Sigfredo Ariel, with all the irons
Among the group of people who wrote in one way or another about Cuban music in different parts of the world and with different approaches, I had long been struck by, above all, the chronicles signed by a certain Sigfredo Ariel, whose texts soon appeared equally in printed and digital publications in Cuba, Spain or the United States. I knew of his long list of poetry books, but his geographical location was ambiguous to me. Later, I saw his name as a musical advisor in the widely spread film about the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, and as a screenwriter in the feature film Miradas, directed by Enrique Álvarez, in 2000.
One day, on one of my trips to Havana, for the first time I had the multifaceted character face to face. Or so I supposed. It turns out that, according to him, we had known each other for a long time, when they had casually introduced us, according to his words “in the very busy old terminal of Varadero, in '81 or '82, but without major consequences: 'Hi, how are you? I read you, I admire you. Oh yeah ?, how funny. ’ And until there ”. To which he added: "What case was Mayra A. going to do to a poet of 18-19 years, then 'paired' with a friend of hers?" That counted in 2016 during the presentation at the Book Fair of the reissue of Cubans in music, published by Ediciones Unión, where to my pleasant surprise he narrated that he “was one of those who were looking in the press seals of Revolution and Culture, and of those who cut entire pages to collect the interviews signed by a certain Mayra A. Martínez, author in addition to the photos that accompanied the dialogues those, passionate - and often passionate -, with Cuban musicians, composers, performers, troubadours, directors of orchestra, vedettes… And so years and years passed. ”
I make this anecdote, because over time I often go to his advice and abuse his advice, when I again address the various topics of Cuban music, and I am grateful that he always provides me with the precise information, with the good spirit to support. Things of fate and its incessant spiraling.
So talking with Sigfre - as I call him - led me to ask him for this book about his first encounters with sounds. And then he answered: “In my house music was listened to at all hours. At the age of seven I had a turntable and tons of records of all kinds at my disposal. I didn't study music, although I was once given an aptitude test at a conservatory, but I think my family was not very enthusiastic about the idea of playing the piano. ”
Why did you leave Santa Clara and what did you do at the Instituto Superior de Arte, Isa, in Havana?
"I left Santa Clara at 19, because after the fateful 1980, when I was purged from the Pre-University Institute for 'ideological problems', the environment became unbreathable. At Isa I studied radio, film and television direction for four years, which I did not finish, as a media professional. ”
You break into Havana publishing poems and articles in magazines and newspapers; and, shortly after, in 1986, you win the David Prize with the first of your poetry books, A Few Known. When does the interest in the musical theme arise and how are you developing it?
“From Havana I went to Nueva Gerona, Isla de Pinos, where I started working at a radio station. I learned to write scripts, scripts for plays and to direct programs. In Havana, in 1986 —after having worked in the printing office of the Ministry of Culture, on Avenida Carlos III, where all the programs of theaters, museums and concert halls were made—, I started on Radio Ciudad de La Havana. Soon after, other young writers, musicians, actors and journalists began to arrive at that station, which was a space of freedom in those years.
“In El Caimán Barbudo during those years I published several interviews with musicians, which were nothing more than transcripts of some made for the radio. I still have some unpublished, and others I lost. It is the destiny of the radio. I met a lot of musicians on the station, and with some I made good friends. "
How and to what type of radio and television programs did you go?
“On the radio, I made, above all, musical programs, from the days when it was obligatory to comply in productions with one percent of music from socialist countries, and another from Latin America. At the Isla de Pinos radio station there was an incredible sound library: there I met Mercedes Sosa's great records, Horacio Guaraní's work, bossa nova, tropicalismo - great live concerts by Elis Regina and Jair Rodrigues, by Vinicius, Toquinho and María Creuza, or Bethania—, Atahualpa Yupanqui and the first attacks of that tsunami that is Charly García. All that and more, while I was discovering it, I shot it at the alleged ‘listener friend’, without any consideration. Someone will have taken advantage, I'm sure. It was always better than Biser Kirov. In 1987, on Radio Ciudad, I created a daily space called Los Grandes Todos, dedicated to Cuban popular music, to the memory of performers and soloists who programmed and programmed little or nothing, such as Miguelito Valdés, Cascarita, Arsenio or Machito. I took advantage of the fact that I have a fairly large digital archive of Cuban recordings. I think that show is on the air yet.
