Cuban troubadour Pedro Luís Ferrer is well known, and well loved, on the island, but he hasn’t been blessed with the good fortune and official backing enjoyed by the Buena Vista Social Club musicians. Born seven years before Fidel Castro’s march into Havana, Ferrer has matured with the Cuban Revolution, confronting in the process its contradictions and limitations, and his own ambivalence about what it has wrought. Although he has released only three albums in Cuba in 35 years (and three others abroad), his witty, sardonic social commentary so irked the Castro regime that in the late 90s the government banned his music from the state-run media–which in Cuba means all media.
Ostracized by the artistic establishment and many of his musical colleagues, Ferrer took his music underground, playing giving private concerts in friends’ homes, performances that were often recorded by fans and distributed illegally.
Ferrer’s latest album, Rústico, which was released in the U.S. in April, is filled with love songs and humor set to a reworked mix of traditional Cuban musical styles. It’s more danceable than some of his earlier work, which focused on the stark social contradictions of the post-Soviet bloc 1990s on the island, but its social critique is every bit as biting. In “Fundamento,” Ferrer implores, “I want to be told the truth/Down with the little lies/Because my mind gets messed up/And there may be a riot.” In another, he deals with the contradiction between first world vegetarianism and the reality of Cuba, where meat—a national obsession—is prohibitively expensive.
Ferrer recently sat for an email interview with Mother Jones from his home in Havana.
Mother Jones: What audience do you have in mind when you are making music?
Pedro Luis Ferrer: Someone said wisely that “art does not give responses to those who do not ask questions of it.” I offer my art to audiences who ask questions of art. I feel comforted when I encounter people who identify with my work, as it takes away the solitude.
MJ: Do you consider yourself a poet?
PLF: I can assure you that I am passionate about poetry. However, that’s not enough to be a poet. I feel that I have achieved moments of authentic poetry within and beyond my songs, but I tend to throw out more than I save because I am not easily enamored of what I make. I try to be a poet.
MJ: Tell me a little bit about your early life.
PLF: I am self-taught, and not just in respect to music. I was born in a very small town in the north of Sancti Spíritus province—in the part of the country known as “the cradle of the Revolution”—and then moved to Havana at age 11. I attended school until seventh grade, which I repeated twice, and never returned to school.
MJ: How has your background influenced your art?
PLF: I think that it has been influential in all aspects, because I never differentiated between my work and my zeal for learning. I simply saw myself as obligated to study even the most elemental things, and one day I realized that I was illiterate; I did not even know how to write.
As a self-taught musician, I’ve studied music with rigor and have dedicated a lot of time to the guitar; I am always studying something related to my vocation. I am interested in poetry, literature, and philosophy.
MJ: I read that at the beginning of your career you wanted to have a rock band. What effect did that have on the route your career has taken?
PLF: I started working as a professional musician in 1969 with a rock group called Los Dada (The Dadaists), which experimented with essences of Cuban music. I did not know anything about rock, but they fell in love with my voice and arranged and adapted some of my first songs. When I decided to work on my own, I tried to reproduce that same instrumental format, but it wasn’t possible because of the lack of material resources, and so I ended up working with a completely acoustic format that was closer to traditional Cuban music.
MJ: Cubanía (Cubanness) is talked about a lot in Cuba these days, in terms of what is considered patriotic and authentically belonging to Cuban culture. How does the concept of Cubanía relate to your own art?
PLF: I am my own version of Cubanía, and I refuse to let myself by trampled by the dictates of the past or of tradition. I think that all attempts at rancid nationalism are dangerous. Tradition offers us effective resources for communication, with its arsenal of common codes and signs, but a repetition of tradition tends to bore and tire society. Cultures need to conserve themselves by constant renovation, which is my objective in making music.
MJ: Do you feel a social duty as an artist?
PLF: I cannot speak of society as if I did not form a part of it. Every human being has an obligation to society, like it or not, and artists specifically have a [social] responsibility.
MJ: How easy is it to buy one of your albums in Cuba?
PLF: My collection of recordings is quite small, if you take into account that I have been making music professionally since 1969. I’ve had three full-length albums released in Cuba: Pedro Luís Ferrer, Debajo de mi voz, (Underneath My Voice) and Espuma y arena (Foam and Sand). It has been years since I have had an album released on the island—save a compilation of songs from those albums which was made without consulting me.
MJ: How do you manage to distribute your music these days?
PLF: In reality, I don’t do anything to distribute my music. I simply create music, and I offer it to others for it to be broadcast, be they the public or a record company. I was on television sometimes, years ago. Some of my songs (those that do not bother the bureaucracy) are heard on the radio. Many of my reflective and critical songs have circulated on the island by means of spontaneous distribution by a portion of the population that identifies with them.
MJ: Do you think that your music circulated more in the 1970s and 1980s, and if so, what caused that change?
