By Helson Hernandez
HAVANA TIMES, April 17 —The members of the popular Cuban duo Buena Fe (Israel Rojas and Yoel Martinez) assured us that the best and worst aspects of their people will be in their songs – translated into the language of music.
HT: Tell us about the most recent CD that just came out by Buena Fe, “Pi 3.14.”
Israel Rojas: When we begin making the disk, we always had it clear that we would be approaching it as if it were the first recording we ever made. In previous CDs we used, in a backward looking way I admit, references to productions that preceded them from a musical or conceptual point of view; some songs even referred to themes and situations from previous disks, though perhaps furthering them.
That’s why the first song is called “Lo que fue y no es” (What was and no longer is) because that was the objective. Starting from here we began to work as if it were the first time someone had ever heard us. We looked for those communicational techniques in terms of music that was sufficiently interesting and alluring, music that would allow people to approach our work in a reconstructed manner.
It is a disk that’s undoubtedly very much based on its context. It shows many of our battle scars from things that have happened to us over the last two years. These came from our international tours, encounters with different audiences and visits to interesting countries, but also situations that were more traumatic, like our tour in Miami. The disk seeks to take from all of that. It’s us Cubans going against the tide.
HT: The song that’s most listened to on this new production is “Mamifero Nacional” (National Mammal).
Israel Rojas: Yes, it’s one of the songs that came out of a tradition that drew absolutely from the trova legacy but with tremendous freshness. It is nurtured from that whole nice troubadour tradition that you mentioned, but with an absolute social component. It’s a song that fits like a ring for all festive occasions, because you know that anything that’s truly festive for Cubans generally ends up with pork, meaning the animal, a pig. That’s why we say in the song that if the pig is on a table with a tablecloth and champagne, it’s a dinner. But if the same animal is on a table without a tablecloth and there’s beer in a keg or in something more rustic container, where you have to put your hand in it and dip it out, then it’s a “binge.” It’s the same things but with a different context.
HT: Concerning your experiences with diverse audiences, how do you assess this in relation to Cubans, your primary audience?
Israel Rojas: It’s interesting because the Latin American public, for example, has another way of expressing their affection. Here, Cubans cram the concerts, they love you, they admire you, but in the end they see you as a normal human being. Undoubtedly, there’s a very interesting cultural difference.
However outside of Cuba — as a result of many commercial, social and other factors — artists are seen differently. They receive a different type of treatment from the public, sometimes one that they’re not accustomed to, meaning they see you how you’re not, like a pharmacy product or like something unreachable.
HT: Israel Rojas, you studied law and graduated as a lawyer, but you haven’t stopped practicing your profession through the music that you make.
Israel Rojas: Well, it’s been a while since I officially practiced law, but undoubtedly I’ve ended up practicing the legal profession or at least the legal profession of my lost or aesthetically defended causes.
Recently a friend commented to us about a song he heard over the Internet by Ricardo Arjona that talks about Havana. It seems that someone in Miami — from a group of people who take charge of these types of things, who harass Cuban musicians and brand us all as Castrists, officialists, despicable, lowlifes and such — made a photo collage, a kind of still photo of this song by Arjona.
In the part where he said, “They wash their hands with the soap of diplomacy,” he put pictures of us and Silvio Rodriguez, and I think he’s going to have to add the Aldeanos to it too, since they’ve just gone over there to perform (laughter).
This friend told me that it bothered him a little to hear this, because in our case we’ve sometimes been highlighting problems that are now in full public debate. He said a good part of this national consciousness found refuge in some of Buena Fe’s songs.
By chance one of these made everybody sing songs like “Dios salve al rey” (God save the king), where there’s a verse that talks about, for example, silencing the voices of the people. And it turns out that today the opposite is what’s being called for. I got a great deal of satisfaction hearing the speech by President Raul Castro in which he called for an end to secretismo (excessive secrecy) and said that people shouldn’t live under a syndrome of suspicion.
This is like what we in fact say in one of the songs on the new CD. This shows that unintentionally we have been, and the word can be taken out of context, but the truth is that we have been struggling alongside our people against the problems that have been the stone in the shoes of Cubans these days, and we won’t stop doing that.
