Makers of Romantic Music in Old Havana

By Yusimi Rodriguez

The Duo De Reyes, Maria and Elio in the Plaza de Armas. Photo: Yusimi Rodriguez

HAVANA TIMES, May 13 — The Plaza de Armas is one of the most pleasant places in Old Havana to sit, whether alone or with company.

There will always be someone who tries to convince you to buy books, stamps, or old cameras.  Suddenly you can see yourself in a caricature that a supersonic drawer has sketched up in a question of seconds, plus they’ll offer it to you free…though if you paid a little change that would be better.

If you’re alone, there will be those who offer you conversation, and if you’re still in the park at around 4:00 in the afternoon, you’ll be able to see a street performance by the stilt-walking “Zanqueros.”  It’s common to also hear the voices and guitar chords of other musicians — professionals or not — trying to earn a living by offering their art.

All this was going on this week when I met the Duo De Reyes, made up of Elio Andres Reyes Rodriguez and Maria de la Angel Torres Solana.  He plays the guitar and she keeps time with a set of claves.  Though they perform most numbers as a duo, I was there when she sang one song solo.

What caught my attention was the pain in her voice as she sang “Veinte años” (Twenty years).  I was seated several yards away and, despite the laughter and the voices of those selling whatever, I was touched by her words – melancholic and calm.  I was able to talk with them only briefly when they finished singing, they were in a hurry.  However I was able to interview both of them two days later.

I arrived as they were changing sites, moving from the Plaza de Armas to the La Mina ice-cream parlor.  They located themselves in front of the entrance, seated on a narrow wall.  Beside her — very visibly — she placed a couple of CDs of their music, just in case anyone wanted to buy one, and then they begin to sing.

Some people stopped, listened, smiled and then headed on their way.  Others didn’t even pay attention.  The pair sang “Veinte años”; “Hasta siempre, comandante,” dedicated to Che Guevara; and “Yolanda,” by Pablo Milanes.  After twenty minutes they paused and she told me: “Now we going to try to get someone to give us something or buy a CD, because you already saw that those who came out…”

CDs by the Duo De Reyes. Photo: Yusimi Rodriguez

HT: How much do they sell for?

Maria:  They go for 3 and 5 CUCs.  The difference is for the case

While Elio continued singing outside with his guitar, I went inside La Mina with Maria, where she tried to sell the disks.  No one bought any, but one man who seemed to be a foreigner yet in fact was Cuban gave her twenty-five cents CUC (about a quarter USD) and a Cuban couple also gave her one CUC.

Maria: Our work is kind of difficult because we sing, doing the best we can, and we receive next to nothing.  But, well… it’s necessary to continue pushing on.  It’s what I know and what I can do.  With my health problem, I can’t do anything else. (Maria has degenerative osteoarthritis.)

HT: The other day you told me you didn’t have any formal training as a singer.  You never studied music?

Maria:  Never.  I won a scholarship when I was ten, because I had the best record in my school and the teachers always saw my potential; they chose me for all the cultural activities. I always represented the school as a soloist.  But my dad had a very low opinion of artists and he didn’t allow me to go to that music school.  I had wanted to study piano so I could sing at home, not to become a professional.  But he thought I was going to become an artist.  That’s why he didn’t give me permission, so I became frustrated in terms of music.  Then I started having kids.  I wanted to raise them myself… At that point, due to my illness and all my allergies, I had to choose this as a way of making a living.

HT: But did you ever have a job working for the state?

Maria: Yes, I worked in food service for many years, contractually, and I studied administration… But the fact is that I don’t have retirement or anything else coming to me because I always worked contractually.  Nor did I complete the time required to be eligible for retirement.

HT: You told me that you sang in activities at your different workplaces?

Maria:  Yes, in cultural activities, also in the fiestas of the CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), for the Communist Party and in social workers’ activities.  I’ve always participated as a way of helping the government

HT: Are you member of the party?

Maria:  No, but they’ve invited me and I’ve been willing to serve.  I’ve always been a supporter of the revolution and I’ve defended the government.  My father was in the underground, and in certain way, so was I.  That was because since I was very little I was the screen for him to be able to move weapons, funds and all types of things like that… He always instilled the values of the revolution in me, to always work for people to be equal.  Though that hasn’t been achieved, that’s the objective: to create a better society.  And that’s what I’ve always instilled in my daughters.

