Cuban Folk Musician Alex Mendez: Run-Away Slave in Copenhagen

Alex Mendez

HAVANA TIMES — A Cuba folk musician living in Europe speaks to us about his music and shares his thoughts on his condition as musician. “I learn from what people feel,” Alex Mendez tells us in his interview for Havana Times.

HT: Where does Alex Mendez come from?

Alex Méndez: I was born in Havana. As a child, I lived in Centro Habana and later in the Reparto Guiteras, a neighborhood bordering with Guanabacoa. My grandfather taught me to play my first chords on the guitar when I was 9. He played and sang traditional Cuban folk music in Palma Soriano, in Santiago de Cuba. He had also written his own songs. He would occasionally come to Havana to visit my parents and to play at the folk music venue in San Lazaro, which is now gone. Here’s a curious anecdote: my grandfather sang with Yosvani Caballero’s father, Vanito, who was also a folk musician from Palma Soriano.

I came up with my first song when I was nine, using the three chords my grandfather had taught me. I would set bits of course materials that we were quizzed on at school to music. I was able to memorize them better that way. I graduated from the San Alejandro Visual Arts Academy and later, while in military service, I became more and more interested in music. That’s when I started thinking about writing songs more seriously. Determined to study music, I enrolled at the Gerardo Guanchez Music School, in Guanabacoa, to study classical guitar. I didn’t finish my studies, but I completed two years there. I created my first duo with Enrique Contino. The duo was called “Mendez-Contino.”

HT: There are other Cuban musicians with that last name. Are you related to them in any way?

AM: If you’re referring to the other Mendez’s, like the great Jose Antonio Mendez or the young folk musician Erik Mendez, there’s no relation. The only relative with the last name Mendez who’s a musician is my grandfather, a next-to unknown but talented folk singer from Palma Soriano, Jose Antonio Abad Mendez, who died many years ago.

HT Why the title Run-Away Slave in Copenhagen?

AM: Well, it’s just a song. I live in Copenhagen, Denmark. The song reflects some of the things I felt the first days after first arriving in the city, where there were many new things, empty beaches, snow-covered streets, doors that opened by themselves. I would dream with Havana every day at the time. I would always wake up startled or surprised to find myself in a strange place.

HT: Do you consider yourself a folk musician, or a singer-songwriter?

AM: I’m fine with whatever people want to call me. In Cuba, we say folk musician, trovador, to refer to someone who composes guitar pieces. It also refers to a kind of thought-inspiring music that is concerned with its poetic content and message. I have nothing against folk music but, sincerely, there were times in Cuba when I didn’t really want to be called a “folk musician.” I guess I was younger and still finding myself. I was tired of a kind of official folk music and I had to distance myself from my own idols to be able to be myself. I was in fact a folk musician, of course. A non-conformist folk musician, but a folk musician nonetheless.

Even if the Malecon waa to burn.
Even if the Malecon waa to burn.

Folk music is a great genre but it has an Achilles heel, and it has to do with how different pieces are linked together dramatically. Listening to one or two songs by a folk musician at a small concert is one thing, listening to an entire album or concert by one singer-songwriter is quite another. Not even we, the folk musicians, could sit through an entire album of our music, most of the time we’d end up bored. It hurts to say it, but it’s true. There are of course exceptions. Aware of this risk, I’ve never let this business of “being a folk musician” get to my head. Folk music is just a point of departure for me.

HT: What do we find the most in your songs?

AM: I don’t want to predispose anyone. Everyone is free to find what they want in what I do, or to find nothing. I learn from what people feel. Now, without a sensitive pair of ears my songs say nothing, they’re empty, emptier than a beach in Copenhagen during the winter.

HT: Tell us about Aunque arda el Malecon (“Even if the Malecon Was to Burn”)

AM: It’s the title of one my songs, which is where the name of my last album comes from. When I wrote it, I was composing rather strange son pieces which I called “tragic son numbers.” They had a bitter-sweet quality to them. In these pieces, you could come across passages inspired by classical music, rock a la Led Zeppelin or Metallica, oriental melodies and blues. My voice changed. I discovered a type of voice that was fitting for these pieces.

Aunque arda el Malecon was the first song of this type, though there are some precursors in my first album, Ella no escucha la trova (“She Doesn’t Listen to Folk Music”). I had this psychedelic vision of Havana’s Malecon ocean-drive up in flames, I may have even dreamed it. “Forget me, even if the Malecon burns”, is the chorus. Things were meant to continue as they were. I had gone almost without anyone noticing. That’s what I felt, at least, when I wrote it. It’s a love song dedicated to Havana with a quota of anger, as one can expect from genuine passion.

HT: What is Alex Mendez doing today?

AM: I am working on several projects. My third album is one them. It’ll be different. First of all, the songs are written in the second person. I am the center of the album Aunque arda el Malecon, the person who shoulders all burdens. I lightened the load a bit on this new one. I will be simply a voice that tells stories. I am also working on a project with the Cuban-Spanish signer and composer Tuti, Duo Alex and Tuti. We are composing and recording together. I also do the arrangements. I am doing some other isolated recordings for different projects which are still underway.