Interview with Pedro Luis Ferrer

I’d like to start with your plans: your recordings and the tours you’re planning.

Before I tell you I’d just like to thank Consenso for doing this interview. No reporter from the official, mainstream press has dared to come here to interview me: it’s as if I had the plague or like I don’t even exist. It’s heartening to see that you’ve decided otherwise: that you haven’t bowed to a level of obedience characteristic of Cuban journalism during the last few years. And also that you do it modestly because it’s in restraint that we can find some kind of truth. Not a specific truth, but a movement towards much smaller truths.

The most important things happening in my professional life at the moment is that in a few days I’m starting a new tour in Spain with the band promoting the CD Rústico, which we recorded last year as well as doing stuff from the new CD called Natural. When I say ‘tour’ what I mean is that we’re off to Spain to organise the tour – at the moment we’ve only got one date at the beginning of October.

Wasn’t the CD before your last The Best of ‘Pedro Luís Ferre’ (‘Lo mejor de Pedro Luís Ferrer’)?
No. That was a selection made by EGREM in Cuba without even discussing it with me. I had nothing to do with it. They’re archive recordings, released as if posthumously.
The recordings I mentioned before are the first two in a collection of four disks for a small record company called Ultra Records in New York. The collection’s called Escondida. There’ll be older recordings of songs people know as well as material written specially for the the collection. The two remaining discs haven’t been titled yet but they’ll follow the style of the first two using language that can be understood in Spanish and English.

Where were they produced?
Everything was done at home. I delivered the master disc to the record company who only needed to copy and distribute it.

Did they impose any conditions?

No. From a creative point of view they had no influence. The only suggestion they made was to change the order of some of the tracks on the disc and they did translate all of the songs into English (?).

What’s your official status as an artist in Cuba?
I’m part of a group called Centro Nacional de la Música Popular (the national centre for popular/folk music) which took on a large number of artists from the la Agrupación de Conciertos (Performing Artists’ Group). In order for me to be a professional musician I had to be incorporated, administratively, by an official organ of the Ministry of Culture. They pay me a salary of 500 Cuban pesos a month which I’m thankful for: it pays my electricity bill. Actually, I think of myself as an ‘eventual migrant’. I live here in Cuba but earn money working abroad. If I didn’t do that I wouldn’t be able to buy equipment or repair what I already have. Guitar strings are expensive. It costs 100 convertible Cuban pesos (2,500 cuban pesos, i.e., three months salary) to repair a microphone. Friends lend me software to record and mix the music. If they didn’t I wouldn’t be able to buy it for myself. With the money I earn in Cuba as a musician I wouldn’t be able to make music, everything’s just too expensive. That’s why I think of myself as an eventual migrant. I solve most of my financial problems by working outside of Cuba. I’d like to earn it here but I because of administrative will or rather lack of it, I can’t. I’m here following the rules of the game. People are wrong to think that it’s only by leaving Cuba definitively that you become an economic migrant. Many of us are economic migrants even though we live in Cuba.

When I asked about your plans you focussed exclusively on important professional plans you have as a musician. Do you have any plans which are more to do with your private life?
Yes, I do, but they are really linked to my life as a musician. I want to experience other types of music. Test out other ideas. Live another reality.

In Cuba there is an obsession with labeling everything, including music. Some people categorise you with La Nueva Trova. What do you think about it?

I think that La Nueva Trova is Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés y Noel Nicola and the kinds of influences they had on each other. And then it was institutionalised. Of course it’s an aesthetic that influenced and continues to influence a lot of artists in the same way that traditional Cuban trova and José Antonio Méndez’s feeling had, and has, an influence. The problem is in the eagerness to situate La Nueva Trova as the turning point for revolutionary culture and forget that within that movement there were other artists whose names were unknown even by the movement itself.

So, in your case you’re in the draw labelled ‘Pedro Luís Ferrer’?

I’m a Cuban artist but I don’t feel an artistic tie to processes of Cubanness. These are values which are manipulated and even pernicious (?). I’m the Cuban I want to be and I’ve always said that. And I have every right to filter from Cuban music whatever interests me and leave whatever doesn’t interest me. I don’t aim to be Cuban. Being Cuban is not a virtue, just an accident. It’s like being small, or black, or blonde. The thing is, I’m part of a group who learned how to be Cuban and how to like one thing or another. And I remember thinking, for example, that it was heresy for a Cuban orchestra to use a Brazilian instrument. But this was just part of a nationalist logic that they fed you. I don’t feel a prisoner of anything, least of all what I’m doing now. Nationalism and tradition tend to stifle nations. People get tired of their own traditions and look for others but they need to be aware of them in order to make sense of those others. If you don’t understand and use certain codes then whatever society you happen to be communicating with won’t be able to understand you.