HT: What ages are your daughters?

Maria: One is thirty-eight and the other one is forty.  One is self-employed; she sells household items.  The other one is a clerk at a store.  They’re raising their own children, which means I can’t lean on them a whole lot.

HT: When did you begin singing like this?

Maria: Well, two years ago, singing independently like this.  That was when I met him (pointing to Elio).  We got married and decided to unite our social lives as well as our cultural lives.

HT: How did you meet each other?

Maria:  Here in Old Havana.  Did you see that man I waved at a little while ago?

HT: Yes, the one who told you that your voice was being heard down at the Plaza de San Francisco de Assisi.

Maria:  Yes, and he even has a hearing impairment.  But anyway he brought me to Old Havana, taught me about the world of self-employed work, and later he introduced me to Elio and I fell in love.  He’s a good friend.  So Elio and I got together, formed our duo and made our CD with our own resources and with the help of some friends.

HT: Was he already singing in Old Havana when you met him?

A couple of Cubans who came to the park drawn by Maria’s voice. Photo: Yusimi Rodriguez

Maria:  Yes, as a soloist.  He had been singing here in Old Havana for years.

A couple of Cubans who came to the park drawn by Maria’s voice.

Elio:  I’m from Las Tunas, but I’ve been in Havana since 1997.  A friend invited me, and later I got married here.  I had some relationships, but short ones, and I’ve always been playing here.  I’m a composer; I’ve composed around a hundred songs – some political, others romantic, some guarachas, boleros…and some with Mexican rhythms.

HT: But you told me the other day that you graduated as a “hornero” (furnace operator) in Czechoslovakia.  What exactly is a hornero?

Elio:  After ceramic pieces are molded — for example, toilet stools, sinks, cups and all those kinds of things — they’re are placed in a cart and then pushed by rail into an oven, every forty minutes… According to the oven shaft, these begin with minimum temperatures that can fluctuate between 600 and 800 degrees and then they go up.  After the oven reaches the maximum temperature, it begins to decline until it cools off.

HT: How long did you study in Czechoslovakia?

Elio:  I was in Czechoslovakia for five years.  From ‘85 to ‘88, I was involved in ceramics, and from ‘88 to ‘90 I was a translator, because I learned the language quickly.

HT: Did you ever work here in Cuba as a translator?

Maria:  I could never find work here as a translator or in ceramics.

HT: And you didn’t study music either?

Elio:  I’ve never studied music.  I make it up in my mind.  I hear music and I record it, but I never write it down on staffs or anything.  I began music school twice, but because of economic problems I couldn’t continue.  I made very little money, I had my wife and two children in Las Tunas, and I only made enough money for food and clothes for the kids.

HT: How old are your children?

Elio:  My daughter is twenty-one now.  She has a one-year-old girl, and my son is 18.

HT: Do you go out to sing every day?

Maria:  Whenever we can, because I have problems with my legs.   When we can, we come and we struggle here…

HT: Do you live only off of this?  Do you make enough to live on?

Elio:  Yes, only off of this…There are good days and bad days, it depends…

Maria:  As for this idea of going around and selling CDs, I hope it pays off.  But for me it’s a little difficult, I feel like I’m harassing people.  The problem is that sometimes we need a peso to eat lunch… but if they don’t give us anything, we don’t demand anything from people nor do we confront them.  We wish them a good day and we leave.

Fines for 100 pesos each they received for singing in Old Havana. Photo: Yusimi Rodriguez

Elio:  We’re honest people.  Independently of our work, we look out after the tourists.  Not because the government demands us to, but because that’s what we do.

Maria:  People sometimes leave handbags or cameras in unguarded places and we warn them to hang onto them… But our principal mission is to promote Cuban music.  Traditional music has gotten lost, that music that is so rich that we have here in Cuba… I should tell you that I also sang in churches.

HT: Do you practice any type of religion?

