By Tom Astley
HAVANA TIMES — Clutching a small coffee cup and rocking back and forth on a heavy squeaking rocking chair, Pedro Luis Ferrer prepares for a day of rehearsal with his new band.
Pearl-coloured false nails on one hand flit from tapping rhythms on the cup to combing his white beard. Despite the relatively early hour, Ferrer is in typical raconteur mood, and rocks vigorously as each story reaches its punch line.
Between pithy observations that bring out the fantastic in the mundane of the Cuban everyday – Ferrer’s lyrical stock-in-trade – he seems as eager to talk about his new musical project. A new line up that brings piano, cello and guitar to the familiar dual voices of Pedro and daughter Lena Ferrer.
The new musicians are all young graduates from the prestigious ‘Instituto Superior de Arte’ in Havana, and Ferrer seems eager to discuss the new sound, and the determined new direction, he and his group are exploring.
Yet through the eagerness and explanations, through the stories and songs, there seems to be something lying just under the surface of Ferrer’s words. A discontent? A frustration?
It’s hard to pin down, and much harder to determine the precise source, but in this new band, in this carefully constructed performance, it seems to permeate every aspect, colouring Ferrer’s relationship to the audience, to his own songs, perhaps even to the state of music in Cuba.
Within minutes of arriving at his fortress-like home where the rehearsal is taking place, Ferrer talks about his reluctance to ‘play the same old songs’, even if this means giving up a percentage of his audience in the process.
“Better to let a fan of the old songs leave his seat at the concert empty for someone who will listens to the new ones” is Ferrer’s pointed philosophy, and it’s an approach which has both a distinctly personal, as well as a more generally Cuban, significance to it.
Personally, Ferrer has had what could at least be described as a ‘chequered’ history in relation to official and national recognition within Cuba. Following a period of popularity that championed his dry wit, inventive melodies and clever wordplay, Ferrer began to feel the force of official censorship.
New material was deemed no longer social commentary, but political criticism; and thus all material was deemed no longer acceptable for state-run media dissemination.
Ferrer, as now, found himself in something of a liminal position at the turn of the millennium; seldom heard within Cuba, yet writing and recording two albums which saw extensive tours and acclaim in Europe.
With the release of ‘Tangible’ – an album which augmented the pared-down ‘bunga’ sound of the previous two albums – Ferrer seems to have clawed back some of the official acceptance and Cuban popularity.
But it almost feels begrudging, and Ferrer’s reluctance to acquiesce to this re-found audience, indeed his desire to jettison those demanding the familiar in favour of a prospective audience open to the new, seems like a radical remedy to a general malaise that may be spreading over much of Cuban popular music.
It is a general concern on the lips of almost every musician I have spoken to here – from gigging guitarists to acerbic punks, to Ferrer himself – there is talk of a ‘blockage’ in Cuba’s musical-cultural system. The record is skipping, the needle jumping back, the same band of sound playing over and over.
Not so much a regression as a lack of progression; not so much a lack of new ideas as the overshadowing and overbearing dominance of established ones, which for a medium which mush change to continue to reflect and determine contemporary cultural identity spells stagnation and a failure to fully connect with the present.
The place of music in the Cuban identity is unquestionable. It’s musical heritage – salsa, son, rumba, chachacha, mambo etc – is vast, it’s musical icons enshrined forever in the national consciousness; lyrics that are never really taught, but are absorbed through osmosis and become part of a common cultural knowledge.
But as well as providing a rich and resolute sense of national identity, it can also act as an albatross around the neck of anyone wishing to expand the tradition, to insert an individuality into the performance, to break from it, or even redefine it; to move on from, or move past, the past.
Ferrer wishes to both act as custodian and owner of ‘tradition’; preserving and reigniting sparks of Cubanness, but adding to it as he sees fit.
In one anecdote, Ferrer spoke of his on-air argument with a radio interviewer who informed him of his “guaranteed place in the history of Cuban music”. Ferrer reprimanded the interviewer, asking “who are you to assign that to me, and why should I care anyway?”
The rhetorical question shows a personal complaint at the duplicity of a music industry that can condemn then embrace a musician so entirely, but also a voicing of this discourse of impermeable frontiers of Cuban culture and a reluctance on Ferrer’s part to become enshrined, and perhaps expected to maintain one’s piece of the pantheon through repetition.
Ferrer’s new repertoire is diverse, combining instrumental, angular compositions for guitar and cello (Ferrer himself doesn’t play on these tracks; he leans back on his chair, cradles his guitar and closes his eyes, becoming one more audience member), with poetry, the searing ingenuity of Lena Ferrer’s songs and his own roots as a solo singer-songwriter.
But, as Ferrer is keen to insist, this is not ‘eclectic’ music, nor is it ‘fusion’. As Ferrer asserts, though he may “drink from many different wells” for his inspiration, his is not a music that artificially melds together sounds and sources as a quick fix to cultural stagnation.
I think some of the anger that Ferrer may feel at the word ‘fusion’ stems from precisely this pervasive assumption that ‘Cuban music’ is somehow a ‘finished’ product – that it has ‘found its sound’, and that it must maintain this sound to retain its sense of Cubanness, and thus anything that picks at the threads, that attempts to rearrange them in any way becomes an ‘eclectic’ and somehow ‘exotic’ take on tradition at best, and an inauthentic confusion at worst.
It is this deference to the ‘greats’, the replication of the ‘authentic’ sound, the dismissal of innovation as ‘fusion’, and a timidity to do something the audience haven’t heard before that produces a blockage in popular music, and is the reason why Ferrer is so eager to seek a new sound, to seek a new audience and to eschew his place in the history of the greats.
The ‘new sound’ Ferrer is honing with his reinvigorated performance is a compilation of Cubannesses which will perhaps not sit so familiarly with fans of Ferrer’s changüisa rhythm, but then that seems to be part of the point. Ferrer is relocating Cuban music away from the essentialised, ‘natural’, easy-going stereotype and towards something approaching a classical performance model.
This is ‘art’ music being performed by classically trained musicians. This shift perhaps serves to demonstrate the concentration, the ‘work’, and the seriousness behind a Cuban music that is often described as ‘natural’ (literally, I suppose, in the case of Ferrer’s album title), that is ‘intuitive’ and, as such, somehow not really seen as ‘work’ at all, but it is also made to relocate the audience away from the participatory (dancing, clapping, singling along) modes of popular music and towards the introverted, speculative examination of classical music.
What is being examined by Ferrer is the term ‘Cuban’ as related to identity, culture and music. Ferrer’s new work examines elements of Cuban identity, gives each its own space, pulls them out of the so-called ‘melting pot’ of Cuban traditional music, where melody and rhythm start to blur into one another, where compositions are seen as somehow emerging from the landscape, rather than being worked on by individual writers.
Certainly Ferrer is a musician unafraid to push forward, but the desire to reflect a sense of contemporary Cuban identity is central to his work, and perhaps this relocated, re-examined tradition can be put to work more accurately and honestly representing a broader sense of Cuban identity.
 The word ‘bunga’ means a small, informal collective of musicians. The term was used in press releases for Ferrer’s ‘Natural’ album.