Fito Paez: “Freedom Is My Only Patrimony”

Argentine singer/songwriter Fito Paez. Photo: Alejandro Ulloa

By Yenys Laura Prieto (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – It’s noon on July 10, 2023. With the temperature over 100 degrees in the sun, Madrid’s Gran Via is an insatiable open mouth gobbling the hot bodies. Stretched along the asphalt is an ever-more visible tent city of exiles. Fito Paez knows about these fissures, he’s seen them in part of the public during his current tour in Spain, commemorating 30 years since the release of El amor despues del amor [“Love after love”], an album that can be heard as an exorcism, a moan, a liberation.

When we ask Fito Paez about the Latin American diaspora in Europe, he responds: “Every diaspora brings sadness, because it represents a distancing from the homeland.” He also notes, “there’s “something there that needs fixing.” That’s how this conversation began, a few hours before his concert in Barcelona. But now, we’re in Madrid – in a hotel near the city center where famed Argentine musician Rodolfo (Fito) Paez is waiting for us, to talk about Cuba, its ideologies, and languages; the censorship and the vertigo; memory and the persistence of vanity.

“The Latin American diaspora arises primarily out of economic conflict. But it must be said – there are also ideological motives, just like in Argentina, for example, there are also ideological questions at play. In the case of Cuba, the people who stick with the regime will also be part of the pain of the people who leave. At the same time, I don’t see things as that simple,” Fito affirms.

Regarding the generational conflict, he comments: “One very worrisome thing is that the political leaderships in Latin America haven’t managed to open the door to the new generations, and the youngest among us haven’t succeeded in getting up on their two feet to confront older people who aren’t understanding the speed the world’s going at.” In that context, Fito’s music is a meeting place for those suffering different kinds of uprooting. “I realize I come with scotch tape to join and patch together. On the one hand, that’s very good for me, but on the other hand, not.  People need to be in their country.”

The next thing he talks about is the documentary La Habana de Fito, directed by Juan Pin Vilar, and the importance of downplaying all the narratives – especially those of authoritarian power. These are lessons he says he learned from Rashomon, the film by Kurosawa which shows how a single event can be perceived from multiple points of view. That’s how our dialogue with the Argentine musician continues, a figure who’s now sixty and rejects high-sounding adjectives like “limit”, “icon” and “audacity” because “in the world of show business, those words have been flaunted too often.”

“The Cuban bureaucracy isn’t Cuba. Cuba isn’t a bureaucrat”

While the “Love 30 years after love” tour takes place in Spain, on the other side of the ocean, in Havana, Fito’s words rip at the antiquated scar of the Cuban institutional apparatus, which reacts before a documentary centered around the musician from Rosario. With the city as a backdrop, the interviewer invites Fito to open up about the memories, places and people that define his relationship with the island and its most recent history. An act of censorship and an unauthorized exhibition of the documentary made by Juan Pin (released while it was still being edited) mobilized a large part of the directors’ and filmmakers’ guild to speak out in defense of the right to free creation and expression.

Fito reveals that when he reviewed the first cut of the documentary, it seemed to him there were elements missing. He suggested changes. Vilar made them. New testimonies and archived materials were included. With the Pablo Milanes interview and that of other artists, the musician feels they succeeded in presenting “a broader vision.”

“I watched the documentary and I liked the final cut. I was aware of what had happened previously with the cancelation [ordered by Cuban Ministry of Culture] of the three films – this one included – that had been scheduled for showing at the small site for the performing arts in Cuba called El Ciervo Encantado. That’s where there began to be a little bit of noise, right? [The screenings were canceled] with no apparent explanation, which is how – unfortunately – things seem to function in Cuba. At this stage of the game, it feels paleolithic or medieval, to say the least, to have to explain that there’s more than one way of doing things. There are people who are still stuck on that kind of question.”

Fito continues: “Their snatching of our film came immediately after a talk we had with an assistant Minister of Culture [about a possible concert in Havana]. My manager spoke with him, because I was recovering from an operation on my arm.” In that interchange, my manager was informed about a law “which stipulates that nothing can be said against the regime.” Although Fito doesn’t mention exactly what law it was, several articles of the new penal code can be utilized for that objective, among them article 120 limiting constitutional rights in favor of the “normal functioning of the State and the Government.”; or Article 266, which regulates contents published on social or larger-scale media.

“As they continued chatting about wanting me to come play in Havana, my manager told him very clearly: ‘Look, in these conditions, with this law now being applied, how can you invite Fito to come?’” In the end, he decided not to accept the offer.

