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Letter about Haydée and nostalgia

Dear Darsi,

Months ago, you asked me to tell you everything about the Haydée Milanés concert, your dear friend and pleasent artist, at the Flamingo Theater Bar in Miami in March 2023. "It's important to me, many dear people will be there," you said, and until today, I hadn't responded. Let this letter be an inventory of emotions rather than an accurate review of the event.

The event was supposed to start at nine, but it was already ten and nothing had happened. I was accompanied by my partner, Lenny, a Cuban-American and Jewish (he's not entirely sure of the order) from Miami living in Brooklyn, New York. We invited an American friend, Jewish and from Brooklyn, who has been a Miamian for over twenty years. For her, Haydée is new, although Latin music is part of her daily life. She's a musician and psychotherapist, he's a doctor, and I'm a social worker. In this show, she's learning, socializing, and having fun. For Lenny, the event connects him to his history, to ours. For me, being here, in any sense of the word, me toca.

We had planned to come to the concert months ago; those who wait for something important don’t mind waiting an hour, two hours... To distract my friend, I explain her the eclectic soundtrack of our waiting time, provided by the DJ (what's their name?). I recognize songs by Descemer Bueno, Kelvis Ochoa, Carlos Varela. I don't identify many, mostly men, also with Cuban rhythms and clave, giving the two people at the back table near the bathroom a chance to dance casino style while a song with electric guitars and Havana percussion plays. People have taken the liberty of arriving late. They keep applauding every now and then to see if they can prompt the start. Even Joaquín Sabina's music has been played, and I recommended his lyrics to my friend for practicing the subjunctive in Spanish.

By eleven o'clock, I can barely remember why we're here. I've been observing the audience's outfits and behavior. Only one person is wearing a guayabera, many flashy shoes, heels, dresses, hardly anyone in sneakers, some jackets, and a lot of cool, from hipsters When did they leave -from the archipelago-? When did they arrive -to the peninsula-? What were they doing there, what are they doing here? It does not occur to me that there is a foreigner among us. Except for my companions and our Venezuelan waitress, everyone looks, talks, sounds like the people involved in Havana on my first trips, in the first decade of this century. The people of the music clubs, of the private restaurants, of the private rental houses that emulated in their service and decoration the bohemian sophistication of the streets of Havana. Le MarMitte, La Latina, the Gothic Quarter, La Condesa and, of course, Williamsburg. Havana and its gentrification process, which the administration of President Barack Obama -I speculate- launched to fleeting apogee.

The sonera Albita Rodriguez -she asked for you, she sent her regards-, reigns at the next table. She is accompanied by a straight couple in their thirties, they are jovial. He is someone, or I want him to be someone, because he looks enlightened. Plus he's wearing a pullover, jeans and Converse. sneakers that make me feel better for having come in sandals. He knows all the letters and I guess he explains them to Albita and company with fun and fervor. How cool -like me-, enthusiastic, explaining everything to the friends.

It seems that "everybody" has come. It also seems that "everybody" is in Miami. I confirm it when, huge and placid as a cruise ship in the port of the city, the pianist Chucho Valdés passes us smiling and stops to share with Albita. When did he arrive? I learn that he has been here for twelve years. Soon he will have, Albita tells me, an album and a tour with her. When I think that all we are missing is Alberto the military man (the one from The Pink Slippers), writer Wendy Guerra arrives and is almost immediately joined affectionately by Pavel Urkiza. I want to know more about the ever-growing Havana show business in this area, but the audience bursts into applause. They show a video of Haydée and her father singing in Spain. We believe that this touching testimony of the unrepeatable duet will start the show. I'm wrong, the preamble is longer than a snake's sigh.

As I elegantly down my beer, I think about Haydée, the person. I remember her with her mother, the loquacious and charismatic Zoe, in the video rental store that the arranger Lucía Huergo and her partner had set up in their house in Nuevo Vedado. With Zoe I would engage in discussions about the films available, while the small and quiet Haydée waited without complaining. The little girl with very long hair had already collaborated with her father on the subject. Grandmother's song. I had been told that the composer Marta Valdés said that this girl ate flowers. However, nothing made me suspect that she would shine like her mother, a city legend, or like her father, a singer-songwriter already established for decades in the Latin American cultural heritage.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Alejandro Aragón.

