Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cecilio Valdes, Las Damas de Blanco, Paquito D'Rivera, and Carlos Varela

No, that's not a typo.

On Monday night here at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City I attended a wonderful concert by Paquito D'Rivera and friends (Paquito D’Rivera, clarinet; Alex Brown, piano; Dana Leong, violoncello; Brenda Feliciano, soprano; Loli Marquez Sterling, contralto; and Mariano Vidal, tenor).

We were treated to some of the songs from, "Cecilio Valdes: El Rey de La Habana," an opera/zarzuela type work that D'Rivera wrote back in 2006 with the help of librettist Enrique del Risco and lyricist Alexis Romay. The idea was to reimagine the classic Cuban Cecilia Valdes story as a modern star-crossed lovers tale, this time with a black Cuban Hip Hop/Rock musician in the title role of Cecilio (not Cecilia) Valdes who has fallen in love with the beautiful white hija de papa Patricia. Unfortunately for Cecilio, Patricia is the daughter of Gamboa, a Cuban general, who would much prefer that she return the affections of her rich, white, Spanish tourist suitor Pepe (El Pepe).

While D'Rivera and friends have not yet been able to secure the financial backing to perform the work as a full operatic production, what I saw on Monday night was quite promising and not a little humorous. For example, here's a sharp exchange between the father, General Gamboa, and the daughter, Patricia:

Gamboa: Yo te ordeno que te cases/ Mientras la suerte nos dure/ Necesito que una boda/ Mi retaguardia asgure. (I order you to marry/ While our luck lasts,/ I need a wedding/ To secure my rear guard).

Patricia: Ordenes, retaguardia/ Tu siempre estaras en guerra/ Soy tu hija, no un soldada/ Ni mi corazon trinchera. (Orders, rear guards-/ You'll always be at war./ I'm your daughter, not a soldier,/ And my heart not an entrenchment).

We were also present for the world premiere of "Las Damas de Blanco," a new work by D'Rivera commissioned in 2009 by the Foundation for Iberian Music and dedicated to Las Damas de Blanco, of course.

Apart from being an accomplished, world-rekmnown, virtuosic musician, D'Rivera is also a classic "jodedor cubano," which he proved over and over as he regaled the audience with his wit and often off-color but always on the mark chistes.

For example, he recounted that back in the mid-50s when he was a young boy of just 5 or 6, his father brought home a record of Benny Goodman playing live at Carnegie Hall. When his father put the record on the phonograph, little Paquito's mouth dropped open and he asked his father, "Y que es esto?" His father responded, "Benny Goodman tocando en vivo en Carnegie Hall." Though Paquito loved the music, becoming an instant adict on the spot,he was a bit confused by his fahter's explanation since he understood him saying, "carne y frijol" in place of "Carnegie Hall."

As is El Yuma's habit, during the Q&A I reminded D'Rivera that he had once expressed the hope to play his music again in Cuba - another Cuba to be sure. Knowing he has been harshly critical of the Cuban government and against the separation of families by government regulations (especially since he was cut off from seeing his own son for many years after defecting from Cuba in 1980), I asked his opinion of the recent shift in U.S. policy that has allowed a new generation of Cuban musicians to begin giving concerts in U.S. cities. I specifically mentioned La Charanga Habanera (who I saw live at SOB's back in January) and Carlos Varela (who will play at SOB's next week - look for me in the front row!).

Paquito did not seem to like my question very much. He was done joking (at least for a few minutes).

He responded by comparing Cuba today to apartheid-era South Africa, saying that there was a united front among American musicians who boycotted playing in Sun City, South Africa, back in the 80s led by Little Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist of Springstein's E Street Band and, more recently, of The Sopranos).

Essentially, his argument was that if American musicians could come together against the racist regime of South Africa then why shouldn't they also do so against Cuba's communist one now (adding that Paul Simon was nearly lynched when he returned to JFK after breaking the boycott by playing in South Africa - even though he had made a point of playing in the Soweto slums for the marginalized black South Africans).

Interestingly, the next question to D'Rivera was from Bildner Center director Mauricio Font, who prefaced his question (focused on musical influences in New York City) by reminding D'Rivera that his good friend and mentor, the late, great, Dizzy Gillespie, would likely disagree with him since he had made repeated trips to Cuba in the 1970s in order to open up a "musicial bridge" between artists in the two countries.

All this leads me to Carlos Varela himself, who is now in Miami on the first leg of his new U.S. tour. While there at a press conference he surprised many Miameños by answering all questions put to him quite frankly (sin pelos en la lengua) and, even more significantly, expressed public support for the nomination of the Damas de Blanco for the Nobel Peace Prize.

He also roundly condemned the mob attacks (actos de repudio) against them that had become routine up until this week when they were called off after Havana's bishop intervened with the Cuban government.

I leave you with Varela's own words. See my transcription and translation of the video below and see you at the show at SOBs! (Thursday, May 13, 9 p.m.)

Un imagen dice mas que mis palabras. Que una parte del mundo se proponga nominarlas por el premio Nobel de la paz me parece fantastico. Pero me parece que tambien se merecen ciento de miles de mujeres que no salen a la calle y que marchan a diario y batallan a diario desde el silencio de su cocina. Cualquier cosa que despierte la voluntad de mirar de que Cuba se abra al mundo y el mundo se abra a Cuba me parece [fantastico].

Lo que si creo que es fatal es los actos de repudio. Siempre hay gente que se presta para esto. Hay mucha gente que no se presta para esto. Y regresare a la Habana sin importarme las consequencias de mis declaraciones. Siempre me he considerado un hombre totalmente libre de decir y pensar lo que digo y me he buscado lo que me he buscado para bien y para mal.

An image says more than my words could say. That part of the world has nominated the Ladies in White for the Nobel Peace Prize I see as fantastic. But I also think that the prize is deserved by hundreds of thousands of other women who do not go out in the street but who march and struggle each day from the silence of their kitchen. Anything that awakens the will for Cuba to open itself up to the world and for the world to open up to Cuba I think is [fantastic].

However, what I think is really fatal are the mob scenes [against these women]. There are always people who join these acts but there are many who refuse to join them. And I will return to Havana regardless of the consequences of my declarations. I have always considered myself a totally free man, free to say and think whatever I say regardless of what it has brought me for better or for worse.

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