Luis Barbería and Cuba’s Habana Abierta

by Helson Hernández

Luis Barbaria
Luis Barbaria

HAVANA TIMES — One of the powerful voices of Cuba’s controversial band Habana Abierta has returned to the island to record a solo album with the Egrem label. Titled “A Full”, its songs received the Cubadisco 2015 Fusion award.

HT: Did you agree to have your songs nominated under the category of fusion?

Luis Barbería: No. I always say: “fusion, so many crimes are perpetrated in your name.” If people don’t know what to call something, they label it “fusion.” I think the Cubadisco awards should broaden their range of categories, to include such as things as “contemporary auteur song” and others. I would label my work “world music.”

HT: How do you define yourself, musically?

LB: As a singer-songwriter.

HT: Why not a folk musician?

LB: Folk music in Cuba has taken on a connotation that is not as wide-encompassing as the category of singer-songwriter. I’ve run into this when I’ve gone to festivals. People conceive of folk music as something where what matters are the lyrics and the music is mere accompaniment. For me, music is a whole. You have to wed the lyrics, music, performance and projection. What I’ve drawn from folk music is really just its impact, what links me to it is the guitar. I like to move around in concerts, and the folk musician needs for people to pay attention to him – he’s like a thinker. I enjoy adding some drama to my performances.

HT: You don’t hold a music a degree?

LB: I majored in painting and drawing at Cuba’s National School for the Arts (ENA). What happened was that I realized I had all of the technical knowledge under my belt, but that it wasn’t the language I wanted to express myself through. It’s very important to know what you don’t want or ought to do. The visual arts helped me come up with images for my songs. I flirt with colors, lights and shadows. In this album, A Full, I have a piece titled Bolero en blanco y negro (“Bolero in Black and White”).

HT: How did you find your way to music?

LB: As I child, I was constantly glued to the radio. I was passionate about music. I was a child at the end of the 1970s, when music from around the world was aired in Cuba. They played very good music at the time. My backyard was next to the art school yard and, as a child, I was exposed to the sounds of instruments being tuned. I grew up with this, which is why music was always with me.

HT: How long were you away from Cuba?

LB: Twenty years. I was working with my band, Habana Abierta, but we also pursued solo careers. I also worked with the well-known Spanish band Kemata for 5 years. I’ve recorded albums with important Spanish artists, such as Ana Torroja, Rosario Flores and Pedro Guerra.

HT: You even worked in cinema during this time.

LB: Yes, I played a character in a Spanish film that won a Goya award. I played a Cuban musician. It’s something I don’t intend to do again.

HT: Why did you work with the vocal group Sexto Sentido on this album?

LB: I’m an admirer of gospel music, the vocal part, as such. While in Spain, I saw the girls from Sexto Sentido on YouTube and said: “look at what’s happening in Cuba.” After a long time, I came back to Cuba to hold a concert at La Tropical, and took advantage of the opportunity to write them and invite them to do a piece with me. When I arrived, they’d already prepared the arrangement and it worked perfectly. Then came the idea of doing the album, but featuring Sexto Sentido as singers, not as a mere chorus. I wanted to use their talent, and it had very nice results.

HT: The memorable 2012 concert was the first time you came back to Cuba?

LB: I’d been coming to Cuba to visit my family every year. I would come without my guitar, I hadn’t had the chance to come back to do music here. I would travel from Madrid to Havana and then head to Pinar del Rio, and vice-versa. We didn’t even know what was going on with Habana Abierta’s music on the island, that it was being circulated in the underground and listened to at people’s homes. When we came in 2012 for the concert, it was a surprising reunion: there were thousands of people singing our songs. (The group had also come for a concert in 2003.)

HT: Does Habana Abierta still exist?

LB: It still exists. The thing with Habana Abierta is that it’s an unusual band. It’s like a house. Everyone has their own life, but goes back home eventually. It’s like the mother ship. I think that, as long as one of us continues to work to keep Habana Abierta going, the band will continue to exist. Next year, we want to come to Cuba to hold another big concert, shoot a music video and work with Gema and Pavel, who are the masterminds behind Habana Abierta, and make some noise on the island.

HT: There’s a piece in the album titled Georgia.

LB: Georgia is my daughter. I wrote that song for her, when she was only a year old and was in Switzerland, while I was in Spain. She’s now 20. A long time has gone by. She now lives in Spain, loves music and plays it well. She even wants to come to Cuba to take singing lessons. It was very hard for me to sing that song, it says things that hit very close to what parents experience. We want to record the piece together some day.