Silvio and Pablo in a Corner of My Room

Isbel Diaz Torres 

Silvio and Pablo will remain together in a corner of my room. Photo: Isbel Diaz Torres.

Two of the greatest living Cuban poets are engaged in a public brawl today.  As for me, someone among that public, I’m so hurt that I don’t know what to think anymore.

I’ve always been a follower of Silvio.  When I was in high school, my girlfriend lent me one of his cassettes, which was the first time I closely listened to his songs.  Prior to that he was only some guy who sang on TV on patriotic dates or who they would play over the speakers during political ceremonies.

But penetrating the work of Silvio Rodriguez was like being reborn.  The boldness of this man, with his voice strained to the max, his surly and dry posture, the subtle humor of his songs, the almost childish rage of some of his lyrics and yet the philosophical depth of many others – they marked me forever.

That was in high school, which is where I’ve always thought I discovered poetry through three people: Silvio, Cesar Vallejo and that same girlfriend of that time.

Pablo, at least the one who I today consider the true Pablo, came later.  And he came the other way around.  I began wanting more of Pablo the more that I began discovering his old songs; his recordings with the great jazz artist Emiliano Salvador, his versions of songs from traditional trova, his occasional duets.

The first song that I played on the guitar was his “Yolanda,” given its simplicity and beauty.  His songs didn’t go into the strange chords of Silvio’s, full of sustained flat notes.  And Pablito’s voice is perhaps among the best that any male Cuban singer has ever been able to display.  The incredible tuning, the wide register and the man’s warm timbre are enough to make anyone shiver, even without musical accompaniment.

Yet it’s true that I always preferred Silvio.  That has been an issue of heated discussions in circles of friends, with and without being under the influence.

What was of value for me was his resolved political stance; which is what other people rejected.  He sided with the poor, he hated double standards and opportunism, he criticized bourgeois pleasures, he mocked the powerful, and then there were his sexual and moral transgressions, his anti-clericalism; they produced distinct effects in me and in those around me.

Silvio Rodriguez. Casa de la Poesia, Old Havana. Photo: Isbel Diaz Torres

His music, on the other hand, has always been of the highest quality.  Each disk by Silvio has a particular tonality.  They are completely distinguishable from the musical panorama of the island, just as each is so different from other disks by that same author.

Some are bursting with symphonic orchestras, others make marvels with simply a guitar; some are more experimental and offbeat, others more traditional.

Sure, the foundation of my friends’ arguments was that Silvio was no longer the same Silvio.  Their position was that he’d become comfortable, he’d made a lot of money and that he didn’t have a voice anymore – plus the fact that he verbally attacked the audience in one concert.

In the face of those truths I only responded to myself: It’s that we can see the contradictions of Silvio in all his work and life, but isn’t that the essence of human beings?  While most artists make an effort to always have a coherent public image, Silvio said in his songs:

“I declare myself imperfect.”

“I prefer being open rather than promenading around announcing that I’m marvelous.”

“I publish myself completely, I hate myself probably.”

“I have as many ways as the people who no longer try to describe me.”

In those discussions, I always argued against Pablo, who I found too syrupy with his excessively lyrical orchestrations.  His introductions almost always possess that transcendentalist desire, as if looking for the effect of “Mexican violins” to touch the public’s heart, like the songs by Alvaro Torres.

Of course I understood Pablo’s brilliant idea, but a discussion with friends is just that and one grabs onto whatever argument they can, exaggerating about things just to win the argument.  Otherwise, almost anybody liked to sit down to listen to that Pablo of the “feeling” style – a true artist, distilling Cubania in each note.

And what could one say when he came out with the song “Pecado original” (the Original Sin), where perhaps for the first time in a Cuban song the issue of homosexuality was raised so explicitly, but especially erotically:

“They can rip open their core in the sweetest of intimacy, with love.  Like this, forever, desperately sinking my flesh into your haunches, with love also.  We are not God.  Let’s not make a mistake again.” 

The traps of the new technologies have made these two great men of Cuban culture confront each other today.  It is a confrontation that has been underground, with each artist for many years refusing to perform together in public.

Concert in tribute to Silvio at 60. Casa de la Poesia, Old Havana, 11/25/2006. Photo: Isbel Diaz Torres

I admit that I didn’t like the way Pablo responded to Edmundo Garcia.  So much violence wasn’t necessary to establish that interviewer’s lack of rigor.  I think it was a misstep, and it somewhat demeans his image as a singer-songwriter.

But to now say that with this Pablito has renounced his songs (as did someone who wrote in a comment in the blog of the Observatorio Crítico), that’s a hell of a stretch.  In fact it’s an interpretation without foundation.  Personally I feel that Pablo is as or more revolutionary than ever.   People change, and so do their circumstances, but rarely their essence.

What would truly be counter-revolutionary would be to stand still impassively in the face of the rich and conflicting panorama that Cuban society is experiencing today.  It’s always valuable to try to move, to stretch, even when those movements are imprecise, vague or they seemingly contradict what one was.

Perhaps what’s most contradictory is the reality in which we live.  Let’s hope more Cuban artists and intellectuals bring themselves to express their varied opinions about what’s happening here.  Through this we could then all see how substantial a collectively constructed vision could be.

On the other hand, I feel that Silvio shouldn’t be so extremist and severe in his opinions.  Passion generally blinds sensitive souls like those of these two men.  It doesn’t seem that they’re doing much justice to each other, or to themselves.

I am someone in love with the poetry of Silvio and his songs, almost above any other Cuban musician.  I also find a good part of Pablo’s works precious.  Each has their temperament and their urgencies.  It’s necessary to respect that.

Who knows, perhaps we are in the presence of a resurgence of trova, of its conflictual and truly revolutionary nature.  Of course there will always be those who throw a party when contradictions between revolutionaries come to light.

This situation makes me feel bad, but I hope such contradictions help us to understand the complexity of this world as well as the need (and responsibility) to define one’s own opinion, not the ones imposed by authoritarians here or abroad.

I don’t expect to hear about regrets or apologies from either Pablo or Silvio, but I am in fact looking for refinement in their poetry, which is always a unifying substance.  Meanwhile, they’ll remain together in a corner of my room, forming that still dreamt of revolution.


3 thoughts on “Silvio and Pablo in a Corner of My Room

  • Hey Lizzy, what a surprise!
    I agree with your opinion about Edmundo.

    (I owe you a long email…)

  • Isbel, I love your sentiment: “I don’t expect to hear about regrets or apologies from either Pablo or Silvio, but I am in fact looking for refinement in their poetry, which is always a unifying substance. Meanwhile, they’ll remain together in a corner of my room, forming that still dreamt of revolution.”

  • Pablo Milanés got a little hot under the collar, but someone needed to put Edmundo García in his place.

    “So much violence wasn’t necessary to establish that interviewer’s lack of rigor. I think it was a misstep, and it somewhat demeans his image as a singer-songwriter.” I disagree.

    It’s time that everyone with a heart stand up against the lack of ethics that is so evident in Edmundo Garcia.

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