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My Havana

My Havana: The Musical City of Carlos Varela

María Caridad Cumaná
Karen Dubinsky
Xenia Reloba de la Cruz
Translator: Ana Elena Arazoza
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 312
  • Book Info
    My Havana
    Book Description:

    For more than thirty years, musician Carlos Varela has been a guide to the heart, soul, and sound of Havana. One of the best known singer-songwriters to emerge out of the Cubannueva trovamovement, Varela has toured in North America, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe. In North America, Varela is "Cuba's Bob Dylan." In Cuba, he is the voice of the generation that came of age in the 1990s and for whom his songs are their generation's anthems.My Havanais a lyrical exploration of Varela's life and work, and of the vibrant musical, literary, and cinematic culture of his generation.

    Popular both among Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, Varela is legendary for the intense political honesty of lyrics. He is one of the most important musicians in the Cuban scene today. InMy Havana, writers living in Canada, Cuba, the United States, and Great Britain use Varela's life and music to explore the history and cultural politics of contemporary Cuba. The book also contains an extended interview with Varela and English translations of the lyrics to all his recorded songs, most of which are appearing in print for the very first time.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-6899-7
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)

    On a trip I made to Cuba in 2002, I met Carlos Varela and heard his songs for the first time. I went there with a delegation of politicians and political consultants from California, both Democrat and Republican, who were making the journey to find out for themselves if the situation there held any hope for an end to the impasse that has defined US–Cuba relations for fifty years. As a requirement of our visa, there was an agenda of meetings with various citizens’ organizations and government figures, as well as some time for sightseeing and cultural discovery.


  5. Introduction: Varela’s Musical City
    (pp. xiii-2)

    Ian Padrón’sHavanastation(2011) is a film about two schoolchildren from different sides of Cuba’s growing class divide. In an early scene, their teacher leads a discussion about the leaders of the independence movement of the nineteenth century. “Who was the man who taught us how to think?” she asks the class, a clear reference to the philosopher, abolitionist, and independence advocate Félix Varela. “Carlos Varela,” responds one of her students. The class erupts in laughter, and another student jumps to his feet to perform an enthusiastic air guitar rendition of “Siete,” one of Carlos Varela’s well-known hits. “Sorry, teacher,...

  6. Chapter One Carlos Varela: The Distinguished Son of William Tell
    (pp. 3-15)

    I am a person who believes in the concept of generation. Perhaps because of this, I admit I am a man from the 1980s, shaped, intellectually, by the influx of the ideas in fashion back then. In those years, Cuba was a whirlwind of unprecedented artistic activities. In ways that had not existed before, artists and writers placed intellectual creativity above any formal innovation to express reality. In this sense, I share the opinion of Iván de la Nuez Carrillo, who declared, in 1989:

    Another mode of intellectual and ontological creation is becoming dominant, and it bases its dominance precisely...

  7. Chapter Two The Persistence of “Memorias”
    (pp. 16-34)

    At the Festival de la Nueva Trova held on the Isla de la Juventud on 27 October 1984, Silvio Rodríguez dedicated his song “La canción de las sillas” (The Chair Song) to “los jóvenes de la Nueva Trova” (the youth of Nueva Trova).¹ That song was already fifteen years old – he had written it in 1969. This concert was a moment of transition and change, of cooperation and incorporation, between generations of thetrova. Silvio’s dedication did more than suggest that the oldertrovadorsupported the newer ones; it also served as a caution to budding singer/songwriters. The first-generation...

  8. Chapter Three “Politics Don’t Fit in a Sugar Bowl”: Cuba in the 1990s through the Music of Varela
    (pp. 35-51)

    In “La política no cabe en la azucarera” (Politics Don’t Fit in a Sugar Bowl) from his 1994 albumComo los peces, Carlos Varela offers an inventory of the crisis that Cuba was undergoing at the time. The relationship between the two main terms in the song’s title, while not strictly antagonistic, implies a certain opposition. Politics represents all that is established, the conventions of the authorities; the sugar bowl, in the literal sense, is the container for a foodstuff valued for its energy-giving properties. The song is a reference to the people’s daily struggle for survival. But there is...