I first heard about Haydée, the artist, when at the beginning of the century you sent me a copy of a demo in which she collaborated with Descemer Bueno. She performed his songs and his arrangements of classic Brazilian and American songs. I thought it was a daring and novel attempt. Then he released his first album, Haydéea mature debut album. It was one of the last CDs I bought at Virgin Records in Union Square, before the record stores went out of business. Haydée's music connected me with an unfamiliar and familiar Havana that I had not returned to in many years. Her songs reconciled me with a place I didn't miss, though her news tore at my soul.

The album certainly sounded Cuban, however, in its absence of orthodoxy, it was something more. Haydée came to be "the other" to what New York had accustomed me to; the hybrid, the supranational, transcendent without stridency. From Havana you sent music from other artists like this. Yusa, Telmary, Francis de Rio, Descemer (before fame). Haydée collaborated with all of them.

My first concert of his was in a small music venue now defunct in Manhattan's East Village. I don't remember the name, although this was a beloved and familiar place next to the Pianos club on Ludlow Street. I went alone. My memories are unfocused fictions of what happened there. She was wearing jeans and Converse sneakers. She was accompanied by a man on guitar. Both on a platform a couple of feet high. The audience, about fifty people, sat around her on folding chairs, in a dimly lit space, as devoid, as she was, of the superfluous. She sang, probably, every track on the album. Of them, the most emotional, also lacerating: You and I, Both love, Dragon-fly. Sober, she spoke little, was concise and sweet. I listened to a single unexpected song, En la cuerda floja (On a tightrope)by David Torrens. This was a gift and an affront to me who, absurdly, thought I knew all of his songs.

Torrens was one of the artists who accompanied my darkest ruminations during the many days of austerity and uncertainty as my adolescence and the 1980s ended without fuss. I would chase from gathering to gathering the trova songs of that young man with sandy hair and skin. Hearing En la cuerda floja (On a tightrope) in Haydée's voice, I immediately memorized many of the lines with the skill of someone who grew up without a tape recorder or television. I had a feeling, as it happened, that years would pass before I heard it again, recorded then by the author and the interpreter in a duet that seemed like they had been singing together for years.

The hybrid nature of Haydée's album, with the production and arrangements by the then-temporarily New Yorker Descemer, resembled my life in New York. I was still a Habanero, and already something else. My Spanish had been sprinkled with local idioms from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Chile. To be understood, my accent became a blend of two languages. Instead of white rice and beans, I was eating wheat with lentils while listening to Brazil's Mart'nália. I seasoned my dinner with soy aminos and curry; I distanced myself from sugar and salt while humming the incomprehensible lyrics of Iran's singer Parisa. I ranted about nepotism and hierarchies and educated myself about social welfare policies while listening to Canada's Martha Wainwright or Spain's Concha Buika. Sicilian cellist Giovanni Sollima's music played in the background while I set aside a few bucks from my almost minimum wage to send to Havana. I had nostalgia for my tortuous life in Caracas, for its good people; I diminished it by listening to Tania de Venezuela. I didn't intend to become a homeland disavower; The port of Havana, which transformed over centuries with each ship it sheltered, had bequeathed to me an unconscious cosmopolitanism that now guided me. In the most intimate sphere, the music of Haydée, alongside that of Interactivo, Descemer, and Kelvis, provided Lenny and me with a lingua franca that helped us overcome the gaps we struggled to fill over years of our relationship. I want to believe that through my reflections on music and its lyrics, Lenny finally got to know me, fell in love with Havana, and gladly became my ambassador on his frequent visits there.

Imagine, amiga, what it would be like to listen to Haydée and a live guitar. It meant returning, for an hour, to the voices of Gunilla Tulehag, Polito Ibáñez, Xiomara Laugart, Ireno García and, of course, Torrens, that I had heard fifteen years earlier live and in modest recordings on Radio Ciudad de La Habana with bare guitar, sometimes with the guitar. a capella. That week Haydée gave another concert at SOB's, on Varick Street on the west side, with a larger audience and a small band. I had to miss it. Less than ten blocks from the club I was earning my (whole wheat) bread by guarding the door of an upscale SoHo store. Both versions of Haydée, the colorful album and the sober concert, brought me closer to the city that engendered me, to the people that made me people, postcards that were beginning to lose sharpness in the imaginary of my identity.

Photo: Courtesy of Alejandro Aragón.