Tradition interests me as a means of communication. But something that people neither practice nor are aware of is no longer a tradition. Danzón is a Cuban national dance but, come on, who dances danzón now in Cuba? I think that there is a historical nationhood and that this country has been many Cubas and will continue to be many Cubas in the future. There are things that are Cuban for historical reasons; they were situated in a particular moment when people were aware of them, participated in them and made them their own. But those things can only play a part in real life if they continue to be used, if they have a role in new communicative needs.

You’re someone who performs rarely. Whose idea is this?
It’s been two years since I took a trip out of Cuba and in that time I’ve given six concerts. To be honest, I lost the desire to perform in public when the official performance spaces, theatres, radio and television, were taken away from me. One day, at the end of the 80s, I was called to a meeting where I was told I wouldn’t be required to give public performances for a while. This lasted for about two years. It all started during a trip I did to Perú where I said things that weren’t appreciated. When I got back to Cuba I was linked to human rights activists. There was a strange atmosphere around all of this at the time and by the end I was excluded from all the performance spaces. The musicians who were working with me moved on. I went home and started another journey which involved performing in friends’ houses and recording my work myself. It was a more independent route. I do enjoy performing in public. What I don’t like is not being able to say in public what I want to say. I wasn’t being disrespectful. The problem is that there are people here who think that defending alternative ideas is disrespectful. I didn’t want to perform a version of me stripped of what I think. I don’t understand why there are people here who have the freedom to say what they think and others who don’t. When I get the opportunity I say what I think and perform the way I want.

After being ostracised for two years your songs began to be played on the radio. Was there anything in particular that caused this change in behaviour of the authorities towards you?
Nothing in particular, no. What happened was that these intermediaries who decided which songs to include and which exclude started to present a fragmented picture of me. For example, they played Las Artilleras but not Marucha la jinetera. They put on La vaquita Pijirigua, but never played Ciento por ciento cubano. This was the period when it was held that the press and even art had to be ‘official’/ follow the party line. I sang Las Artilleras from the heart and I’ve never turned my back (repudiated) it because when I composed it I believed in the defence of the revolution and in the inclusion of women in all tasks. But at the same in that same period the phenomenon of jineterismo emerged and I thought it was important to talk about that as well. I started to take stock of things that were happening and that had happened in Cuba such as UMAP, the repression of homosexuals and religious believers. To be honest, I’d been ignorant about these things. But I started to see things, to ask myself how it was possible that my father, a convinced revolutionary, had to hide his faith in San Lazara while a cualqiera could show off a bust of Lenin on his desk.
These things begin to get to you and I started to react. More than having a clear idea about what was happening I thought “Something’s not working right here. The Revolution shouldn’t be like this. This shouldn’t be happening in the name of the Revolution.” I was a young guy brought up by a father who supported Fidel and who, after every bad thing that happened, repeated: Fidel defintitely doesn’t know about this. Wait ’til he finds out.”

Because of this I started to protest under the banner of the Revolution and as well as criticising I eulogised. But what I can’t stand is any official forcing me to produce art according to the party line – where would I be if I did and then sang Las Artilleras? I’m no opportunist when I eulogise. I’m someone who sings what he believes. And I also believe in what I sing when I say: ‘He’s madly in love with boys and he likes then healthy and strong and they discriminate against him for this’. It pains me to see what’s happening with tourism and money here and this is what, amongst other things, I wanted Fidel to know about. At the end of it all I’m really grateful for what happened to me because I understood a lot from it including the fact that whilst I had been a victim I had also victimised others.

When did you victimise others?
In a lot of circumstances where I was neither aware nor had enough information I found myself supporting things that life subsequently taught be were false. But as I remember saying to someone: ‘No-one knows the past that awaits them.’ We’ve made this reality together and it’s legitimate to have the right to dismantle it when we realise that it’s bad.

We’re not just political animals but also people who change according to our spriritual aspirations and ambitions for well-being. Some people think it’s possible place political truths above the very fact of being human, but I don’t. I think that being human stands above any other consideration.

Everything that stands in the way of human freedoms, that’s against a person’s possibility to express themselves in politics, in economics, in religion, in art, in everything that is part of being alive, isn’t good.