On the other hand, for the theater I have written scripts for musical shows, among these various editions of the Adolfo Guzmán contest, with their galas dedicated to genres or figures. Each of those shows lasted almost two hours or more. On television, in the middle of the Special Period, I wrote La hora de las brujas, a program dedicated to children, humorous and original songs - the music was in charge of Juan Antonio Leyva. It was broadcast live and lasted 57 minutes.
“I also made Miradas, a feature film by Enrique Álvarez, with whom I share the script credit. We include Canción desde otro mundo, by Marta Valdés, at my suggestion, in the voice of Miriam Ramos. The musical soundtrack, which is excellent, was written and directed by Ulises Hernández ”.
To which discs did you dedicate the award-winning notes, six times, in Cubadisco? What have you tried to review in those notes and what has made them different?
“Those texts are not written for a contest. They are written for certain albums and then the company sends them to that festival. I don't know how many notes I will have written for albums of all genres for a lot of years and how many designs, nor how many old photos I have colored and restored for the covers. As in my notes I usually comment on the content of the phonogram, then it is not possible to 'rescue' them to put them together with articles or chronicles, because a note on a disc without a disc is nothing. Others do, I don't. Reading Radamés Giro's encyclopedia, I learned that he had these awards, since he had not taken the account. They are all albums that I like and I was very close to their production from the beginning: Los Papines, Celeste Mendoza, Burke and Aragón at Lincoln Center; the songs of María Teresa Vera; the Matamoros Trio; The paths of son… and one for which I have a predilection: In a Havana lot, by the Cuban Folkloric Choir. Look, rather than accumulating data, dates and appointments —which you can find on the internet—, in my notes I try to share the emotion that music causes me. Therefore, the album I comment on must like me. Curiously, the same company for which I wrote those award-winning notes and many others used to pay me a pittance, and when one day I protested, they didn't call me anymore. Lately I have written some free, for the same company. At least it's music I like. "
"Iván Giroud suggested my name to Wim Wenders who had just arrived in Havana:‘ he is a poet who likes Cuban music, "he said something like that. I did not have a phone. The next morning they went to my house, they took me out of bed, they plugged me in a Coca Cola and we went to film in Havana. That was how it was every day, until filming ended a week or so later. That is the version of my entry to the Buena Vista staff ... that my friend Rosa Bosch, producer of the film, does today. I like that version, which is not very far from reality. When the film was released there was a rejection by the critics. Almost all the journalists said that it was a maneuver by the transnational companies to silence the music that was playing then in Cuba. I explained - and I continue to explain - that behind Buena Vista ... there was never such a transnational company, and yet it was embarrassing that very valuable artists, such as Rubén González and Ibrahím Ferrer, were in their homes, disabled, ready to die and be forgotten, as It has happened with several figures of Cuban music. But, no journalist spoke of that. By that date Compay Segundo had already been 'discovered', by the way, by a transnational company. ”
“Iván Giroud sugirió mi nombre a Wim Wenders que acababa de llegar a La Habana: ‘es un poeta que le gusta la música cubana’, algo así le dijo. Yo no tenía teléfono. A la mañana siguiente fueron a mi casa, me sacaron de la cama, me enchufaron una Coca Cola y nos fuimos a filmar por La Habana. Así fue cada día, hasta que se terminó el rodaje semana y pico después. Esa es la versión de mi entrada al staff by Buena Vista… que hace hoy mi amiga Rosa Bosch, productora de la película. Me gusta esa versión, que no está muy lejana de la realidad. Al estrenarse el filme hubo un rechazo por parte de la crítica. Casi todos los periodistas decían que se trataba de una maniobra de las transnacionales para acallar la música que estaba sonando entonces en Cuba. Expliqué —y sigo explicando— que detrás de Buena Vista… nunca hubo tal transnacional y, sin embargo, era bochornoso que artistas muy valiosos, como Rubén González e Ibrahím Ferrer, estaban en sus casas, desactivados, listos para morir y ser olvidados, como ha pasado con varias figuras de la música cubana. Pero, de eso no habló ningún periodista. Por esa fecha Compay Segundo ya había sido ‘descubierto’, por cierto, por una transnacional”.