I was projecting inside me this sound documentary of my life, when Yuliet Cruz -someone tells me she is an actress and wife of singer Leoni Torres- shows up to introduce and tell anecdotes about Haydée. Only then she comes on stage. What follows is, for me, from start to finish, novelty. I notice and enjoy that the arrangements are very different from the albums, that the son is accentuated in them and that the piano and percussion give them a lot of the swing of timba. I never imagined that Dragon-fly and The Fantasy were popular songs - "hear how they chant it"-, and much less danceable. These people know something that I don't know, they experience a deja vu which, I suspect, comes from previous Havana concerts. They enjoy Haydée with the previous fervor mentioned by Jorge Luis Borges in On the classics.

Even Chucho Valdés interrupts the selfies with her fans and starts dancing. This unknown and unexpected Haydée is just as lyrical and much more rhythmic than her recordings. A certain apotheosis occurs when she sings with Leoni Torres. Then Kelvis Ochoa joins her and they interpret a tender and sensual When the heart. Lenny, who usually medicates his anxiety with the music of Kelvis and Mane Ferret, jumps in surprise and happiness. "Nothing but Mane is missing. He enjoys it differently from me. To me, the Havana I lost when I emigrated, to him, the memory of that city of his exiled parents that he has recovered by visiting it often excites him. "This is the best concert of my life", he says. "¿ReallyI tell him and remind him of our only Sinéad O'Connor concert in New York. "The best" he says categorically and like a typical sixty year old teenager he takes videos and sends them to his friends. I could swear that Haydée has sung all her original repertoire and that of Marta Valdés, and half of Pablo's. Only I notice the absence of her original repertoire. Only I notice the absence of En la cuerda floja (On a tightrope), which at the time of this writing is also not on Spotify or Apple Music. Deep sigh. Maybe next time?

***

I interrupt this note I was writing to you and pick it up again months later. It's June 2023, and once again, Haydée is performing at the same venue. Lenny and I returned to Miami specifically to see her. We're accompanied by Arturo and Bárbara, a delightful Cuban couple who are music lovers. We all notice the power of the accompaniment, even more son-heavy this time. The artist, I notice, is more conversational in her own way. She makes my friends and me smile with comments that sound unexpected from her, "The mamis and papis are having a blast." She's also more athletic, more beautiful. Raising her arms and waving them sensually suits her.

Barbara and I agree that in some moments that music becomes intense, outrageous, so different from that of our Haydée. The band tastes of the rich stridency of the mango; the artist tastes of the measured exquisiteness of the mamey. I tell her that "Haydée is making a special appearance at her own concert". My friend replies, "now she is a guest artist". We both agree that she is doing very well. The Haydée we know when she accompanies herself on the piano to sing is back. En el muro del malecón (On the boardwalk wall), a song of his own. Although the acoustics of the venue do not cooperate, she dazzles again and again with her games with her voice. "What are we looking for, what do we want to have, / Loves saved from yesterday", she sings and I listen and smell the wave that breaks on the wall.

Tonight's guest is Pavel Urkiza and they sing what I suspect is a premiere. A correct song that speaks of the island and of changes to come. It doesn't move me too much except when I remember Cuba goesthe ideologized theme of the Nueva Trova. I imagine an (im)possible version from this shore. His verses "for love we are doing [...] to continue working for love, Cuba va" remind me of the daily struggle of this public to provide remittances, recharges, and to offer themselves as mules or sponsors. People pending of an island that is always between floating and emerging afloat.

Towards the end of the concert only I notice the omission of En la cuerda floja (On a tightrope). I do not allow myself disappointment or resentment. Tonight I have corroborated the distance and closeness between this peninsula, the islands in front of us, their people and us. I call for a future concert of Haydée, intimate, restrained, like the first one "with me", although it begins to occur to me that perhaps it will never happen. With the last chords of the night I finally allow myself to dance with my friends, with strangers, with Haydée and her very talented musicians. Just as I would do with you on a table at a certain bar in Cienfuegos or in the Havana of my memory, in the increasingly distant twentieth century.

I bid you farewell with the boisterous affection I hold for you every day. Yours,

                                                  Ale

Alejandro Aragón Habanero now in Bklyn, in the "steal, break, turn." Involved with feminists in the social. It is the other (spiritual atheist, gay, white of color). Listen to audiobooks from the public library. He wrote poetry and contracts. Write miscellany on request or need. It has been bilingual since 2001. More posts

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  1. Sacha Hidalgo says:

    What a pleasure to read it Mr. Aragón, I pray for that intimate concert and to be there watching you enjoy it.

  2. Nuvia says:

    I would have liked to join you, I still loved it through you.

  3. SN says:

    A moving review, it reminded me of the Bebo Valdés concert in 2006!

  4. MC says:

    What a nice letter. I learned a lot about Cuban music but much more about a close friend.

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