By Fernando Aramis
HAVANA TIMES — There was a time [in the early-mid 1990s] when Cuba’s Special Period toughened. I was still living in Bayamo at the time. You couldn’t even find a sewing needle then. My city went from being a happy place, enlivened by constant parties and by art, to a dead place, almost a ghost town.
It was the time before I moved to Varadero, when my father was still working at the provincial music center, when only plantains (or “fongo,” as we call them in Cuba’s eastern provinces) were offered at ration units, when cooking oil had gone missing, when people destroyed entire fields of marabou brush for cooking, when I had to beg a tourist friend visiting town for a few replacement guitar strings.
It was the time before I made it to Havana, when things got really, really tough. It was the time when you never had a full meal because something was always missing from your kitchen, when people stood in huge lines to get hold of a bit of kerosene. When you did get it, you had nothing to cook with it, and when you had both kerosene and food, then the gas stove was clogged up and useless. It was the time finding the most basic thing became a mathematical problem without a solution, the time they would tell us we had to stand our ground.
I was living with my wife Nadiezka Rodriguez at the time, in two half-finished rooms on my family’s second floor. How many ups and downs we faced then!
One day, I was sitting at the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes park in downtown Bayamo, jamming with my guitar and some friends, including a nephew of famed Cuban folk musician Pablo Milanes. Suddenly, after I’d finished singing a piece that he liked a lot, he said to me: “Maestro! Why don’t you go see Pablo in Havana? Tell him you’re a folk musician from Bayamo and that I sent you. I’m sure he’ll see you!”
“Man, that’s impossible!” I replied. “I don’t know where Pablo lives or how to find him in Havana. Also, he’s probably a very busy person, too busy to consider an unknown folk musician like me.” But the nephew insisted and gave me Pablo Milanes’ address in Havana. The jamming session came to an end abruptly when the police arrived and, as was customary, made us leave the park.
“Good evening,” they said. “you have to leave. You can’t sing here, you’re bothering the neighbors.”
The park was surrounded only by coffee shops and museums; there wasn’t a single private residence within three blocks of the place. I went home thinking about what Pablo’s nephew had said. Though it seemed crazy, it was a truly tempting proposal. Thousands of questions and dreams began to float through my head.
What if he saw me?
What if he were to invite me to sing with him and introduce me at a concert, as he had with folk musicians Raul Torres and Polito Ibañez?
When I got home, I told my wife and she replied with a smile.
“What do you think?” I asked her.
“Anything is possible,” she replied. “I also know Dagoberto Gonzalez, Pablo’s violinist and arranger, because of my dad. They’re friends and he might be able to help us. My father has worked with Pablo himself at Cuba RDA.”
Excited, I asked:
“Why hadn’t you said anything before?”
Off to Havana
In a few days’ time, we traveled to Havana, in search of the idol. My wife wanted to see him (she was a die-hard fan) and I wanted to have him listen to my music. My family of course helped us with money for the trip. We got to Havana, where Nadiezka’s father received us.
Immediately, I realized staying at his place would be hell. To this day, I still don’t understand why he hated me so much. He was a dark-skinned man of few words, with a penetrating gaze. He was the president of the Cuba RDA center, an institution that made prostheses for the physically impaired. That is to say, he was a defender of the revolution and probably a member of the Cuban Communist Party. He had a small apartment near the ophthalmology hospital in Marianao, which he shared with his wife. We slept on an inflatable mattress he had set up in his living room.
The next day, at around three in the afternoon, we headed to the concert hall of the Karl Marx Theater, where we knew Pablo and his band rehearsed. The band members began to arrive but Pablo was conspicuously absent. We went there every day for more than a week, to no avail – until, one day, I finally saw the Toyota Corola arrive and Pablo Milanes get off. I immediately approached him and said:
“Good afternoon, Pablo! I’m Fernando Aramis, a folk musician from Bayamo, and I would like for you to listen to me perform.”
Very kindly, Pablo replied:
“Look, I’m leaving for a tour in Spain tomorrow and I can’t see you now, but, if you come back in 21 days, I’ll be glad to.”
Following this reply, the one thing we could do was return to my hometown and anxiously wait the 21 days there, because staying at my father-in-law’s was already unbearable. That is what we did. When we arrived in Bayamo, I went to see Pablo’s nephew, who had given me the idea, and told him what happened.
Twenty-one days later, we returned to Havana, to the hell my in-laws’ place was. The day following our arrival, we got up very early and headed to Pablo Milanes’ house. He lived in the neighborhood of Siboney. As we were looking for the address, we began to see veritable mansions. Surprised by so much luxury and that clean and beautiful neighborhood, it dawned on me that social classes did indeed exist in Cuba. All of the families who lived there were definitely high-income, powerful people. Asking here and there, we finally got to the outside of Pablo’s house. He had a small garden surrounded by a painted, aluminum fence. There was a buzzer on the door, something I’d never seen before. His Toyota Corola was parked in his garage. It was all too much for me. Before ringing the buzzer, I came up with a reply, in case anyone answered. I rang twice. A voice finally replied:
“Good morning,” I replied.
“Yes. How can I help you?”
“Please, I’d like to speak to Pablo. I’m a folk musician, I’ve come from Bayamo.”
