The Long Tour of Pancho Cespedes / Regina Coyula

I’m going to start gathering my posts from other sites here, because I’m writing very little  these days and have half-abandoned my blog. In addition to this concert, I attended the one by Fito Paez and enjoyed it even more than this one. However, Fito came (to Cuba) two years ago, while Pancho had stopped singing for the public for a while. Here, then, is this chronicle published in 14ymedio.

From 8:00 in the evening on Saturday, the traffic jams at the corner of 1st and 10th in Miramar were a sure sign that a major event was in the works at the Karl Marx theater. Well-known artists such as Carlos Varela and Edesio Alejandro could be spotted in the crowed.

Shortly after 9:00 pm the hall was packed, and an agile, tall and slim Pancho Céspedes made an entrance sporting his new image. Having been away for 24 years from performing for his fans, he was quite nervous. He said so various times, plus it was obvious. However, that nervousness could not ruin the more than two hours of conversation, smiles, tears and – above all else – the songs shared with a public that welcomed him back with affection, sang along with him, and were all the while focused on making him feel comfortable. Pancho had come home.

This one-time concert was part of the Leo Brouwer Festival of chamber music that is celebrated annually between September 27 and October 12, in honor of the 75 years of life of this exceptional composer, conductor and musician.

According to Céspedes, this event will no longer take place in Cuba. Evidently his organization experienced more than a few stumbles. Only Leo’s will and his office could move him forward in this venture, but later productions – if they occur – will take place outside of Cuba. Pancho Céspedes was not stingy in his praise of Maestro Brouwer, who brought to fruition the singer’s wish to perform again before a major national audience.

Many individuals recorded the concert on phones, tablets and cameras, and there was television coverage, which surely will enable TV audiences to enjoy the concert later on.

The singer did not allude to his decision in 1990 to leave Cuba and, although nothing was mentioned in this regard, in a roundabout way he hinted at the long stretch that he was away from Cuba. Anyone could do a little simple math and figure out that it took six years to reunite with his wife.

Moreover, because artists feed off of sadness, depression and failure, those years of separation incubated his 1998 release, Vida Loca – his most successful work. Continuing our mathematical calculations, we conclude that it took Pancho 24 years to return to a concert venue in Cuba.

Céspedes needn’t have worked so hard to connect with the audience. His eagerness to do so at times caused a loss of elegance in his fluid exchange with the public between musical numbers. It was an unnecessary effort, for this artist oozes charisma and his vocal gifts for interpretation are outstanding, often approximating a murmured complicity.

Always in a public gathering there are those who leave a mobile device turned on, and even more than one telephone conversation could be heard in the hall as though in the caller’s living room. During such troublesome displays of our modern manners, such people even get annoyed if they are called to task about it. This – plus an indiscriminate use of modern, high-frequency LED lighting directed at the crowd (blinding us) – made for a less-than-perfect evening.

There was much emotion expressed by this artist who is a master of the minimalist stage, where the accompanying musicians occupied a discreet second place. Even an enormous stage like the Karl Marx’s was made intimate and cozy – even when a hypnotic spotlight focused solely on the singer, no other accoutrements in sight, was used a few times.

Ela O’Farrill’s Adiós Felicidad took me back to the time when that piece was taken off the air because it focused on selfish sentiments that were deemed incompatible with the building of a socialist society.

It’s hard to say which was the best part of the evening. The recordings were in high gear at the sounds of Señora  or Vida Loca, with the audience singing along word for word, but there were two particularly emotional moments. The first occurred with a most beautiful song (Átame la mirada) about how nostalgia makes us call faraway places by the names of places left behind.

The other was when applause turned into a standing ovation when Pancho announced the arrival of Pablo Milanés in his first public appearance since undergoing a health scare just months before. Pablo, also visibly more slender and dressed all in black, joined Pancho who by then had doffed his coat and untucked his shirt. Their duet of Esas Dulces Mentiras y Amargas Verdades was rewarded by another standing ovation.

Excellent soirée in the company of Pancho Céspedes, who – wise beyond his years – has gone on a long tour from where his life is to la Vida Loca. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

3 October 2014

Accessories and Sandwiches / Regina Coyula

The school year has just begun, the first for many children. Filled with enthusiasm and wonder, these little ones are unaware of the disruption their new status as students creates for many Cuban families.

Along with the canasta basica,* the school uniform is the last holdout of the ration book as far as manufactured goods are concerned. It is provided to each student upon enrollment in the form of a ticket to buy subsidized uniforms, which he or she must treat with great care since there won’t be any more given out until the fourth grade.

As everyone knows, education in Cuba is free but other expenses related to a child’s schooling come directly out of the family budget. I am not referring only to shoes, a backpack or a lunchbox. The first parents’ meeting will confirm what families already know from their own experiences or those of others.

There are always parents who offer to buy paint and others who offer to paint. There are always collection drives for cleaning supplies and sign-up sheets for mothers to clean bathrooms. It is now standard practice to start the school term every year by collecting five CUC per child to purchase fans.

