How Cuban Music Made Me a Better Historian

Karen Dubinsky

karen-2HAVANA TIMES — “If you want to learn anything about the history of this country, you have to start with Carlos Varela.” This advice, offered by a colleague who was helping me in a Cuban archive a decade ago, proved remarkably true. I arrived in Havana in 2004 to research child migration conflicts.

But what I also gained was an appreciation for music as a form of social history. Cuba’s Carlos Varela has become not only a much-loved musician but also my favourite Cuban historian. He’s a testament to one of the many truths sung by Bruce Springsteen: “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

A decade later an international team has helped to produce two anthologies about Varela – in English and Spanish – with essays from Cuban writers Xenia Reloba, Joaquin Borges-Triana and Caridad Cumana, as well as U.S, Canadian and British contributors.

Good musicians can be great historians because they take us places that only the poets can go. Varela’s music charts the emotional landscape of city of Havana, as well as the dreams and disillusionments of his generation: those who inherited but did not build the revolution.

He performed one of his signatures, “The Sons of William Tell,” for the first time in 1989 in the venerable Chaplin theatre in Havana. Imagining how William Tell’s son grew tired of being target practice for his dad, it instantly became a generational anthem. For decades, Cuban audiences have sung along to the chorus: “William Tell, your son grew up, he wants to shoot the arrow himself.”

His decision to record a live version of the song underlines its importance as what Cuban journalist Marta Maria Ramirez termed in 2004 “our hymn of independence.” On the recording, the sound of a huge theatre singing along builds to a roar when the son tells William Tell “it was now his turn to place the apple on his own head.”

Varela sings about the stuff of newspapers and history books: immigration conflicts, the US blockade, censorship, post-Soviet world politics. But he does so with the musicianship of a virtuoso and the imagery of a poet. Unlike Varela’s Cuban fans, I don’t hear the traumas and dreams of my youth narrated in his music. Rather, I have found evocative examples of epic poetry.

The 1961 child migration scheme Operation Peter Pan – the topic I initially came to Cuba to research ten years ago – forms the backdrop for one epic, “Jalisco Park.” Images of empty playgrounds, flying airplanes, and absent friends tell the story of Cuba caught in the Cold War in the 1960s. Sometimes his metaphors hide in plain sight. I had been studying Varela’s lyrics for months before I fully caught the significance of this line, which begins the song “Politics Don’t Fit in a Sugar Bowl”:
A friend bought a 59 Chevrolet
He didn’t want to change any parts, and now it doesn’t move.

Varela’s historical vantage point is the neighbourhoodneighborhood. He’s the historian of those who observe, experience, and feel, but never seem to make historical change. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic cataclysm it unleashed on Cuba are recounted in the rapidly changing imagery and fast pace of “Now That the Maps Are Changing Colour,” which features burning books, falling walls and empty markets. “Robinson” employs the image of Robinson Crusoe to symbolize Cuba’s place in the post-Soviet world – “alone, on an island, like you and I.”

That Cubans are bystanders to their own history, whose main protagonists are elsewhere, is an oft-repeated theme. So too is duplicity. In Varela’s Havana, vendors sell newspapers that announce there will not be a cloud in the sky, and then promptly take cover because they know rain is coming.

It was easy to find others who believed that Varela’s thirty-year career merited a book. Jackson Browne contributed a preface, Benicio Del Toro blurbed it, and a small army of friends helped to translate the lyrics into English. The Spanish version, published by Centro Pablo in Cuba, came out in the Havana Book Fair. The English version will be launched – with two concerts by Varela – in Canada in October. Varela’s international contributions to Cuban culture were recognized in June, when he was awarded an honoris causa from Queen’s University.

Returning to what is, for me, more familiar ground after this Cuban research, I now think about Canadian history differently. Music – to paraphrase Simon Frith – doesn’t just reflect people, it produces them; a truth that applies to the musical city of Havana more than any other place I know.
My Havana: The Musical City of Carlos Varela (University of Toronto Press) will be launched on October 30th in Kingston Ontario
and on November 2nd at 8:00pm in Toronto

One thought on “How Cuban Music Made Me a Better Historian

  • Thank you for the information about Carlos Valera’s upcoming concerts in Canada. I hope to catch him on one of the dates. His music is honest and deceptively simple, while his lyrics are direct and perceptive:

    “A truth says nothing
    and at the same time it hides everything
    like a fire that never goes out
    like a stone that is born dust”

    And congratulations on the publishing of your new book!

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