Illustration: Duchy Man.
Illustration: Duchy Man.

The‌ ‌eternal‌ ‌reinvention‌ ‌of‌ ‌la‌ ‌‌‌décima

12 minutes / Lorena Sánchez

11.11.2020 / Interviews

Moments like those could well be the antecedents of the Oralitura Academy, a project that links the teaching of poetic improvisation with other oral arts and new technologies. But no. Years before, in 2000, Alexis founded in Havana the Isa's Experimental Chair of Improvised Poetry, which was the germ of what came later: suddenness workshops throughout Cuba, subsidiaries such as the Casa de la Décima de Mayabeque, from Ciego from Ávila, from Pinar del Río, among others. Years before, Alexis gave classes on the decima to the Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, the actress and composer Silvana Sosto; He published founding books such as Theory of Poetic Improvisation and the Pimienta Method for the Teaching of Poetic Improvisation, which he has updated with videos, sounds and other supports, but always maintaining their playful and participatory sense.

Momentos como aquellos bien podrían ser los antecedentes de la Academia Oralitura, proyecto que vincula la enseñanza de la improvisación poética con otras artes orales y las nuevas tecnologías. Pero no. Años antes, en el 2000, Alexis fundaba en La Habana la Cátedra Experimental de Poesía Improvisada del Isa, que fue el germen de lo que vino después: talleres de repentismo por toda Cuba, filiales como la Casa de la Décima de Mayabeque, de Ciego de Ávila, de Pinar del Río, entre otras. Años antes, Alexis impartía clases sobre la décima al cantautor uruguayo Jorge Drexler, a la actriz y compositora Silvana Sosto; publicaba libros fundacionales como Teoría de la improvisación poética and the Método Pimienta para la enseñanza de la improvisación poética, los cuales ha actualizado con videos, sonidos y otros soportes, pero siempre manteniendo su sentido lúdico y participativo. 

Como su director general e instructor principal define que “la Academia Oralitura es la versión en línea e internacional de ese proyecto docente que fundé en la Isla y que se ha cimentado en los libros teóricos. Un proyecto que vincula a dos países [Cuba y España], que tiene dos modalidades: offline and on-line

As its general director and main instructor, he defines that “the Oralitura Academy is the online and international version of that educational project that I founded on the Island and that has been based on theoretical books. A project that links two countries [Cuba and Spain], which has two modalities: offline and online ”. 

But if the Oralitura Academy has a highlight, it is the La Décima y la Canción course, which, with three editions, now has more than 300 students from 20 countries. For two weeks, and in an hour and a half, Alexis retraces the paths of the decima, linking it with the song in all its genres. 

"The classical decima is very ductile and has had a success that has lasted almost 600 years since it was born in the Golden Age. It is a stanza that was not only used to improvise - the best known, at least in Cuba - but also in written literature and in song, though not on a larger scale. Thus, greats of the song have composed in decimas: Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Facundo Cabral, Alfredo Zitarrosa, Jorge Drexler, Joaquín Sabina, Joan Manuel Serrat.

“With this course, and taking advantage of the emergence of love for the décima that has been generated in recent years, we have managed to make this format of classical poetry reach more singer-songwriters. Right now it is very difficult to find one of these creators in the Spanish language who has not already made a song in decimass, or who does not want to or is not learning. Because they have realized that it is a very ductile verse, very musical. Jorge Drexler says that the decima is a musical genre in itself. Let's forget about the guajiro point, the decima is sung in more than 30 ways, in more than 20 countries, in each register a different music, a different way of interpreting and accompaniment. 

“When composers discover the decima, a universe opens up for them. The one who has done the most for her has been Drexler, but right now Juanes - who has been a student of mine - will include several songs in decimas in his next album, which came out from class exercises. Many Spanish singer-songwriters nowadays, Ruibal, Rozalén, Raúl Rodríguez, are composing songs in decimas because it is an endless world ”.

Phrases like "my head exploded", "it opened my mind", "it took me away from common places that composers should avoid" are repeated when students talk on social networks about their experiences in the La Décima y la Canción course. 

The Colombian Maréh, for example, talks about that child's game that is established in virtual classrooms, in that strange way in which ―course through― he reconciled with his daily life and how this allowed him to write more poems, looking for the decima and the rhyme to everything. "It becomes a pretty healthy addiction," he says, as he tells how he was able to remake a song from his first album, entitled Molecular, where Alexis Díaz-Pimienta generously included one of his decimas. “I want to enroll in another course. I don't know if the Oralitura Academy is thinking of becoming a university, but I want to enroll for a full semester ”.

While the also Colombian Victoria Sur, for her part, speaks of a "transformative experience" that has changed "the way of understanding the lyrics of the songs, and of writing music. It has given me the opportunity to meet people from all over Latin America and to hear first-hand the great masters and their processes ”. 

In this way, through games and exercises created exclusively by Alexis, those who enroll in this course learn to write the spinel, which has been kept alive in the popular taste of our countries. But then the professor goes further: 26 strophic forms and variants of the decima - many of them created by Pimienta himself, other older ones that are no longer used - are revealed as a delicious bonus track.

