By Helson Hernández
HAVANA TIMES — Mauricio Figueiral belongs to the youngest generation of Cuban folk musicians and is quickly establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. “You have to be courageous to do this for a living,” he tells us during his interview for Havana Times.
HT: What did you do before becoming a folk musician?
Mauricio Figueiral: I always say I’m a born folk musician and an opportunistic filmmaker. At Havana’s Lenin High School, I had decided to study psychology, but I started “wasting a lot of time” playing guitar and singing, as my teachers and parents said, and my grades left a lot to be desired. That’s when the call to enroll at the Faculty of Audiovisual Communication of Cuba’s Higher Institute for the Arts (ISA) came along. I showed up to try my luck at the aptitude exams and, miraculously, I was selected. Today, I have a degree in Directing for Film, Radio and Television. Even though I live off and for music, life hasn’t forced me to decide between the two, and I’ve also been a filmmaker to this day.
HT: From your standpoint in Cuba, does being a folk musician meet all of your life expectations?
MF: Last night, while thinking about my life after a few drinks I’d had with a friend (who is also a folk musician), I was telling myself that musicians and singers who have made less sacrifices than we, who have less training or talent, seem to have everything they want. Then I asked my friend: what does it mean to have everything one wants? I believe this business of success is a relative thing and it depends on the individual to a great extent. Being a folk musician and spending my time standing by my songs has meant developing a passion that will perhaps be with me for the rest of my life, because there is no right age to give up on one’s intellectual passions. This has meant being my own boss, deciding my own working hours, without anyone above me to answer to, without production plans to meet or a few vacation days deducted from my pay.
I am someone who loves life and has set out on the very personal mission of promoting joy, faith, the eagerness to go on. You have to be courageous to do this for a living, that’s true. One has to make a decision which includes accepting that you’re as good as the last thing you’ve done and that sometimes you have money and sometimes not. In Cuba, in contrast to other Latin American countries I know, artists have the popular recognition they deserve from the moment they get up to the time they go to bed. In other countries, many musicians have a 9 to 5 job and only afterwards can they practice and enjoy their art. So, the answer is that being a folk musician does meet all of my life expectations, which doesn’t mean I don’t have the healthy ambition of becoming better and achieving more recognition.
HT: What are your main sources of inspiration when you compose your music and define your repertoire?
MF: I don’t have a formula for composing music. Inspiration comes along of its own or it doesn’t at all. What I do try to do is to have a guitar in hand when it comes. My greatest aspiration is to be a communicator, to tell a story or express a point of view and get my message across, regardless of whether the listener agrees with me or not.
HT: Not all folk musicians are taken in by official record labels on the island…
MF: I am not only privileged in this sense, I am also a bit surprised, because a guy like me who didn’t study music, doesn’t have a great voice and isn’t a virtuoso with any instrument, doesn’t exactly meet the requirements established by our official record labels. I believe determination has been my best ally these past 15 years, the fact I write my own songs and have the courage to sing them in public. There is always someone willing to listen and ready to enjoy your work when it’s sincere and authentic.
HT: What sets the current generation of folk musicians apart from the founders of this genre in Cuba?
MF: We are not, or at least we do not feel very different from the generations that came before us. The history of Cuban folk music is marvelous and it courses through our veins, even if we don’t want it to, even if we act like snobs many a time and want to go the way of international shows, with their bright lights and applause. Those of us who do not deny our condition as folk musicians, assuming it like a way of life more than a music genre, will always have the zest for life inherent to Cuban music, no matter how much we try to modernize.
HT: How old is Mauricio Figueiral, and how many people in his family have artistic careers?
MF: I was born in 1984 to a humble family. That’s how many biographies start in our history books, right? Well, I’ve had a very good 30 years of life. I’ve been composing music, playing the guitar and performing before audiences since I was 15 thanks to the highly intense cultural movement that existed in the high school where I studied. The only artist in the family I know of was my paternal grandfather, whom I never met, Donato Figueiral, a cheap and charming man from Galicia, Spain, who came to Cuba in search of fortune and found art instead. He became a film and theater actor. He acted in several films directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea. He was always given supporting roles because his accent limited his possibilities severely, I am told. He was also one of the founders of the Bertolt Brecht Theater in Havana. Beyond that, I am the only other artist in the family, until I get discovered.
HT: What do you see in your future as a musician?
MF: I feel that I’ve already achieved more than I deserve, thanks to the simple fact of having written songs. I’ve gotten to know other countries, shared the stage, table and part of my life with amazing and practically inaccessible personalities, and received the love of women who are as insultingly beautiful and sublime as the inspiration that embraces me when I play the guitar in the middle of the street. I am not only what I am, I am also what I sing. I am constantly struggling with myself not to feel that this is a job, that it is a passion I must learn to nurture so that it will yield fruits of joy and peace for the rest of my life.