PLF: My music was broadcast in the official media in the 1970s and 1980s, I made music for television series and I recorded some songs that quickly took root in the popular consciousness, like “Inseminación Artificial” [a cow’s sexually charged lament on the industrialization of Cuba’s agriculture, which became wildly popular in Cuba]. But at the same time that those successful public favorites were being broadcast, songs of mine that the bureaucracy deemed offensive or strange were silenced. There were many controversies and arguments with TV producers who refused to broadcast the most critical songs of my repertoire. Then one day, they took all of them out of circulation, even the ones that I composed in obvious support of the Revolution.
From then on, my music began to be transmitted directly by the people who identified with the lyrics of my most controversial songs, by means of fans producing informal tape-recordings. Later, when there was no longer any official venue which would allow me to perform, I sang in the yards and on the roofs of my friends and colleagues. It was an experience that has marked me profoundly; I learned that artists are thunder, and the people are the wind. I think that this was the best and most free manner by which my music has been heard—without intermediaries or censoring. Some of my songs have never been heard on the radio or TV, yet that does not impede the public from singing along with me at concerts.
MJ: What’s your attitude toward the Cuban Revolution?
PLF: I think that the worst thing that can happen to a people is revolution, because it denotes a certain incapacity for harmonious evolution without the destructive charge of implied violence. Having said that, I have respect for the Revolution of 1959, a complex process that overthrew the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista. My family, like many others on the island, suffered imprisonment and mistreatment under Batista. I was born into a home where the Revolution signified the aspiration to live in a world full of social justice.
Today I feel that some things have truly been achieved by the Revolution, and that others have not. In the strict political meaning of the word, I do not consider myself a revolutionary—if we are to understand revolution as an attempt to transform the world by use of violence. I believe in, and try to stimulate, the capacity for evolution by devising ideas and methods which can make a non-violent transformation possible.
MJ: There has been a good deal of animosity between Cuba and the exile community in Miami over the years. What were your opinions of Miami when you spent time there?
PLF: I was taught from childhood that the worst of the worst lived in Miami. The discourse of the Cuban Revolution always spoke out against racism and social marginalization, and at the same time degraded those citizens who did not share the established political creed as gusanos (worms). By that token, I who grew up in the cradle of the Revolution was ready to strike from the map those depreciable beings who obeyed the postulates of Miami—a cave only inhabited by batistianos [supporters of Batista] and torturers. For a long time, that was Miami to me. Certainly Miami was the spot chosen by those who killed and tortured multitudes of Cubans during Batista’s reign, but islanders who had nothing to do whatsoever with that history also ended up in Miami, and the ideology did not want to admit to diversity among the opposition. In reality, people who risked their lives for the Revolution of 1959 sought refuge in Miami, as well as people who believed in socialism—people who were sincere believers in internationalism and went to the war in Angola.
Visiting Miami was very instructive for me. I went through a long, contradictory, complicated, and painful process to strip myself of the ideology that had made me a mortal enemy of those who thought differently politically. I can now say that I have friends there too, and I lament profoundly having been at one time a carrier of that discriminatory ideology which made many decent and honest people who now live in Miami suffer.
MJ: Your newest album, “Rústico,” sounds quite different than your album from 2000, “100% Cubano,” which was more of a statement on Cuban society. What brought about this change in your work?
PLF: Well, “100% Cubano” was not exactly an album conceived of as such from the beginning, nor was it my last album released. I went to Florida to record it, because I felt the need to record some songs—which had been popular on the island [through] spontaneous tape-recordings by the people who attended my sporadic concerts—with studio quality. It joins together chronologically a group of songs by era—the late 1980s and early 1990s—which continue to be relevant, and a few love songs. Out of this came a very modest edition in the United States.
We are now in the year 2005, and as one can image, I have changed in all ways possible. I record in my own studio in my home in Havana, with the impulse of my musical research and experimentation. “Rústico” is the first complete part of an experimental phase, where an large number of traditional aesthetic strands are woven to form a new offering. It is a point of departure towards something more expansive.
MJ: How comprehensible do you think your songs are for audiences who are not familiar with Cuban culture and idiosyncrasy? Has this crossed your mind as you are producing your music?
As comprehensible as songs made in New York for someone who is not familiar with that [city]. The artist is not guilty of anyone’s ignorance, save their own, and at times not even that.
I do not intend to make Cuban culture prevail over any other, nor to diminish it. In reference to the idiosyncrasy, there is not just one way of being Cuban, rather many and infinite ways. It has been said that Cubans are a certain way—party-loving, vulgar, jokesters, lively—and certainly there are many Cubans like that. But there are also different types of Cubans; [philosopher and writer] José Martí, for example, was not festive or a partier, but rather was profoundly dramatic. I think that it is fundamental to acknowledge the infinite diversity which joins us together—which is something that continues to propel my work.