After that, an unauthorized cut of the documentary was shown on Cuban national television, on the program Espectador critico [“Critical Viewer”], without the consent of either the film’s director or its producer. Fito calls the action “a childish move,” and – on the other hand – “a kind of ancient tradition of manipulating events.”

In this part of our interview, the Argentine musician explains in minute detail what happened.

“The word “manipulation” is going to hold some weight here and now, because they decided from one minute to the next to show the documentary on open television, without permission from Juan Pin, without holding the musical rights, without my permission. So, that can only be classed as a provocation (…) I’d say that in a ‘minor’ sense, because they seem so childish. It’s nothing like an adult conversation with someone who really wants to have a discussion about it, as you might hold with any intellectual or person seriously linked to a government or a Ministry of Culture.”

Fito heard the audios of the television program, in which “they inform the unwary viewer that things are going to happen there that aren’t right. Then they show the documentary, and later – of course – say: ‘See? There’s no censorship here, we’re showing this documentary.’ Not to mention the legal issue, since they set up a situation that risks a ton of things as a State. They committed what was nearly a crime – or indeed was a crime – not to mention the provocation of continuing to leave out the protagonist of this film.”

As a result of the controversy, authorities of Cuba’s institutional apparatus began spreading the story that Fito Paez had been manipulated. The composer from Argentina recognizes that there are two moments of questioning in the film that especially discomfited the Cuban power structure. One had to do with Fito Paez’ declarations about the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos, [Cuban revolutionary and comrade of Fidel Castro who perished in an airplane crash in October 1959, just 10 months after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Camilo was never found and rumors about his death persist.] inviting people to question an event that was never fully clarified. The other was Fito’s rejection of the death penalty that had been applied to those who had hijacked a boat in 2003.

“It’s the type of tactic used by the old intelligence services. They try to instill the idea that Juan Pin has manipulated me into saying what I say there,” Fito affirms. Regarding the Camilo [Cienfuegos] episode, he adds: “It’s a discussion I had with part of the Communist youth of those years. I suggested: ‘Guys, please, this must be investigated. You don’t have to repeat the words they tell you, especially if you don’t have any scientific proof.’ I told that story [in the documentary] – how it nearly sparked a fight in the Communist Youth House in 1993. They were kids my own age, who didn’t want to think.” Regarding the 2003 episode about the executions, Fito pronounces himself “against the death penalty – here, there, and on all sides – [and] I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to say so.”

“I’m a friend of the Cuban people, I’m not a friend of theirs. They don’t represent the Cuban people, but I really am a friend of the Cuban people and I’m going to be there with whatever needs to be done, right to the last consequences. Trying to accuse me of ingenuousness or present me as a malleable person speaks to the little they know me. It’s also a lack of respect. To make it totally clear, Juan Pin didn’t exercise any manipulation here, because I’m not a man who can be manipulated, and I’m very clear about my ideas.”

The Cuban Filmmakers’ Assembly stands up

Fito has been following closely what he sees as “a very important historic moment in the search for liberties.” He refers to the gathering of those in the filmmaking field that was held on June 3 in the Havana movie theater known as Cine 23 and 12. The encounter was an initiative of the Flimmakers’ Assembly and followed an earlier June 23 meeting called by the Cuban Ministry of Culture, the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry) and the Cuban Communist Party.

“It’s done now,” he says. “We got it now.”

“Enough of putting the blame on the United States blockade,” the musician remarks on this topic saturated by political discourse. “We need to seek more intelligent forms, so that people aren’t dying of hunger, nor in the ocean, nor in any way. There are systems that fail, and that’s all you can say. Defend that – how, and why? To sustain what – maybe the ego of a few leaders? It seems to me, it’s not worth sacrificing a single human life so that someone can hold onto an idea that favors their own vanity.  They think they’re Cuba, but the Cuban bureaucracy isn’t Cuba. Cuba isn’t a bureaucrat. At what moment do the ideological banners represent the life of the people? The people everywhere, in all corners of the world, are simpler, more open, warmer,” insists the performer.

Fito Paez believes the most relevant event was the stance of the Cuban Filmmakers in “getting together and reaching an understanding that there’s an anomaly here… an explicit occurrence of censorship and the manipulation of information in a way that was so ingenuous and so – I’d say – ‘nasty’- that it borders on the fantastical.”

“That world already passed. No one anywhere lives that way anymore,” he emphasizes.

Fito prefers not to talk about the internal disputes, because “they’re not relevant.” But he does question: “How many people who once adhered to the Revolution, today feel defrauded deep inside. And that’s also a grief and a tragedy because the people gave their trust.” If asked about Pablo Milanes, he’ll respond that he was always beside him, “fighting with all of them, with the bureaucrats,” adding: “No one can tell me anything about who Pablo Milanes was in Cuba. I was right there.”