“During filming, I was not very aware of what I was experiencing. The locations were decided a few hours before, it was filmed in the Egrem studio, on Calle San Miguel, while the album was actually recorded with the singers and musicians. In Buena Vista ... there is not a single playback. All sound is direct. About the filming days I published a long article titled Wim Wenders about Havana. Every day Wenders's motto was A On horseback! ’, Which, in addition to alluding to a guajira that Eliades sings, reflected the spirit in which we worked.
“Durante la filmación yo no tenía gran conciencia de lo que estaba viviendo. Las locaciones se decidían unas pocas horas antes, se filmaba en el estudio de la Egrem, en la calle San Miguel, mientras el disco se grababa de verdad con los cantantes y los músicos. En Buena Vista… no hay un solo playback. Todo el sonido es directo. Sobre los días de filmación publiqué un largo artículo titulado Wim Wenders sobre La Habana . El lema de Wenders, cada día, era ‘¡A caballo!’, que, además de aludir a una guajira que canta Eliades, reflejaba el espíritu con que trabajábamos.
Buena Vista… it was a cone of tremendous light that was projected onto Cuban music, which took advantage of some old artists and angered some 'active' or 'fashionable' musicians, because in their eyes the Buena Vista experience was to return to the past and unaware of the transformations and contributions that had taken place in the last five decades. In Havana, people danced timba when Chan chán with the slider guitar and African percussion was a novelty on the stages of Europe. Today Buena Vista Social Club, of which there is nothing left —except for two or three musicians and Omara Portuondo, who is everywhere—, is one more brand in the tourist packages that attracts the unwary and not infrequently protects mediocrities. "
Buena Vista… fue un cono de tremenda luz que se proyectó sobre la música cubana, que aprovechó a algunos artistas viejos y encolerizó a algunos músicos ‘en activo’ o ‘de moda’, pues a sus ojos la experiencia Buena Vista era volver al pasado y desconocer transformaciones y aportes que habían tenido lugar en las últimas cinco décadas. En La Habana la gente bailaba timba cuando el Chan chán con la guitarra slider y la percusión africana era novedad en los escenarios de Europa. Hoy Buena Vista Social Club, del que no queda nada —salvo dos o tres músicos y Omara Portuondo, que está en todas partes—, es una marca más en los paquetes turísticos que atrae a incautos y no pocas veces ampara a mediocridades”.
You are like a "todologist". Is it in your character to be independent, a little musician, poet and crazy?
“Odio el término todólogo, no hace falta en este idioma, y Músico, poeta y loco es una divertida comedia de Tin Tán. Nada que ver conmigo esas alusiones, perdóname. Permíteme hacer unos números: hace 30 años publiqué mi primer libro de poemas y desde entonces a la fecha ya suman una veintena. Sobre música he escrito varios cientos de páginas. No debo estar tan loco, yo creo.
“Trabajo cada día, en la mañana mejor, pero me suelo levantar de la máquina al oscurecer. Mientras diseño o dibujo, por ejemplo, escucho música, aprovecho para pensar en cosas de música y tomo notas en los márgenes. Creo que tengo buena memoria, lo cual es una ventaja grande, pues te ahorra tiempo para establecer asociaciones. Nunca doy una página por terminada. Podría reescribirla siempre. En la investigación me sucede algo terrible que —me dicen— es normal, pero me disgusta o acongoja, como prefieras: se trata de la aparición de datos nuevos cuando ya la habías dado por cerrado o, lo que es peor, publicaste el artículo, la crónica o lo que sea. Nunca sé editar bien los textos, pues quisiera que nada de lo que he conseguido averiguar sobre un tema quede fuera. Eso es tétrico, pues la redacción se resiente. No creo que haya que resignarse al estilo cortado, sin literatura de internet, pero hay que ir escapando de los ‘excesos líricos’ y de la pretensión de ‘escribir lindo’”.
Have you collected a lot of record material for your research?
