HAVANA TIMES — Though not one of the most promoted artists, Ruben Lester (Santiago de Cuba, 1977) has broken into Cuba’s folk music world with an interesting repertoire. His lyrics combine feelings and objective observations. They recreate humanity’s relationship with its surroundings – with the countryside, the land and animals. His most recurrent motifs include separation and the phenomenon of emigration – not only as a background social issue but also as an experience that hurts individuals profoundly.
A mixture of tenderness and intensity, relying on images and phonetic complexity, Lester’s songs are capable of moving listeners while inviting them to reflect on different issues.
Ruben Lester has been a member of the Provincial Performance Arts Council since 1998. He has taken the stage in different venues, both in Cuba and abroad, including the highly prestigious Romerias de Mayo and Longina theater festivals. Abroad, he has taken part in such festivals as France’s TransMusicales, Spain’s Cuba-Compostela and Italy’s M&M.
He has shared the stage with such Cuban performers as Vanito, Telmary, Yusa, Vivanco, Torres and others.
Don’t ever leave, without first putting on / a striped nightgown and a leather belt. / You dream of the swamp, the fierce mosquitos / and madness itself leads to despair. / After the horsehair is wet, the niter becomes fear / and after the horsehair is wet, the niter becomes fear / and memories flourish and break one’s heart / and people, anyone in the crowd, can begin to cry. That’s why I say good luck to you, pal / keep at it and good luck to you, good luck to you, pal.
And after you’ve had your first taste of salt water / the adventure begins and it’ll be all or nothing. / One grinds one teeth and the die is cast, / the submerged face, the memory of your loved one / and, seeing only sea and sky / niter becomes fear. / Of seeing only sea and sky, niter becomes fear, / and the memories that flourish break one’s heart / and anyone in the crowd can cry. That’s why I say good luck to you, pal / keep at it and good luck to you, good luck to you, pal.
Mom, don’t cry, / mom, don’t cry, or I will cry too.
The emotiveness of this song – the strong lyrics and the moving performance of its author –make it difficult to interpret, despite its clarity. I chose it because the issue of emigration seems important to me, despite its recurrence in Cuban music.
Generally speaking, and this idea is implicitly contained in the title, the author expresses a certain dissatisfaction with chance. He questions both the luck of the lyrical subject that undertakes the trip across the sea and that of the friend who speaks to him, the fate of the family and of everyone who see him go away, undertake a journey that has two faces: one shines with the joy of arriving at a new country and of overcoming one’s financial problems, while the other represents the “cross” that waits for him there, that is, being forced to abandon his place of birth and take on complex emotional dilemmas.
I am speaking from the position of someone who has never had this experience, though I suffer the distance that separates me from my sister, who today lives in Venezuela. I won’t go into the issue of broken-up families.
Those who know what that entails, because they have experienced it personally, don’t need me to explain anything, and those who have been more fortunate will never understand it anyway. I will say only that it is as though the person has died and that you relate to them as though you would with a ghost, feeling that you haven’t lost the possibility of contacting them.
The song does not delve into the issue of emigration. Rather, it focuses on the phenomenon of illegal emigration. Strictly speaking, there should be no person or law on earth that forbids others from freely travelling across it.
The song addresses the complex phenomenon of Cuba’s “rafters”, those who risk it all, many a time for an ideal or in search of a job that will allow them to support their families. These people are true heroes – not the ones the nation has chosen or an entire people love, no, but those who shoulder a double cross, that of sacrifice and the contempt of others.
The song’s strong point is the description of what one feels, the nervousness one experiences before departing, when one considers everything that’s at stake, and the fear, hatred and contempt which rafters harbor in their hearts. May God help them get rid of such feelings and move beyond all of that.