Tell me about your fans? Have you ever felt a distance from them?

I’ve been really surprised by my fans. Such as performing with hundreds of people in the audience singing along with me to a song that has never been put on the radio or television. That was a great lesson that teaches you that a society is not passive but active. With the development of technology anyone can have a device that allows them to choose what music to listen to without having to wait for it to be played on the radio. I remember my uncle telling me something important I’ve never forgotten. He said that the radio and television weren’t mass media because of their reach but because of the mass of people who decide to listen in. That if radio or television broadcast something that I don’t want to pay attention to, I can simply turn it off. Some people think that just because the radio is broadcasting, everyone is listening. I discovered instead that if someone asks another to listen to a song because it responsed to a need that that person had, then a real sharing takes place between people. It’s as the asian aphorism says: an artist is the thunder, the audience the wind. You can block my songs on the radion but you can’t block me. I’m able to make music and there are lots of ways of getting that music to an audience. They’d have to pass law prohibiting people from listening to my music.

But it’s true that while everyone knows you in Cuba not everyone can listen to you.

You’re right. Fewer people are able to listen but it’s also true, as Arnold Hauser said, art doesn’t reply if you don’t ask it questions. A fe days ago I was in the Ministry of Culture getting things organised for the trip to Spain. As I was walking down the corridor an official there said: ‘So you’re not singing anymore’. I told him: ‘Yes I am, it’s just that you’re not listening.’

It’s true to say that censorship is manifested in different ways and at different levels. How far has it acted against you? Apart from banning certain of your songs from the radio have you been threatened or received any kind of pressure?
To be more precise, I’d say that censorship doesn’t exist in Cuba because it doesn’t need to. We live in a totalitarian style society designed by the state. As we know there are many styles of totalitarianism. As we all know, bullets don’t kill; the force of impact kills. And it is this impact, this intense force which is damaging and which any type of totalitarian state can inflict. I don’t intend to cause offence by this to anyone. We’re living in a totalitarian society with an understanding of the state informed by caudillism which has failed to allow institutions to develop. Not only have we had a battle with US imperialism in Cuba, we’ve also had a battle against caudillism in an attempt to create a state which is institutional and different. Because of this censorship is not necessary and that’s why I think they haven’t done anything to me. This is how it is all over the world. Certain things can’t be said, nobody says them and that it. This is just the way it is everywhere. It’s not a problem with me in particular, it’s not against me personally. It’s built into the totalitarian design that has its own momentum just as Mussolini’s fascism had its own momentum, or Hitler’s nazism or Stalin’s communism. Some move to the left, others to the right.

What happens is that we’re involved in this totalitarian design of the state that is somehow cross-cut with earlier experiences simply because it denies the possibility of political diversity. In that way caudillism, and these designs have always included enormous amounts of cuadillism, is stuck in its own mud. Caudillism draws it’s breath both from caudillos and their followers. Our politics is born of our culture. We love being Cubans and saying that we’re great fun, we’re great in bed, that the black beans we cook are the best in the world, that we’ve got the best music and the most beautiful women. But we don’t talk about our defects or our historical problems, the things we’re dragging behind us, or the things we need to do as a culture in order to develop a different kind of politics. You can’t have caudillos if you don’t have supporters of caudillos and censorship is ordained by the actual design of the state. There are state officials who wanted me to perform but they didn’t have the freedom to make this decision. One of the result of this scaffold which goes way beyond questions of censorship is that everything that I’m saying to you here could easily be taken as an act of dissidence. But the dissident is a product of totalitarianism. Who are the dissidents in the US, or in Holland, or Switzerland?

Everyone knows you as a singer and song writer. Why hasn’t Pedro Luís Ferrer the poet published his work?

Actually, I have published my poetry in the same spaces that I sing my songs. Maybe one day someone will want to publish a book of these poems in the same way that someone wanted to publish the recordings of my songs. If we compare them, there are more texts than music in my work including some things that started as songs but which may remain as texts without music. But they were created in a structure and with a language which works orally: which is really different than if they had been written to be read. And I’ve chosen to write in octosyllables because it’s a form of communication that works well, perhaps because it corresponds to a mental stucture we have in society. That’s something that needs to be studies carefully one day.
Here there is a way of communicating with people with this form of rhyme which might or might not be poetical. Poetry’s not the same as rhyme. I remember once showing some décimas to my uncle Raúl Ferrer. He was really exacting and I’d worked hard with the lines to prove to him that I could do it. He said: ‘OK, you can now write décimas.Nnow you need to learn how to make poetry with them.’