“I have never been an accumulator, not even a collector. Since I was very young I have been half nomadic and that has prevented me from having a space to accumulate. The ugly part of the matter is that I have lost lots of very good albums, of valuable plates, that I have never recovered. Lately I have met young people who have more than appreciable record collections. I always stay to exchange music with them, but it has never been possible. These boys are jealous of the original sounds, of the first editions, of the serial numbers, which reveal a lot of data. I really like talking to them, letting them count, sometimes fooling around a bit to see how much they know. I am talking about very young people, who review the repertoire that María Cervantes recorded in the 1920s, with tremendous naturalness.
“Mi amigo René Espí, compositor, intérprete, estudioso de la música cubana, tiene una colección extraordinaria en su casa del Casino Deportivo. Ha digitalizado más números cubanos que pelos tiene en la cabeza, y mira que es una persona pelúa. Si las instituciones que existen hace décadas y décadas, dedicadas al estudio y ‘desarrollo’ de la música cubana realizaran siquiera un pequeño por ciento de lo que hace Espí, de lo que investigan los muchachos coleccionistas, otro gallo cantaría. Pero los musicólogos son vagos por naturaleza, y tengo la impresión de que no disfrutan de la música popular”.
¿Cómo es que vas a vivir a España por un largo periodo?
“I was stumbling around Spain for about two years, with loves and friends. I met there with Cuban musicians that I admire and love. I increased my music collection with great recordings made over there. I had the opportunity to attend concerts by great artists. I will only mention Sonny Rollins and the extraordinary Miguel Poveda. I returned to Cuba at the end of 2013 with the idea of continuing my journey, but I kept staying and here I am. In the late 1980s, I went to Spain for the first time, and I'm always making plans to jump the pool again. ”
“It is true that the book has taken longer than is prudent to appear. Deep down, a comfortable superstition dictates in my ear "it is not yet time." But, lie, it's been a good five years since it should have been published and I should be in another book like that. I do not stop writing about music, on request or on my own, as the cursiletes say. I have a lot of interviews to transcribe, some really revealing —such as Tony Taño's on the Musical Theater in Havana and another, by Adalberto del Río, from the Orlando de la Rosa quartet-, but I don't have time to dedicate myself to that, which are long hours. They have told me about a Hungarian woman who lives in Havana and can do it. With your help, I think the interview book will not be for the Greek calendars.
“Verdad es que el libro ha demorado más de lo prudente en aparecer. En el fondo, una cómoda superstición me dicta en el oído ‘es que aún no es tiempo’. Pero, mentira, hace unos buenos cinco años que debió haberse publicado y debería estar yo en otro libro por el estilo. Yo no dejo de escribir sobre música, por encargo o motu proprio, como dicen los cursiletes. Tengo un montón de entrevistas que transcribir, algunas realmente reveladoras —como la de Tony Taño sobre el Teatro Musical de La Habana y otra, de Adalberto del Río, del cuarteto de Orlando de la Rosa —, pero carezco de tiempo para dedicarme a eso, que son largas horas. Me han hablado de una húngara que vive en La Habana y puede hacerlo. Con su ayuda, creo que el libro de entrevistas no estará para las calendas griegas.
How have other characters with whom you have worked or shared knowledge influenced your work as a musicgrapher?
“One source to always go to is Fernando Ortiz. I have not stopped and will not stop reading Leonardo Acosta. Few books have been as liberating to me as her Other Vision of Cuban Music. I do not imagine how much tangle it would have had to clear if Cristóbal Díaz Ayala had not given us that extraordinary instrument of understanding and study that is his Discography of Cuban music, in addition to that Del Areyto a la Nueva Trova, which fell into my hands at the beginning of the 1990s — a loan from Marta Valdés— that opened doors and windows in and out of the limits of the Island, of the years and the circumstances.
“I have conversations with César Portillo de la Luz and Marta Valdés more than as an extraordinary source of data such as lessons against starch, the phrase made, the criteria copied, overheated, mythology instead of opinion. We must be extremely careful with the imagination of some musicologists, sometimes wild, with interpretations and assumptions that end up being considered truths. Nothing replaces the good libraries and the press of every era, and with these you have to confront the opinions and data collected there. ”
What differences do you find between musicology and musicography, or even music journalism?
"I don't know exactly. Let's throw stones: I suppose, a musicologist is the one who receives from that brand-new career in a university and a musicologist - a term that I think invented or at least put into orbit the old Alberto Muguercia - is the man or woman who deals with music issues with a certain level of complexity in their analyzes, but without the theoretical crumbling that Humboldt graduates love. And a music journalist ... will it be the gazetteer, the one who gives information about a dance, a concert, who does an interview of circumstance? Possibly".
