Cuba’s Rock-Country Band: Extraño Corazon

By Helson Hernandez 

Javier Rodriguez

HAVANA TIMES, August 30 — Javier Rodriguez is the the leader of the Cuban rock-country band “Extraño Corazon” (Strange Heart).  He told HT: “In the beginning there existed this phantasm of rock being the ‘enemy’s music’.”

HT: It has always been said that your group is a Cuban country music band.  

JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: From the start we had the luck that the songs played in this style of country music were the ones that marked our group and made us known.  It’s unavoidable that you’re given some label, but fortunately we’ve always liked that style and somehow it marked us.

The truth is we began we were playing pop-rock, some heavy metal, progressive rock and the blues, which is to say we weren’t a group defined by any particular musical style.  But when we started getting some of our country-sounding songs played on the radio, the public began identifying us as that Cuban pop-rock-country band.

HT: How many years has Extraño Corazon been in existence? 

JR: It’s been 20 years now.  We were completely inactive for four years, a time when the future of the band was uncertain, but fortunately we got back on track.

HT: You didn’t fear the risk of playing a style like country music in such a nationalist place like Cuba.  

JR: Well…yeah.  In the beginning there existed this phantasm of rock being the “enemy’s music,” so we knew we were taking a risk.  Country music is the equivalent of the campesino music in Cuba, and yes, there were some individuals that really created resistance to the style the group initially played.

We said it was Cuban country music, and I think it is.  The rock music played in this country has all kinds of influences – British, American and wherever else, but the feeling is that what has evolved is ultimately Cuban.

Also, the themes we dealt with were very urban.  In other songs – yes; it was true that we were moving toward that American fantasy in the movies and all those westerns we were familiar with through books.

HT: Your most recent CD just came out, one titled “Bitacora” (Binnacle)   

JR: This new disk has 11 songs.  It’s the first one we’ve recorded under the Bis Music label.  Prior to this one we had come out with two other CDs, one that was cut under EGREM and the other one with the Abdala label.  We also appeared in two anthologies: one in Mexico that’s called “Cuba Undergrounds” and the first one that came out here in Cuba, a rock album that pulled together four bands that played that style here on the island.  Among those groups that appeared with us were “Luz Verde” and “Cetros.”

Extraño Corazón.

The selections on this latest CD were written in Havana, Madrid and Barcelona.  Two of the songs were composed — for first time by us — during the recording session.  We didn’t rent any big recording studio for that work.  It’s true that they have their advantages, but on the other hand you’re a slave to the clock.  They limit you because you’re pressured by the time factor.  So we record in small studios, but that gives us the chance to be there for hours at a time to get the result we want.

All the arrangements of that latest production were by Ivan Leyva, who like me also appears as a composer on some of the cuts.  This was a closed recording effort, involving few people.

HT: One of the songs on the disk is titled “Wendy.”  Who’s that?

JR: Well, Wendy is my oldest daughter.  She’s 23.  The song doesn’t have anything to do with paternalism or anything.  It’s not only dedicated to her, because my desire is to share everything.  I’d like for all Wendys who hear it to take that song as their own and to feel as if I had written it just as much for them.

I have another daughter named Samanta.  She’s a year and half old, but now I’m going to come up with a song for her so there’s no problem with envy.

HT: What’s the meaning of the other song’s title, “Pueblo Embrujado” (Bewitched Town)? 

JR: It’s because one of those towns is Guanabacoa, where I live.  But it wasn’t so much of a song created with that place in mind.  Rather, it’s a work dedicated to those who are always on top and never look down at the people below.

HT: Since we’re discussing some of the titles included on that CD, another of its hits has been “Malas Costumbres” (Bad Habits).  Is this composition referring to something in particular? 

JR: Well, you see, I have the bad habit of reading wherever I find myself, even at the dinner table.  Of course I’m talking about when I’m at home, because I wouldn’t do that in a restaurant – though one time I did start reading a newspaper in one.  The point is that what’s good for one person can be bad for another, and I believe that everybody has their bad habits.  That’s what the song is about.

HT: In what exact circumstances was Extraño Corazon created? 

JR:  We were simply two friends.  I played the guitar while the singing was done by Roberto Fajardo (better known as “Keko”).  We would go sit on the Malecon seawall to sing songs we had composed or ones we’d heard on records, because you know that lots of people hang out and walk along the Malecon.

Extraño Corazon in concert.

That was the epoch of the Special Period crisis here on the island, so doing this was a way to escape from those endless blackouts, and since the Malecon was right in front of my house, we could jam, fall in love and get some fresh air all at the same time.

One time the musicians in the group “Arte Vivo” passed by and we all talked.  They said that we had talent but that the Malecon wasn’t the place for us to play our music.  So, they started working with us, featuring us in their performances and helping us with our first arrangements, until they finally let us out on our own to pursue our own path.  “Arte Vivo” was one of the most listened to pop-rock collectives at that time, and to me their lead singer (Manuel Camejo) continues to be one of the best singers that has passed through here in that genre.

HT: Extraño Corazon has had many changes among the band members over time.  

JR: I don’t know of a single band that since their founding to the present time has maintained its original members.  It’s very difficult to be in the situation that all of us know exists on the island.  Each person’s dreams and paths are not the same; consequently there have been frequent comings and goings by different members of the group.

Currently we’re made up of vocalist Issan Ortiz, Maykel Belette (lead guitar), Adem Rguez (bass), Rolando “Roly” Fdez (on drums and server),  and me – Javier Rodriguez (guitarist, arranger, composer and leader of the band).  This has turned out to be a good mixture of faithful veterans and young musicians who have done a good job adapting their interests in sound.

Like I said, we just finished recording the CD “Bitacora” – an oldies album that was put out under the Bis Music label and produced by the four hands of Jose M. Garcia and Ivan Leyva.  It has now hit the market, continuing our aim of saying certain things in a peculiar manner and with a commitment to intelligent music.   This is another attempt to navigate as far away as possible from the storms of life and as close as we can to people’s hearts, delighting the followers and lovers of good music.

HT: We’d like to know about your musical training and your professional background.  

JR: I had been a construction technition, which is to say I was in the world of architecture.  I was also in public relations; I used to direct a number of radio shows.  I practiced my profession as a technician until the 1990s, which was when I realized that it didn’t have anything to do with my true aspirations.

I would always get to work late, so I was sanctioned.  It wasn’t that I was undisciplined; I’d simply stay up too late composing music – my real love; but as a result, I let my other obligations slip.  I figured that I finally had to take the chance and pursue my dream of music – and here I am.