Have you worked in other genres?

Yes, a little. I’ve written some short stories and even a novel but I don’ have enough time. I live from music and it takes up a lot of my time. To produce literature you’ve got to sit down and write every day. Curiously, when I sit down to write prose I don’t want anything to do with poetry. Sometimes I’ll really want to finish some literary project but I realise I’m looking down an abyss and I need to look away. Writing prose is tempting but unfortunately I can’t devote myself to it because the livelihood that I have in music. I have to compose, reherse and record and I don’t have time for anything else. Maybe one day I’ll find the quiet need to do it.

Tell me a little about your training as an artist?
I was born in Yaguajay in 1952. The first décima that I wrote was for my mother and father. My uncle, the poet Raúl Ferrer, was a permanent presence in my childhood even though he lived in Havana. Everyone in my town knew his poems and would recite them all the time. There was also my uncle Rafael, a very good composer, who gave me my first music lessons and I also did a music theory course with the municipal orchestra. When I was eleven and by that time living in Havana I got together with musicians who played tango and others who knew how to play the guitar. But I really began my musical education much later.

But the official institutions which validate the work of artists demand certain documents, certificates with stamps and signatures.

It has to be some kind of miracle but the only academic certificate that I managed to receive I got from the sixth grade of primary school. I never finished secondary school and for that reason I taught myself. I must mention my then mother-in-law who worked abroad and who, at the end of the 1970s brought me great material to learn composition, orchestration and harmony. Everything else I learned as I went, by filling the gaps in what I knew. Everytime I wanted to do something that I didn’t know how to do I learned it. In that way you could say that every song I composed was the record of a learning experience.
That’s how I learned the guitar and the piano which I use essentially for composing. In any accreditation I’ve concentrated on playing the guitar and singing my songs well.

If you had to sing a song to show who Pedro Luís Ferrer is which song would you choose?
La vaquita Pijirigua or maybe El Romance de la niña mala.

In a certain sense, the appreciation
shown by your fans for your work and who you are is closely connected with everything you’ve expressed about the ways you’ve been criticised. Have you ever considered that this may change the day that we no longer have these restrictions?
I think that at every historical moment people need to reflect. Even though we may have more freedom the future won’t be easy. Maybe in a spiritual way they may be easier. But we know that freedom carries with it risk. Not everyone is prepared for dialogue and respect for the other. Which means there’ll always be a lot to do. We’ve grown throughout all these years without understanding that the other is different and has another truth. I believe that this is going to cause a lot of conflict. I really worry that in a process of change aiming towards democracy, towards openness, there may be people capable (of causing it to fail). That’s because our society suffers from a weight of influences. There’s been political populism, paternalism. Things can’t continue costing what they cost now. You can sense the approach of an extreme economic realism. There’s a complicated economic system that I consider an economy in crisis with enormous foreign debt. There are urban spaces falling apart due to years of neglect because we changed houses from private
to public ownership  thinking that it was enough just to collect the rent without providing the necessary investment to repair and maintain that housing.

This means that we’ve been living many years removed reality and those who aim to put our society on a new path are going to come up against a lot of problems. And they’ll also have the problem of the attempt to block change by those who resist giving up power.

I must admit I’m pessimistic about the future. Circles of power have been installed here with an extreme culture of violence. They have the tools to apply this violence and a dominance over society maintained through blackmail and common history of mistakes. What is a ‘repudiation meeting’ where people hit others because they think differently? That’s where these people are, those who have inculcated ideas such as ‘we were born to win, not to be defeated’, and ‘by whatever means’. And this so delicate a group has been validated politically. There are people who have made mistakes and continue to make mistakes because instead of thinking there’s always a moment to change, to make things better, they think, ‘the tiger doesn’t care if he’s got an extra stripe’.

In this complexity, art, literature, and journalism need serious, sane people who can enable the whole of society to reflect objectively. The past will need to be criticised and some will want change without this kind of criticism without this kind of reflection. Some will say that the past was right because they lack all the information or because they haven’t thought it through sufficiently. How can you explain to these people everything that went on in the past, all the mistakes that they made? Transforming society demands sacrifices but also a great deal of sense and measure. I don’t think that the transition is something that will occur. It’s something that’s already happening and its happening in the minds of those who are beginning to realise what’s going on.