In the future new situations will appear, and there will be my songs, waiting to be sung, to be criticized or praised. In them will be the best and worse things of our people, translated into the language of music, at least into trova and into thought provoking song, to create consciousness and to combat those phenomena so we grow as a people. What I can indeed guarantee you is that we have been connected with our social situation the whole time.
HT: You have been criticized by some people who say your songs have an “expiration date.”
Israel Rojas: I respond to those critics saying yes, that we should hope the song “Propuesta” (Proposal), to give one example, is not a song that my son will have to sing to his girlfriend. I hope that neither he nor other youth will have to think about hustling to come up with CUCs (convertible dollars) to go out on a date. I hope they won’t have to depend on remittances from someone who lives outside of Cuba to do these kinds of things. All this is to say that I hope this song stays like it is, like a fossil of the reality I experienced. I hope I won’t hand it down to my son. That criticism doesn’t hurt us or make us bitter; there will be songs that last and others that will have expiration dates, but as long as it’s like this I believe that we will have made a small contribution to making things change and improve.
HT: Yoel Martinez, how did you meet Israel Rojas and begin the duo Buena Fe?
Yoel Martinez: That was years and years ago, now we’re getting old. Just imagine, I heard Israel’s songs there in Guantanamo Province, in his appearances at the Creative Youth Center or in specific activities where artists gathered when Israel worked for the legal department of the Ministry of Culture in that city.
When I heard his songs, they really caught my attention, but that was far from when we began working together. I remember that he was teaching a song to someone who wanted to perform and I came up and dared ask him: “Compadre, why don’t you do something serious.” So he explained to me that hadn’t found anyone who could tackle that. I wound up saying that I had a guitar there waiting for a good project and everything began like that. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we were in Havana making the music of Buena Fe.
HT: On this new disk you sing for the first time with Pablo Milanes, a recognized Cuban trova musician..
Yoel Martinez: We had never worked with Pablo, and it was a magnificent experience to do so. We were even able to participate in his tour of Spain along with his musicians, and that too was something unforgettable.
HT: The song “Despedida” (Farewell) was the one chosen on the disk to sing with Pablo. Why this title?
Israel Rojas: We came up with two suggestions for Pablo and he was the one who chose “Despedida.” I didn’t think he chose this because it’s a song where, in this case, it’s not Buena Fe entering the realm of Pablo, but where Pablo enters the sonority of Buena Fe. This work deals with a drama that contemporary society is going through; where children are leaving and the parents remain alone. It refers to family rupture.
Then too it’s a little unfair because one sometimes thinks of the case of baseball players, where it’s fair that they leave; but that doesn’t mean that the ones who stay here are idiots, absolutely not. That same thing happens in our situation, we give more attention to those who leave and we don’t value those who stay because they feel determined that their parents aren’t going to die alone. It’s like the drama I’m going through now, because I’m one of those who have stayed and I can see that duality of the drama.
Just as I understand people’s right to emigrate, I also value the sacrifice of those who plant their feet in the earth, for their family to a large degree. It seemed interesting to speak to the issue from this point of view. We are the children in the song, and Pablo ends up being that father, which gave a certain dramatic effect that beautified the piece. The other suggested song that Pablo finally didn’t select was “Song to the University,” which had already been recorded three years earlier.
HT: I understand that this second work you mentioned had a precedent that was — let’s say — controversial.
Israel Rojas: Yes, it was a song that in its moment didn’t have the promotion that it deserved. That was a shame. Perhaps that was because it was ahead of its time, saying things like: “The Alma Mater is owed a deity like the Virgin de la Caridad, the soldier arrived pulling his mother’s head to his chest…” There were some who found that to be phantasmagoric. But we couldn’t even get the music video that was made for this song played on television. I don’t know what happened for a song to be taken down such a mistaken path. It was a wonderful video made by the renowned producer Lester Hamlet, it was also sponsored that year by the FEU (the Federation of University Students), but even so the song didn’t come out.
