Olga Cerpa in my "Vereda Tropical"
Olga Cerpa, the one from Mestisay, the one who sings boleros and tangos to you as fados, and fados as boleros (and it turns out well), the one who sings along with Eva Ayllón and Albita Rodríguez on the album women with drawers (Angels' Dawn Records, 2014), is presented at Columbia University's Miller Theater just three trains from my neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. He will sing songs from his album tropical sidewalk which, according to advertising in English, is a tribute to “The Golden Era Of Cuban Music”.
The rainy winter night does not intimidate Yozván, Lenny and myself because we escorted Omar Mederos, friend and colleague of the artist, which will guarantee us VIP tickets. However, the people at the box office, overwhelmed by the mass of attendees, ignore their ancestry and send us to the end of a perfectly Cuban queue. That is almost a soft mutiny of Cuban professionals emigrated and exiled, over forty. Among the hubbub, the predominant accent of the west of the island stands out. Oh, this is the secret and faithful public that the ubiquitous and ineffable Cuban Cultural Center of New York regularly summons to events within the most prestigious areas of the 212 area code. in Manhattan.
Suddenly, we are destined to stay dressed, wet, cold and without dancing. However, Lenny —Cuban-American who flaunts the legendary entitlement attributed, I don't know why, to the behavior of Cubans and citizens of the United States— demands tickets for "the producer and representative of the artist in Mexico" —we suspect that it refers to our Omar. The fact is that they give us tickets in the last row of the stalls, but in the center, just behind the Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. What a success!
The Miller Theater is packed, and not just an audience. The respectable Municipal Symphonic Band of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria occupies every inch of the stage. We are concerned that the artist should sing like a danzón is danced, on a brick, or stiff, like Barbarito Diez.
Our doubts become ridiculous when Olga goes out and stands on the stage, wrapped in a Babalú Ayé colored tunic. It dominates "the short space it is in" with the naturalness of a purple gardenia that follows the flow of the breeze from a Pinar del Río garden. At the concert, Olga embodies what her voice achieves on the album. Lenny, confused, asks where is she from, wasn't she Spanish? Where is this album promoting the concert from? I wonder. We both emulate the bewilderment of the Cuban José Martí over the identity of the Bella Otero when the Galician-Spanish artist appeared at the Eden Musée Theater in this same city in 1890
The songs we heard were composed in the middle of the 20th century in Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba. They are songs from the time when the son, the chachachá and then the bolero went on tour and became the soundtrack for people from countries with or without shores. They are performed by a Canarian orchestra. They are sung by a pilgrim from the Canary Islands with rather Cuban arrangements. His voice, on the album and here, seems Caribbean and almost ancient. The clarity of the album's sound had already revealed to me that it was recorded in the 21st century, then I learned that it was made in the Canary Islands, Mexico and Cuba with the air of past times and others to come. in the poem the spanish dancer, dedicated to Bella Otero, Martí asks and is answered: “How do they say she is Galician? / Well, they say wrong: it is divine”. Out of habit, the curious migrant inquires about the origins and identities of whoever stops in front of him. Olga's hybridity excites the ears and curiosity of the migrant I live in. How do they say it's Canarian? Well, they say wrong, it is earthy, cosmopolitan and so pleasant.
The artist starts very high, with happy songs. In the background, on a large screen, like a photo album, idyllic images of Havana from the 1950s pass by. Photographs and fragments of tourist films that remind me of the pages of the stylized magazines Carteles magazine or Bohemia, even the lid of an elegant tobacco box. To my discomfort, these images dodge any indication of the reality of that time or of what would come later.
Shortly after my childhood I put, among many others, the song in a sailing boat in the essentials drawer. The Sunday joy of this theme returned to my memories when, already outside of Cuba, someone made me a painful joke about Cuban rafters. "... In a sailing boat to the sea I throw myself, may the wind take me very far with you." When I hear Olga sing it and then continue with a bit and tropical sidewalk that drawer is opened and what is inside is poured out. Only then do I know where this music comes from.
Because it seems to me that it comes from Marianao beach in Havana. It's the '70s. A young divorcee sings them to her children with a sensuality without fanfare. Olga is like her who clings to enjoying the sun, the beach and motherhood, because she doesn't have much else. She is fragile and afraid of a frowning world, made of families in toxic decay. That world fears her even more. Surviving a spate of divorces, the flimsy married couples in her neighborhood resist the unabashed grace of her seductive voice. With his children he sings tropical sidewalk, like Olga: "And he swore to me, to love us more and more and never forget those nights by the sea." The children do not understand the hostility of the neighbors; they follow the rhyme to mommy with a song that postpones anxiety, although it does not calm it. Back in my seat at the Miller Theater, with sand in my eyes, I sing a duet with Olga: “Today I can only remember, my eyes hurt from crying, and my soul dies of waiting”.
Unlike my mother, the Olga I listen to is measured even in her excesses. Sings rumor of a palm grove with the just delicacy and respect to the field of those whose hands never plucked a sweet potato from the mother earth. Olga reveals to me that this song is a declaration of carnal love and not, as I thought, a bucolic hymn to the country soul. The artist also dares to interpret Words by Marta Valdés, a song that does not admit more versions. Without straying too far from the grain of Marta's filin, Olga sings it to the rhythm of smooth jazz. The song results in an elegant, sexual sensuality that I have not heard in other more contained versions.
Throughout the concert I contain the desire to judge the meticulous de-ideologization of the event and, consequently, of the music of the town that originated it. A people historically compelled to politicize and take sides. I re-attribute my discomfort to the feedback hurtful of Olga's microphone that already three times has made us jump in our seats. Paquito D' Rivera yells at him several times not to lower the microphone, to raise it. She listens to the advice, the feedback it's over, my discomfort persists. I keep thinking about how Paquito himself always makes his position clear, which I often don't share, in every musical arena where he plays. Still I calm down, this is not Facebook, but a concert.
Olga begins to contradict me when she improvises in I am Guajiro. “I am an islander who came to walk the path of ancestral canaries…”. "There they stayed, making Cuba their home, peasants were the islanders who planted sugarcane...". This contextualizes his narrative. I understand then that his attachment to "what is ours" comes from the cultural and economic impact of Canarian migration in America. I also understand that the album starts from the need to review that link. It is not only that the music of America lives in the Canary Islands, but that the Canary Islands live discreetly in our American experience.
Unexpectedly, like a slap that I appreciate, he sings to us —or sing to me— at piano Habáname with the distressed honesty that the original recording of its author, Carlos Varela, lacked. This song was born in my adulthood, when Havana already hurt me with the same heartbreaking feeling with which Olga sings to it. How much can that city hurt? To remove my doubts that she is a singer committed to a people as much as to her music, she tells us —or tell me— that Cuba should be what the Cubans decide. So, even Paquito D´ Rivera applauds.
After Habáname, a song that is not on the album, I can think of a more contemporary and completely Cuban album by Olga. I imagine her then singing live they say and crossing destinations, of Francisco Cespedes; unfaithful tenths and The rest of my days of Albita Rodriguez; Y The mountain (I'm leaving me) Y old passion, by Mane Ferret. This type of exercise of the imagination, although fruitless, comforts my “…trembling and lonely soul…” in days of isolation.
I am also comforted by the idea that Olga will replicate this concert in Havana, as planned, after a tour of presentations in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, New York and Mexico City. I would be pleased to witness the closing of that cycle in a Havana theater. Seeing again, as in Manhattan, that the meeting culminates in another hug offered by the Cuban public, this time in national territory, this time with me repatriated for a while.