“Pablo isn’t home.”
“Thank you,” I answered.
I imagined it was his maid or something along those lines. We went back around three more times, to no avail.
We decided to head to the Karl Marx Theater to wait for Pablo to show up. This time around, we didn’t have to wait too long to see him. I introduced myself to him again and reminded him of his promise.
I recall that, without thinking it twice, he gave us an appointment for a Wednesday morning. Despite this fortunate encounter with Pablo, we decided to go to band violinist Dagoberto Gonzalez’ house anyway. Nadiezka contacted him by phone and he gave us an appointment. He received us in his house, which I think was in the neighborhood of Playa. I recall we went there very early, having had no breakfast. When we got there, he invited us in. His apartment was on the second floor. His grandmother prepared him a ham and cheese sandwich, and he said to us:
“My apologies, I’m going to have breakfast in front of you.”
I was stupefied. For a country fellow like myself, this was truly unthinkable.
“Ok, sing something for me!” he said while biting into his sandwich.
I sang three of my songs from the time. When I finished, he looked surprised and was up straight with me: “I thought I’d be listening to a bunch of shit, but no, you’re good! You have to sing those three songs to Pablo, and in that order,” he said to me.
We said goodbye and left, happy, but also a bit put off by the unkind and rather arrogant attitude of not offering us breakfast. I recall it was Monday and that Pablo would be seeing us on Wednesday that same week.
My audition for Pablo Milanes
The much-awaited day finally arrived. It was drizzling that morning. We arrived at the Pablo Milanes foundation, PM Record, at around 9 in the morning. It was the same foundation the Cuban government shut down a few years later, I still don’t know why. It was probably due to yet another, inexplicable and extremist measure.
Pablo arrived about half an hour after we did. He saw us sitting in the lobby and signaled at us to follow him. We went up to his office. We sat at a round table and Pablo said:
“Well, how can I help you?”
I repeated my desire for him to listen to me and he responded:
“Well, go ahead, sing!”
I began to sing the pieces in the same order Dagoberto, the violinist, had suggested. First, I sang a son titled Atame a tus manos (“Tie Me to Your Hands”). When I finished, he didn’t say anything and only said: “Now sing something more lyrical!” It was what Dagoberto had predicted. I sang the song Fidelia. While singing, the office door opened and a young woman came in and stayed to listen. When I finished, she said in a sweet tone of voice:
“What a beautiful song!”
“Thank you very much!” I replied.
“This is Fernando Aramis, a new folk musician from Bayamo. She’s my daughter,” said Pablo.
We introduced ourselves properly and Pablo invited us to coffee. He then asked me to sing another song. I suggested a piece I performed with Nadiezka and he agreed, paying close attention. We sang and, when we finished, Pablo praised us again. The coffee arrived and I couldn’t grab hold of the cup because my hand was shaking. I’d never been as nervous as I was then.
“Well, then!” said Pablo. “Take down my home number and call me next week to meet up and prepare an introductory concert.”
Our happiness was coming out of every pore. We couldn’t believe it. We said goodbye. When we got to the street, I was jumping for joy.
“Now we’ve made it, Nadi, now we’ve made it!” I would say to Nadiezka. “Our time’s arrived!”
Everything had worked out marvelously. The following week, I phoned Pablo’s home, as he had suggested, and his wife Sandra came on the phone. I told her who I was and that I wanted to speak to Pablo. To my surprise, she said to me:
“It’s a pleasure, Fernando. Pablo has spoken of you very highly. He told me it was great meeting you and that you’re an excellent musician. I’m eager to meet you.” I was left speechless. “He’s not in, but call him tomorrow, because he wants to hold a concert to introduce you.”
It all felt like a dream, but I knew it was real. The only problem was staying at my father-in-law’s. We had to look for a place to stay in soon, because he didn’t look at all pleased to have us there. The energy in the house was very negative.
A bit desperate, I tried calling Pablo’s a few more time, but no one answered. Finally, Sandra again picked up the phone, only to tell me Pablo had suddenly grown ill and had been admitted at the Cimeq hospital, that he was probably going to be there for a month. I told her I was very sorry to hear that and said goodbye.
Now, I would have to wait at least a month in Havana for him to recover, so that our plans could be fulfilled. But that was impossible. Nadiezka and I hadn’t found any other place to stay. Having no other option, we had to leave Havana and return to Bayamo.
When we arrived, my entire family was eager to hear the good news. We told them what happened and everyone was happy and also a bit sad over the unpredictable ending to the story. They encouraged me, saying I had at least met Pablo and that he had vouched for me as a folk musician. I called him many times from Bayamo and, despite my insistence, I was never again able to reach him. I don’t know what God’s plan was, but, as they say, he knows why he does things a certain way…
“I came so close,” I would tell myself. I had no choice but to go on with my life as a countryside folk musician.
When I told my uncle on my father’s side, who had helped me with money for the trip to Havana and was anxiously waiting to hear how my trip had gone, he was particularly surprised to hear the story about Dagoberto Gonzalez’ house and the terribly impolite breakfast episode. My uncle was a very generous country man, a man who owned nothing and shared everything. He asked me only one question:
“And those are the artists we’ve got?”