HT: We say that not everyone focused like Buena Fe did.
Israel Rojas: Look at us; we’re not the types who have fits over anything. I believe that each person is entitled to exercise their function. Censorship or restrictions, I don’t take them as a reason to have a catharsis. In any case, there’s the song, it exists in history, in the consciousness of people who could hear it, and sometimes what that means is motivation to create more songs. Why should I fight over something that gives me more energy to keep on working? What we try to do is promote our songs by all possible roads. If it cannot be here it will be over there, and if it’s not along an official road it will be along a pirated path. But I don’t worry over that, really.
HT: What other artists do you respect to the degree that you’d like to do a project with?
Israel Rojas: There are musicians that Buena Fe respects a great deal. We would love to collaborate with Fito Paez. Also, though you won’t believe it, we would also love to do something with Jose Feliciano, a performer who we admire and who has more than 30 records in English and Spanish. The whole repertoire of Latin American songs we learned through him. His career has also included a Grammy award as a jazz artist. I would also like to collaborate with Calle 13, an admirable group who’s last CD we found to be fabulous. Plus there are types like Ruben Blades, who marked a part of all of the thinking of youth in the ‘80s.
HT: About your US tour that you mentioned, in Miami you had several appearances in the media, especially on television. We saw how your responses were intelligent, convincing and evasive in relation to certain situations that were quite difficult for a Cuban like Israel Rojas.
Israel Rojas: You know, south Florida has a wonderful public. They are people with a lot of nostalgia and much desire to find their culture through exponents of their culture – I’m referring to the Cubans who live there. When one comes in contact with a public that desires that culture, who needs reunion, who needs to change all the restrictions that are put in place so that all of them are separated off in that place that remains closest to Cuba and yet is the farthest away in the political and social point of view (due to questions that are bigger than us), then one thinks that it is in fact possible.
You begin to think that such change is possible, that understanding is possible, that the blockade has just vanished for the benefit of everyone, that it’s not so difficult for Cubans wherever they are to be able to return to their country and see their families. The problem is when one confronts the cause for all these problems: another group of those people who live there and have fomented hate, based on pains that are more or less reasonable, more or less reasonable I repeat. Over the years they have constructed an entire fortress of hate.
So it’s very difficult to struggle against that since there are no words that you can use that reach them. Look, what I think…Christ, they themselves must be jerks, because there’s no way that everything that comes out of Cuba is bad. It can’t be that Van Van is bad, that Los Aledanos are bad, and that Buena Fe is bad along with Omara Portuondo. Or is it that everything’s bad?
For them everything that comes to Miami from Cuba is Castrist, of the regime and other similar epithets… They don’t realize that with that they are denying their own essence and their own culture. I’m telling you, that’s why they attack cultural exchanges so much, they attack them because they’re losing them. With that butter of hate it’s impossible to eat the bread… Said like that, with those words, it sounds strange, but it’s not comparable to experiencing it, that hostility, when they’re hunting for a word to start a conflict. But far from that, the concerts were of a fine quality and with a tremendous turn out by the public.
HT: Is it true that you received threats when you were in the United States before giving those concerts in Florida?
Israel Rojas: Yes certainly. The second time we went we even received death threats in the mail, but weren’t afraid. I admit that attitudes like those bring out the type of person you are inside but that you didn’t know existed until that moment. Then suddenly you feel — I know this is going to sound strange to some people because there are people who can’t understand it because they haven’t experienced it — but they pull out from the inside of you that 15-year-old boy who got behind an antiaircraft gun and headed out for the Bay of Pigs.
Listen, it’s pulled out from within you though you didn’t know you had it. They pull out of you that generation that one fine day got tired of everything and took a bunch of shotguns and stormed the Moncada Barracks. Because that’s when you understand how a group of youth was able to commit the madness of attacking a military barrack.
In short, what comes out of you is the mambi independence fighter that you didn’t know was inside you, and all that makes you want to shout things that could seem redundant here in Cuba, more of the same, but there in the US they are so necessary for you to say … And those experiences are sometimes good because at least they keep your feet on the ground.