Teachers and administrators adopt a stance of giving in to these family initiatives in a game of role playing in which it is assumed that the Ministry of Education will provide everything that is needed to do the work and that the family wants what is best for its children.

All this and other things that follow are part of an unwritten but demonstrably effective methodology, which only gets better from one school term to the next The youngest children must not bring backpacks, only luncheras (lunch boxes). If they bring soft drinks, they must be in plastic containers, even if they are in cans. Everything must be able to be kept at room temperature.

Special emphasis is given to the lunchtime sandwich. No roast beef, ground meat or fish. Chicken must be shredded, ham sliced. Even better if it is the ever popular perrito (or hot dog).

Every pre-schooler must bring a sturdy shoebox to store all his or her projects for the entire school term. They must also bring scissors for cutting paper, crayons, an eraser — all items available only in hard currency.

The classroom is a place where the disparities that have become entrenched in society are there to be seen. Every student has a right to education but equality ends there.

From the moment they arrive at school, even before morning classes begin, their footwear and accessories tell a story of which the students themselves are ignorant protagonists and about which their parents will speak in private with cynicism or shame, depending on their personal ideas about what constitutes success.

Translator’s note: The “basic basket” is an allotment of foodstuffs intended to provide Cubans with a minimum of 3,100 of calories per day. The items include beans, rice, sugar, cooking oil and coffee. There is also a monthly allotment of meat, chicken, and eggs. Prices for these goods are heavily subsidized but the items themselves are often in short supply.

5 September 2014

Vacations / Regina Coyula

With the heat, my summer option is to sit in front of the TV, but not in front of the summer programming which doesn’t interest me, rather to decide what I watch because in the end I have a TV for the halfway intelligent.

“24” with its thrilling season has been the thriller. And it’s not that I don’t know that later in the third season Jack Bauer will save the world once again with the help of Chloe alone, but he’ll still end up screwed; it’s that in this tacit agreement, I’m disposed to believe in Super Bauer if it’s told well.

Also the action movie, Die Hard, 5? 6? 7? Bruce Willis, Bauer’s putative uncle, does his thing in a Moscow unrecognizable for those left in the USSR.

Not everything is banal. movies like “Siberian Education” or “The Map in the Clouds” have added the dramatic note. Light humor comes at the hands of “Modern Family”; thanks for not putting canned laughter in “Breaking Bad,” excellent black humor, the best of the summer. “The Hammer and Tickle,” a Canadian documentary about USSR and Eastern European humor, made me laugh and made me think of copies, and the current drought of good jokes, in great measure due to the fact that so many of these jokes were island adaptations of the originals beyond what you see, over there.

But the best has been the arrival of Piura, the new puppy in the house. Perky, smart, loving, she’s already the boss of everyone. And like all my dogs, rescued. It’s an odd vacation idea to spend my days cleaning up pee and a good part of the night consoling a little puppy who’s afraid of the dark, but the dogcatcher understands me.

That’s been my vacation. It’s a really nice personal project that has grabbed my attention.

29 August 2014

Message for Yadira / Regina Coyula

I’d like to be able to have a conversation with the Cuban-American Yadira Escobar. The photo in her blog tells me that she is young, and the information she provides about herself indicates that she emigrated when she was very little. I have read much about how Yadira would like to return to Cuba, and I have also read about what her dream Cuba is.

Yadira is a self-proclaimed lover of freedom. Neither the Marxist collectivism nor capitalist individualism agree with her idea of what Cubans want; however, she missteps in inciting our academics, university students, and specialists of all kinds to be at the ready to plan the national course.

I can assure young Yadira that there is an intellectual contemplation coming from many places and many walks of life on Cuba, but their mark cannot always be found in official channels; it needs to be sought out in alternative sites, and in many cases, it is plagued, silenced and demonized.

The desires that this young woman echoes should be permanent in the different forms of broadcast and in the spheres of thought and debate that exist or that are trying to emerge in our country; that is, not only the virtual, but the physical as well.

I don’t know what optimism that escapes my understanding makes Yadira think that nationalism can create a harmonization. According to what I see, the overdose of misdirected nationalism has been a source of social friction and has divided us into communists or anti-patriots, team-players or apathetics, the right or the left, revolutionaries or defectors, and other always antagonistic comparisons.

Nationalism is one of the tricks that Cuban government propaganda has used to try to convince everyone that all thinking contrary to what is official is unpatriotic. The fatherland is another thing; it is something intangible that goes with someone and manifests itself in each person in a different manner; it is an emotion and sometimes an aroma, and is, above all, an unbearable taxonomy.

In effect, a large percentage of the population voted for an eternal socialism. I, who see how the people vote and later see how it is justified, who knows the way in which the vote is controlled from the electoral system down to personal decisions–including intimate ones–would allow myself to doubt the sincerity of the counts and the sincerity of the voters.

I cannot decline to comment on Yadira’s vision of the March 13th ferry tragedy. She was very tiny when the terrible events occurred, but with a little information about the fateful night, no one can talk about an accident. An accident implies an involuntary action; Yadira seems to not know the survivors’ story. On the contrary, she accepts as valid the version that the Granma newspaper provided.