What do you think about the repercussion of this "division" between the musicians "from there, those from here, those who do and those who do not ...", which occurred from the diaspora on Cuban music?
“There are isolated efforts, but they are bearing fruit. I am not a specialist, although I can tell you from my experience: I am often called to do a program called Our song that is broadcast in Cuba and in Cubavisión Internacional. Spaces have been dedicated to Ernesto Duarte, José Dolores Quiñones, Frank Domínguez, the teacher Julio Gutiérrez, those are the ones in which I have participated. A series like that was unthinkable a few years ago, when on the radio - I know - the name of Bebo Valdés could not be mentioned, not even linked to Benny Moré in the days of the batanga. And already when that Bebo was around the world accompanying a flamenco singer, full of fame. Until they put it on television here. And the curse was undone. From Miami they bring me Cuban music that is not available here, for example Opus 13 and Los Reyes 73, on more or less piratuelos records. And to think that I live a few steps from the Egrem archives and that all that is there, waiting for better times. I have hope in individual initiatives, but I don't expect anything from the media. Digital technology makes music walk in an incredible way ”.
I understand that you don't like reggaeton. Is it just marketing? Or does it reflect to some extent the idiosyncrasy of a broad social group?
"It seems to me that in the best of cases reggaeton exalts with very little imagination what we can carry within us: both the worst - absolutely detestable - and the best, which they say is the one made in Cuba and called timbatón That is to say, a fairly basic ode to the guapería. A good musician friend of mine, in Matanzas, has put together a documented dissertation that offers free to anyone who wants to listen to it, in which he shows that reggaeton has nothing to do with music. As soon as he said it, he lifted a weight from my shoulders: if it's not music, I don't have to go anywhere. I don't give a damn if it dies out tomorrow or lasts a lifetime. ”
What other genres do you consider current in the repertoire of young composers and / or authors?
“I am sure of the strength of Cuban dance music, whatever label it has. Now the dancers have returned in La Piragua and the reception of the public is tremendous, not only the famous orchestras, which are in fashion. There is no pure reggaeton there, only Cuban salsa, timba, whatever you want to call it. Good danceable Cuban music always wins out because it is funny, it has a bomb, and it is generally very well executed.
“There are tremendous things happening in the song, Mayra. There are a lot of composers-interpreters, not only in Havana, reasonably young, who are not alike among themselves who are ‘finishing with the fifth and with the mangoes’, with very good lyrics and musical ideas. In Santa Clara there is La Trovuntivitis, which is a constellation: Roly Berrío, Leonardo García, Yaima Orozco, Alain Garrido, Marchena, Yordan ... there is the song with son montuno, with guaguancó, with rock and - of course - with the old trova , among other ingredients. A Friday of Trovuntivitis — they start around 10 at night, with no time to finish — leaves you full of hope, as the tango says. Good artists, real musicians, without prejudice or agony with the song 'smart'. There is also the Trio Words, which are three girls (first voice, second voice and the guitarist) who have recorded an album with works by Manuel Corona with a modern concept and, at the same time, loyal to tradition, where young musicians take part , treseros, violinists, jazz players ... Half of the album is made up of songs by the creators of La Trovuntivitis, and it is a scandal of coherence and good taste. The media? They neither find out nor want to. Except at the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Center, which presents them, records them. In Matanzas there are Lien and Rey, each day more mature, more original, virtuous of their instruments, now they sing a cappella, too. All these artists have their audiences, who follow them, who search, copy and listen to their records. This was the case with Pedro Luis Ferrer when it was banned, with Frank Delgado, with Carlos Varela. I can't go on, but it's a subject that excites me, as you can see.
“So I think there is innovation. I can tell you, almost daily, because this is proper to the nature of our music. Interactivo is a factory of musical ideas of all kinds, just to give an example, each of its shows is different from the previous one and, of course, the next one. On television, hopefully, you will see it once a year. What I was telling you about La Trovuntivitis is a transformation in the song that interests to dance, to tradition and the devil and the cape.