30 years of music after the music

It’s all been recorded on video. Fito’s words have the ardor of a young man obsessed with beauty, but also the lucidity of someone who’s seen much of the world without ever letting dogmas fence him in. “A lot of things happened in the last 30 years that changed us all greatly. I’ve made a ton of mistakes – some of them public – but I’ve also learned. The person who doesn’t recognize their mistakes is going to end up very screwed.”

At 60, the Argentine musician is reediting El amor despues del amor, incorporating other, totally different versions. “there’s something akin to mystery, to simple things like the culture of Sunday midday meals, meeting with friends and drinking a beer and listening to some music and falling in love with a song and having children. All that is in there. The celebration of [the album] reveals a part of that life you don’t see in the papers or hear about on the radio nor see on television, or on social media. Remembering that life of thirty years ago, not only with nostalgia but as a way of recovering an identity.”

The new version isn’t tagged with bravery, transgression, self-assurance, or daring, or any of the other adjectives that bounce around in Fito Paez’ restless mind, exhausted by the media shuffle. The new versions of the album are more a playful desire to explore the language of music. “I’m not a ‘daring’ artist who lives on the ‘outer edge.’ That edge is occupied by a mountain climber who’s there at 16 or 20,000 feet, struggling to breathe. The outer edge and the risk belongs to the ones who are in the frontlines of war, trying to defend their trenches.”

To Fito, music doesn’t advance or evolve – it’s a language. “It contains something beautiful. That decision where your spirit, your senses and your paths of knowledge coincide creates a poetic moment in the construction of a project. Do I have poetic license? I think so – weak, incomplete, full of bad adjectives.”

With El amor despues del amor, Fito made the decision to “pervert” the material. “Why? Because. Because we can. We’re going to have fun and turn everything around. In any case, that may be my brand. There’s something in me that’s very Charley-like [referring to Charly Garcia, a major Argentine figure in Latin American rock and pop music], or related to Luis Alberto Spinetta [singer, guitarist, poet and composer regarded as the founder of Argentine rock]. We’re all into pataphysics [branch of philosophy that incorporates the imaginary realm into metaphysics]. We may look towards the camara, but see a bird instead, and then make that machine for taking pictures transform itself into a bird. That could be part of my poetic sense, in any case.”

Childhood and youth: the body remembers

During the pandemic, Fito brought to life three albums and a book. “I made three albums, one a double album with an orchestra – I’d never made an album with an orchestra before – based on Roberto Arlt’s novel, The seven madmen. The other album was just piano. My editor in Planeta was also interested in my memoirs.” But up until that moment, he had read very few works in that genre.

“I didn’t have any model. The closest thing to that was Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast. That text offered me a good cushion, because it was so brutally edited – you could sense Hemingway’s hatchet. I had also read a biography of [Napoleon] Bonaparte.”

One night, Fito sat down and began to write. Those first lines described the visit he made with his father to his mother’s tomb, when he was a very young child. “That was like unplugging a bathtub; from there on, the water all flowed out, or allowed itself to leave.” He admits that writing the autobiography Infancia y juventud [“Infancy and youth”] unleased very moving experiences, like when he had to describe the death of his mother or construct a detailed depiction of the murder of his grandmothers. In order to reconstruct those events, he read through the court files and the newspapers of the era.

I went through days of tremendous anguish, breakdown; other days I had attacks of laughter. Writing a memoir is very healthy. You enter a kind of roller coaster and end up very different than when you went in. It was very good for me, but I couldn’t escape the emotions. I had to cry, laugh, break down physically. I had to throw up, drink myself into a stupor, engage in journalism, read languages that were foreign to me. So, in that way, it was a fabulous exercise.”

There’s one topic that especially concerns Fito Paez, and that’s the relationship with “the young people in the music business,” not only their relation to music, but also with the lyrics. But that conversation must wait for another time. Right now, he has months of concerts before him and the certainty that he’s always trusted in his desires and never betrayed them.

“I’ve made mistakes, yes. I’ve taken the wrong road, yes. What happens is that sometimes you trust in your desires, but your desires can also send you over the edge. I was lucky. A taxi never ran me over. A bus in Havana never ran me over. They never beat me up after leaving a bowing alley. I never slept with any of my friends’ women. I didn’t lose my drivers’ license when I was a kid. A little of that is luck, and the other is also choice. Yes, I did some things that protected me. I have a protective fuse, something that protects me from myself.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times