  9. Chapter Four Carlos Varela and the Carousel of Cuban History
    (pp. 52-67)

    Musicians are underappreciated historians. One scholar who recognizes this, cultural critic George Lipsitz, describes popular music as a “vital repository for collective memory,” because songwriters help create “alternative archives of history” out of the experiences, dreams, and memories of people who rarely appear in traditional archives.² Lipsitz comments that songwriters rarely think of themselves as historians and do not necessarily intend their work to reflect history or shape reality. So what are we to make of Carlos Varela, whose work reflects a self-conscious effort to narrate the history of his particular times and especially that of his generation? And what...

  10. Chapter Five A Singer Who Uses the Guitar as a Camera: The Cinematic Quality of Carlos Varela’s Songs
    (pp. 68-78)

    In his study of contemporary Cuban music, musicologist Vincenzo Perna has noted that historically, songs “included the names of places in Havana, references to urban spaces which avoided realistic descriptions and articulated a mythological cartography of the city.”¹ I begin with this quote to suggest that the “mythological cartography” of Carlos Varela’s Havana is one of melancholy, love, and desire. And it is also extremely visual.

    Carlos Varela’s connection with the city is a declaration of love between a poet and the desire that never abandons him. For Varela, the city is a stage, a place where people are like...

  11. Chapter Six Singing the Cityscape: Varela as Urban Chronicler
    (pp. 79-92)

    Described as “palimpsestic” by José Quiroga,¹ Havana’s architectural, historical, and social layers have long been inscribed and reinscribed with changing narratives of national and local belonging. While much of the scholarship of Havana’s allegorical power as both a “memory city” and an ephemeral “non-space” has focused on literary and visual depictions,² some of the city’s most powerful representations have beenheardrather than read or seen. In the imaginations of Cubans and non-Cubans alike, music is central to the construction of Havana, and the city’s musical (re)incarnations illustrate how its physical geography continues to serve as the site for contested...

  12. Chapter Seven Carlos Varela, Protest Song, and Cuban Music History
    (pp. 93-100)

    Carlos Varela has established himself as one of the most important and influential composers of Cuban music in the last twenty years. This book attests to his unique abilities and to the resonance of his music for many listeners. One aspect of Varela’s music making that may not be as apparent is the extent to which it builds on or harkens back to Cuban repertoire of past generations even while establishing new ties with international sounds and musical trends. Especially in terms of the politically and socially engaged aspects of his lyrics, Varela can be viewed as continuing a well-established...

  13. Epilogue. Carlos Varela: A Cuban Who Knows the Past but Can Also See the Future
    (pp. 101-106)

    Carlos Varela has been a wind that blows through Cuban fields of rice. But in the opposite direction.

    Varela sings the story of the Revolution: the death of Che in 1967, the ten million ton sugar harvest of 1970. His Cuba went to war in Africa, where he lost friends. His songs centre on his experiences over time, and he has seen all the phases of the Revolution. He knew of Christmas trees and Christmas toys, but, as he sings, he never had them. His television was Russian, he listened secretly to the Beatles. Like so many Cubans, his friends...

  14. Interview. Beginning a New Cuban Dream: An Interview with Carlos Varela
    (pp. 107-124)

    This interview took place over several meetings, beginning at Varela’s house in Havana in May 2010 and continuing, episodically, after that. At our first session, Varela had just returned from a multi-city US tour; his guitars lay unpacked in the living room. Fuelled by coffee and blockade-breaking imported Splenda, we settled into a long conversation about songwriting, censorship, the death of old dreams, and the beginning of new ones.

    Q: You are a Cuban singer, with a loyal national audience, and your songs speak of Cuban realities. Your songs are full ofCubanismos. Who else but a Cuban would sing...

  15. Appendix: Lyrics of Varela’s Recorded Songs, in English and Spanish
    (pp. 125-262)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-270)
  17. Contributors’ Biographies
    (pp. 271-274)
  18. Index
    (pp. 275-281)