revolution and, most of them, simply stopped considering Cuba among the essential places in their itineraries. From the promotional posters that used to read, “Paris, Berlin, New York, Buenos Aires… Havana,” the largest of the Antilles disappeared. We went from being an obligatory stop to becoming a place where only the ideologically convinced appeared. Politics colored everything, determined arpeggios, tunes, choruses. The music was divided between artists committed to “the cause” and “traitors” who didn’t deserve to appear before a Cuban audience. The last time I heard Joaquin Sabina in a Havana theater, a girlfriend climbed up on the stage and planted a kiss on his cheek. “The caress of farewell” we later called that gesture, because after that we never saw hide nor hair of the Andalusian again. The character (or alter ego) of one of his sung stories said, about his visit to Cuba, “I’ll never return, I don’t enjoy it.”
The regular visitors of those decades were added to the list of other musicians we would never see live. So, we missed the impudent mouth of Mick Jagger and Shakira’s swagger, Lady Gaga’s eccentricity and the soft swaying of Willy Chirino. We grew up without direct experience of the Celia Cruz’s sandunga, the stage lights falling on Ricardo Arjona, or the din of the theater during a concert by Freddie Mercury. Madonna has not come to Havana, Michael Jackson died without stepping foot on Cuban soil, and at the rate we’re going generations of artists will conclude their careers without ever singing in front of us. At least we had Juanes here, with Olga Tañón and Miguel Bosé at that unforgettable concert in 2009.
To be a citizen of the 21st century includes not only connecting to the Internet, having the right of free association and free expression, but also cultural and musical contact in keeping with the times. But our international program shows that we’re stuck in the last century, stranded in that time when Milton Nascimento and Fito Páez sang a few yards from us.