“I recently told students that each of them can make a record where the same type of decima is not repeated. It is an inexhaustible source of creation, a philological mystery because there are still no serious studies. The classical poetry of the Golden Age had some thirty strophic forms, all of which were distributed throughout Latin America through the theater, the church, and literature. All were known in Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, and in none of those countries are they cultivated. The only stanza that continues to be cultivated, both in orality and in writing, both in song and improvisation, is the decima. And that is not fortuitous, I try to give that mystery in my courses: why the decima yes and the romance no, why the decima yes and the sonnet no, why the decima yes and the other twenty-odd stanza forms that Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and all the great feathers have remained as creative relics in textbooks but they are not in popular taste and do not transcend singing and song ”.

It is precisely about that ductility of the décima and its abilities to sneak into various genres of the song, Alexis speaks when he refers to the experience of Juanes, not only as a student of the Academy, but also as one of the guest teachers of the La Décima course and the Song. The Colombian singer - who for more than a year had approached the Cuban poet to receive some of his courses, achieving it in this 2020, during confinement - was "a gift for the students in the second edition, because the decima was very closed to the world of songwriting, and he gave it another dimension that is closer to rock and pop in Spanish. It brought dynamism and freshness to it, a different approach on how to musicalize the decima to make a song, respecting the verse. 

“Of course, for me it was nothing new because already in Mexico there is an album called Más Pimienta al rock and roll, where students and teachers from the School of Music of Rock to the Word, directed by the great Mexican rocker Guillermo Briseño, some of my decimas were set to music. And that is the good thing about it: the decima is presented in all genres, it appears in rock, blues, country, bolero, salsa, in signature songs ”.

And when Alexis Díaz-Pimienta talks about the decima, he inevitably mentions suddenness. He also inevitably remembers his childhood "surrounded by old men who adored the decima", with friends such as Indio Naborí and Justo Vega, because children and adolescents of his age did not dedicate themselves to repentismo, but rather to other music. 

 “I never wanted to abandon the decima, because it was a gift from my father. I was born and raised in Centro Habana, behind Radio Progreso. As a peasant I have a taste for rural music; my children, nephews, and many of my students in Cuba are from Havana. In other words, for years there has been a suddenness that is not rural, an urban suddenness that respects its roots, but which for a geographical reason represents an urban reality and that is evident in the type of decimas that are made and in the approaches that they have. 

“Entonces, eso que yo llamo el neorrepentismo se ha convertido en un movimiento incipiente que vincula la décima y la improvisación con otras artes: el teatro, la danza, las artes plásticas, el cine, la performance. Es un concepto que se amplía, que no es reduccionista. Yo tengo 54 años y comencé a hacer repentismo con cinco y en La Habana. Cuando tenía 17 o 18, me recuerdo descubriendo todo ese universo junto a grandes nombres de la cultura cubana como Osvaldo Doimeadiós, Mayito Rivera. Todos muchachos de ciudad, que descubrieron el repentismo conmigo de gira por el campo y se enamoraron de la décima para siempre. 

“Yo estaba convencido de que esto era algo que podía crecer. Me encapriché en hacer escuelas. Se nos unieron figuras importantes en Cuba y a la juventud parece que le gustaba mucho. Años después, 20 para ser exactos, hay cientos de niños en todo el país haciendo décimas, cultivándolas, estudiándolas”.

So what at first was just a seed, a teaching project in Cuba, also served as a reference for schools of repentismo that have emerged in Latin America. What at first was push, today is translated into doctoral theses that the Cuban poet receives at around the decima in his Spanish apartment, from different regions of the world. The Pepper Method, for its part, is not only used in Cuba, but also in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Chile, Spain, even in Brazil where a school of repentism has been created in Portuguese. 

“Cuando yo era joven la décima solo tenía razón de ser dentro del repentismo, ahora te la encuentras en el rap, en la salsa, en el rock, en el pop, en el teatro. Claro, en Cuba, poco cambio ha habido; los cantautores como Silvio, Pablo, Pedro Luis Ferrer, Ray Fernández, sí la han cultivado, pero no tanto en otros géneros. En mis cursos on-line, solamente he tenido dos alumnos cubanos: la cantante y compositora Melvis Santa y el humorista Marcos García. 

“La literatura escrita en Cuba, por su parte, ha dado todo un movimiento de decimarios, a través del Premio Cucalambé en Las Tunas ―que es una referencia poético-literaria en el continente. La décima no solamente tuvo pasado y tiene presente, sino que tiene cada vez un futuro. Ahora mismo, mis alumnos con los que fundamos la cátedra, todos son jóvenes y cada uno está en una rama del arte distinta, pero defendiendo la décima. 

“Eso quiere decir que la décima, en vez de circunscribirse al punto guajiro, lo que ha hecho es ramificarse. Ahora tiene futuro y goza de buena salud”.

Lorena Sánchez

Periodista antes. Editora ahora. Como a Tom Waits, le gustan las hermosas melodías que cuentan cosas terribles.

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