Cuban folk singer searches for spirituality amidst blockade-induced hardship

By Mike Fuller

(Prensa Latina) Havana, Cuba – The legend describes an ace archer who refused to bow down to a Swiss town’s ruler. The tyrant challenged the arrow slinger to shoot an apple off his son’s head in exchange for his life, which he did, after taking two arrows out of his quiver. When asked why, Tell told the dictator that if he had missed the second would have been for him.
Carlos Varela said last night at his Guillermo Tell concert in Havana’s Carlos Marx theater that everyone in the sold-out theater was like William Tell’s child, and ready to try letting a few arrows fly themselves. The mostly young Cuban crowd, many descendents of other heroic rebels, showed an almost ancestral familiarity with the folk singer and his lyrics.

He sang of dreams and fish, walls and doors, and a solo island dweller searching for faith in today’s ideologically unstable world, whether that meant laughing, crying or shrugging one’s shoulders. He offered no clear course of action, except perhaps doing as Robinson Crusoe, opening one’s arms towards God and gazing into the sky.

A tattoo-friendly performer, he began one number with an explanation of how upon a time saw a woman with a fish tattooed on her head. “That’s how this song was born,” he explained, launching into Graffiti de Amor (Love Graffiti), a story of a girl who arrived at the crack of dawn and painted the city in lipstick with thousands of pictures of fish. She kept it up until it was prohibited, and with nowhere else to vent her catharsis, she etched her body with “tattoos of love.”

How’s everybody up there in the balconies doing?” asked Varela at one point in the show, the sky-high gallery vibrating from the dancing. He also took the time to individually thank practically everyone involved in the production, and applauded with the grateful audience. He made sure to welcome a “valuable acquisition” to his band, the son of Carlos Alfonso of Sintesis, formidable pianist Equis Alfonso.

Hot off an international tour with singer Jackson Browne from the United States, where he was denied entry, Varela summarized the situation between that country and Cuba with La política no cabe en la azucarera (Politics Don’t Fit into a Sugar Bowl).

In the song a friend bemoans a partless ’59 Chevy, thanks to the US embargo of Cuba. The piece forcefully paints images of oppressive heat in Havana, people doing what they can to get by, a choice of cold up North or boredom here.

The artist pronounces his verdict on the situation: “Brother, take it any way you can, politics don’t fit into a sugar bowl,” singing the word brother in English, as well as the final stanza, “*censored* you, blockade.”

Time to pull out the bow and arrows.

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.