The drowned children did NOT fall from the boat as in the happy little simile that she uses. The boat was attacked; with powerful water jets it was flooded and sank. I leave the details of the nightmare to her investigation. Such an act cannot be classified as anything more than criminal. Since then, the decision for adults to subject minors to a dangerous journey has vanished.

To live in Cuba gives me a little more of a view of the country. People don’t escape because of the constraints of the Embargo; people escape because the ruinous economy doesn’t allow for prosperous opportunities, because in a government of 55 years, they keep talking about experimental economies.

In the sickness of the administration, the corruption and the squander, the effect of the Embargo has been minimal. I invite Yadira to see the guidelines of the economic policy laid out in the Party’s latest congress. The words embargo or blockade aren’t there. And if the motivation to abandon the country at first glance appears economical, political decisions have put us where we are.

If popular sovereignty were sacred, the labels of Cubans from Cuba or Cubans from Miami would have disappeared a long time ago; I don’t dare imagine what we might have been; but I’m sure that the Cubans that work, govern, and opinionate, and among them I picture Yadira, could have done better in the last 55 years.

And without appealing to the generous and disinterested help of any world power–we already know how interested you are and the privileges that you’ve enjoyed in the name of sovereignty–the search for democracy is a problem among Cubans.

Translated by John Daniels

15 August 2014

What We Don’t Talk About / Regina Coyula

My husband has dengue fever. Or chikunguya, what the difference is can only be known after a long-awaited test. We needed to find our family doctor because he kept going from house to house inquiring of people with fever or other suspicious symptoms. The doctor, after a physical examination and posing a series of questions, filled out a paper and referred him to Fajardo Hospital.

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to wait in line for this.”

At 11:30  Alcides went to the hospital with one of our daughters who arrived at just the right time. I stayed at home cooking, so they could eat lunch after returning from the hospital.

At four in the afternoon, my brother arrived and took me to Fajardo. At that hour the shift doctor still had not seen the urgent test results. Alcides had to wait for a long time because the line that he “didn’t have to wait in” was much bigger than the line for people who arrived for other reasons. Finally, it was his turn. A young Guinean doctor with enviable patience attended each case, filled out a stack of papers and still had the Hippocratic spirit to be friendly.

I signed a paper to take responsibility for Alcides. What worries the doctors (at the hospital as well as at the neighborhood clinic) is that his platelets are very low and his leucocytes very high, but I’d rather go to the clinic every day to have the follow-up analysis than to leave him in the hospital. I don’t like anything about the Emergency Room, disorganized and lacking in hygiene, and I have no reason to suppose that the rest of the hospital would be any different.

In the waiting room the patients never stop complaining. Why if you come with a referral directly from your clinic do you have to repeat the same procedures with the doctor on duty instead of going directly to the lab? No one knows what the “guidelines” say. Later, there were only two doctors and they were overwhelmed. Those missing must be on overseas missions like Barrio Adentro or Mas Medicos; to the claim of our being a “Medical Powerhouse” should be added: … “for export.”

Having a case of dengue fever in the house isn’t news. The list of patients in the four surrounding blocks fills two pages in a school notebook. “We haven’t found the source,” my family doctor tells me with concern. I comment, “They shouldn’t focus so much on individual homes, rather they should clean up the neglected lot on the corner, and if they haven’t found the source, there they’re going to find all those who haven’t appeared yet.

As the situation is worsening (I would speak of an epidemic, but the health authorities seem not to have received “the orientation”) the priority is the source. Yesterday they came and fumigated and asked about home sources (if you have vases, plants in water, drinking bowls for pets, water deposits in the house, and I already know the list by heart and can recite it). Later the supervisor showed up to ask about the program to check for sources in homes; later the supervisor’s boss came by to ask about the program to check for sources in homes.

And at the lush wilderness on the corner? No one asks about the sources there.

28 July 2014

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet / Regina Coyula

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet…

…or thought I was, which is worse. In keeping with this, I would have become a “fine poet of felt verses,” as literary criticism says when it has nothing better to say. Common sense and love of writing have left me here, where I feel so comfortable. I found a very yellowed piece of lined paper bearing this text typed by an Underwood, following an interminable train ride from Santa Clara to Havana taken along with a group of youths who were returning from a rock festival. Speaking of Frank Abel, does anyone know what has become of him?

HEAVY METAL

To Frank Abel Dopico 

The rock-and-rollers love the nocturnality of trains

then

the rockers run away from home

they beg for money at the station

and they go to another province

to imagine what it’s like to travel.

In the parks

the rockers are blue

they make love and urinate in the solitude of sidewalks

all pleasure they find in the cross-eyed hands of Jimmy Page.

They have a calling to be cops, the rockers

they raise the decibels

exorcism by percussion

it’s the train and it’s Led Zeppelin

there is a monastic silence in the rockers

they tear their hair and they huddle to weep in the corner of the car.

They don’t think of the following day

they clasp their hands and kiss the crucifix.

The sweet rockers

rehearse with amphetamines and other complications

to imagine how it is

to travel.

(June 19, 1990)

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 July 2014