Maria:  I used to practice the Christian religion, but I saw so many divisions and different ideologies based on the same word that I moved away from all type of religiosity and I centered myself on what’s good in the Bible.  I try to convey all of this to my family and that’s how we’re trying to live, each day being a better person.  In that sense we also support the government, teaching people to be better… I see God as the best in human beings.  Religions, like someone said, are the opiate of the people.

HT: That’s what Karl Marx said.

Maria:  Well, I agree with him.  Fidel also supported Marx, saying that the only thing religions have been good at is dividing people and making some people feel superior to others.  I agree with Fidel.  For me the true religion is love… For ten years I was in the church and I moved away from all worldly music, as they call it.  But now I think that any music that transmits something beautiful, something positive, it too is the music of God.

HT: But your repertoire is traditional Cuban music…

Maria:  Romantic music.  We have Spanish music, music by Rocio Durcal, the Mexican who we like so much… We always sing music that is not aggressive.

Elio:  I sing songs from all different countries.  Since I was little, on the eastern side of the island, I listened to music from the Dominican Republic, from Colombia, Puerto Rico.  I used to sing in English.  I know “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” by Steve Wonder.

I’ll sing a fragment of a song in Czech and then translate it.  I also play a song in German, though I don’t understand the words.  I began to study English a while ago, but I had to give it up as well due to economic problems.

HT: Do these CDs that you sell include songs composed by you?

Elio:  The first one includes five, but it’s recorded with background music.  The four songs on the second CD are recorded with a guitar.

Maria told me that she’s 59 and has four grandsons and two great-grandchildren.  She was very sickly in her childhood and that has left its mark.  Due to convulsions that caused her fevers when she was a little girl, she forgets a lot, sometimes even the words to the songs.  Nevertheless she feels that she has the opportunity to expand with music now:

Maria: “I think that at this point I might have a chance to realize myself in music, since I couldn’t do it when I was a little girl.  My daughters tell me that I will indeed triumph, that someone will like my work and will help me.”

Despite their optimism, on Thursday they only made the 1.25 CUC that they collected at the ice cream shop.  On Friday I met with them again at the Plaza de Armas, at 3:00 in the afternoon.  They had gotten there around 1:00 in the afternoon.  “But that time is not so good,” Elio explained to me.

Elio: “It’s best to get there around 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning; that’s when the tourists get off the buses with money, and when they come by here they buy CD’s from us or they pay to listen.  By this time in the afternoon they’ve already spent their money and gone.  The problem is that Maria takes a lot of pills for her pain and she has to sleep quite a bit.  We get up almost at ten o’clock, and though we don’t live far away, the buses are bad and it takes us until noon to get here.  So by that time we also have to look for something to eat.”

What caught my attention was the fact that in a while a concert band would be playing nearby so they wouldn’t be singing.  But for them, earning their daily bread means competing with the noise all around them.

HT: So your vocal chords aren’t affected by singing outdoors?

Elio:  It’s worse when you’re facing the wind.  You should always try to turn your back.

Elio and Maria sing for a group of Cubans that couldn’t pay them anything. Photo: Yusimi Rodriguez

It affects Maria much more because of her allergies, and often it’s difficult to get medicine.

For two hours they sang our traditional music and others composed by Elio.  They also interpreted religious songs, but they weren’t able to make any money.  In the morning a tourist gave them one convertible peso.  A Cuban who was sweeping the park enjoyed listening to them a lot and he gave them another CUC.  That was all the money they took home.

Elio: Tomorrow should be better because it’s Saturday and we’re going to sing at the La Dominica restaurant, in the part outside but where they also have tables.  Many tourists usually buy our CD and give us tips.”

But it’s not only of the possibility making more money; rather, on Saturdays and Sundays they can sing feeling more relaxed, without worrying about the inspectors because they’re authorized to sing at the restaurant, unlike in the park.

Maria:  We have permission to sing in restaurants, but it’s not completely approved.  Up till now we can only do it at La Dominica and only on the weekends.  The permission is for every day, but during the week people in the surrounding offices complained.  It seems that it bothered them.  So, we agreed to sing only on Saturdays and Sundays, when they’re not working.