“On the other hand, the bolero-bolero does not have to be renewed. It is there, it exists with its extraordinary works and its misadventures, which are not few. The bolero is already, more than a reference or an archeology service, an expressive instrument. As for shape - I should have said morphology, perhaps - I do not think that an iron structure should be preserved. Some contemporary composers have written, if you want, unexpectedly, boleros in their own way — of the genre sometimes they only have inspiration or allusion, others observe the formulation, classical, or close ”.
“I can quote you, Quédate bolero, by Amaury Pérez; Un buen bolero, by Ireno García; Bolero, from Surplus; Si me pides un bolero, by Frank Delgado; Bolero and Otro bolero, by Santiaguito Feliú; Quito, Septiembre, by Alejandro Gutiérrez, Bolereo en blanco y negro, by Luis Barbería; Bolero inaudito, by Vanito Brown and Kelvis Ochoa; Mi primer bolero, by Leonardo García; and especially, Demasiado, by Silvio Rodríguez. There must be many more. It would be nice to take it as the subject of an essay. Maybe you've given me a good idea. It could be an interesting album, right? Let's see if the interpreters find out and leave the hackneyed repertoire of peace alone. ”
"Puedo citarte, Quédate este bolero, de Amaury Pérez; Un buen bolero, de Ireno García; Bolero, de Superávit; Si me pides un bolero, de Frank Delgado; Bolero and Otro bolero, de Santiaguito Feliú; Quito, septiembre, de Alejandro Gutiérrez; Bolero en blanco y negro, de Luis Barbería; Bolero inaudito, de Vanito Brown y Kelvis Ochoa; Mi primer bolero, de Leonardo García; y en especial, Demasiado, de Silvio Rodríguez. Debe haber muchísimos más. Estaría bien tomarlo como tema de un ensayo. A lo mejor me has dado una buena idea. Podría ser un disco interesantón, ¿verdad? A ver si los intérpretes se enteran y dejan en paz el repertorio manoseado de siempre”.
And of Cuban music, which I know you hear and enjoy a lot, which one do you choose just for your enjoyment?
“Cuando tenía 20 años publiqué un poema que dice: Oigo los mismos discos un año y otro año / duermo bajo cualquier cielo del país / después he visto amanecer mil veces. Puedo suscribirlo aún. Escucho de todo, quizás mayor cantidad de grabaciones antiguas de son y trova. Me gusta descubrir pequeños mediterráneos, darme cuenta de cosas. Pocas veces pongo música para que sirva de background: le presto atención siempre, no lo puedo evitar, ha de ser una deformación. Imagina lo que paso —y sufro— en los taxis, o en un viaje a Las Villas con la música preferida del chofer, que ha sido, por ejemplo, la obra completa de Arjona”.
Tal vez lo tomes como una mala broma, pero imagínate que te “asigno” el dirigir la difusión de nuestra música a escala nacional y hacia el exterior, ¿qué propondrías? Es decir, ¿qué harías y que no harías?
"Okay I accept. First, it would make a kind of bank of recordings, movies, videos, soundies, clips, so that people could access music with complete freedom. It would also widely promote the existence of this fund so that people would find out what it contains, since it would be something unusual. I would try to gain some of the emptiness left by the years of silence, of proscriptions, of prejudices against figures and areas of Cuban music, of seeking a way to make visible the appeal of our genres, of our infinite combinations in the verb of popular music, in In other words: I would share what I find great in this changing, singular and friendly world.
“And, since we are dreaming, I would promote an endless campaign of discredit by the media, who always lie, who always manipulate, who condition consumption. I can't think what I wouldn't do except, under no circumstances, ban music, censor lyrics. ”
How do you see the Cuban musical creative future?
"Cuban musicians will come out ahead, you will see that they do. When you go through the old newspapers you find that people often talk about crisis: in music, in shows, on television, on the radio ... Sometimes I think that Cuban music from the outside can be seen as if it were a volcano that from time to time it erupts and the world is usually stunned by what it sees emerge from the crater. I suspect that Carpentier had a vision similar to this, half geological. I see magma always boiling ”.
[i] Se trata de una compilación de textos de Sigfredo sobre música cubana que permanece aún inédita.
From the unpublished book And all for love of Cuban music, Interviews, by Mayra A. Martínez, 2020.
Mayra A. Martínez