They’ve been waiting for months to get a license that authorizes them to sing in the Plaza de Armas.  Meanwhile, they live in fear of the inspectors.  That’s another reason they wait until three or four o’clock in the afternoon to start singing.

Elio:  In any case, once they gave us a fine at six in the evening, when we had already finished working.  We weren’t even singing, we were just sitting down with the guitar.  They fined us a hundred pesos each.  I don’t think it was fair.  Laws should be so that things don’t get out of control, but they shouldn’t be that strict.

HT: But you’ve been singing here in Old Havana for years, Elio.  Didn’t you ever take out a license?

Elio:  It’s that they never gave out licenses for this.  I’ve always done it under the table and they’ve fined me eleven times.  They only began giving out licenses this past April, and I paid for one.  But now the inspectors say it’s still not valid, though we’ve been waiting for final approval since January.

Maria:  They say that they’re investigating us with our neighborhood CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution), and the inspectors are keeping an eye on us.

HT: But you’re both supporters of the revolution…

Elio:  When you started tape recording her, I was singing a song that I wrote that is dedicated to the Cuban Five.

Maria:  I want to learn it so we can sing it as a duet.

Maria took out a license that allows them to sell the CDs, though the fact is that the license isn’t for selling their type of music.  Still, it’s a mechanism they found for selling what they do.

On Saturday, though they arrived early at La Dominica, they weren’t very lucky.  The majority of people who ate at the outside tables were Cuban and didn’t give tips.  A foreigner came up to them and he gave them just under five CUCs for one of the disks.  That was all the money they had made when we met there at nearly 3:00 in the afternoon.

I shared their company while they competed first with the show by Los Zanqueros; later they had to contend with an activity presented as a part of the Spanish Dance Festival.  On Maria’s face one could note the veins produced by all her effort, but it was useless.  The sole group of foreigners that we saw walked by several yards away but without paying the least bit of attention to the music.  I had come to the conclusion that they were singing for nothing, but then their luck changed.

A Polish woman who was pushing her granddaughter’s stroller came up to us and stopped to listen.  When they finished singing the song she took several photos of them.  At the end, she paid 10 CUC for a CD, which brought back their spirits.  But when the woman said goodbye, they decided to leave so as not to test their luck with the inspectors.  It was exactly at that moment when a man and a woman appeared.  “Are you leaving?” they asked.  “We were over there at bus stop and we heard the voice of a woman.  We followed it all the way over here because we just loved it.”

They took a risk to sing two more songs.  They were finishing when there appeared a woman who had heard them on other occasions.  She had spoken about them to her mother and finally brought her there to listen to them as a Mother’s Day gift.

Maria and Elio knew that they wouldn’t get tips from them.  People who are able to give them money and buy their CDs are generally foreigners.

Maria:  We have an arrangement that with Cubans we sell them the CDs at the price it cost us to produce it.  That’s to say, with them we don’t earn anything for ourselves.  They’re our sisters and brothers and they’re going through the same thing as we are.

But none of those sisters and brothers that listened to them on Saturday could buy a disk from them or give them a tip.  On top of that, the pair was taking a risk that some inspector might appear.  In any case, Elio and Maria sang with the delivery that characterizes them.  They were very happy with their good day when we finally said our farewells.

HT: I was starting to think that today you wouldn’t have much luck either.

Maria:  You can never lose hope.  It has been very nice, not only for the money, but for these people.  We have lots of fans, you know?  I think it’s been a day full of spirituality.

2 thoughts on “Makers of Romantic Music in Old Havana

  • Thank you for a very touching story, Yusimi! Everyone has a story to tell, but Maria’s and Elio’s stories are particularly interesting. Wish I had listened to them during my most recent visit, last October, but spent most of the month out in San Agustin, and, when I did come into town, it was usually to the Vedado or Centro. It is a pity that so many people, just trying to survive, are harrassed by these inspectors. Perhaps they should take note of how the recent revolution in Tunesia began, as a result of persecution of one particular fruit vendor by one of these so-called inspectors! Is there any way I can purchase copies of their CD’s via mail?

  • Nice interview. Being a lover and follower of different music, I shall be visiting Cuba (again ) from 22nd May.
    I shall look out for Maria and promise to buy a C D to add to my collection.


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