14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 July 2017 — Songwriters are often confused with prophets or leaders. The output of numerous troubadours has ended up molding consciences, erecting political slogans and becoming unquestionable mantras. Every social movement needs its musical soundtrack and in Latin America these loners of the guitar have sonorously accompanied more than one.
Chroniclers equipped with melodies most commonly take these songs literally, confusing the characters of their stanzas with the flesh and blood being who ascends the stage. Under the lights, in the intimate atmosphere of a theater, they intone those phrases that are later later subverted for thousands of spectators into slogans and postures.
After the hard years in which a ballad could cost them their lives or prison, Latin American troubadours who shaped the protest songs now exist in a stage of permissive tranquility. The fiercest battle is waged against reggaeton, not against censorship. Their greatest fear lies not in swelling the blacklists, but in the audience moving the dial to look for some other, “more moving,” music.
They are no longer the focus of the reviews and the critics, and find themselves in the boring corner of the consecrated who no longer fill stadiums nor provoke sighs. They live on past glories and rarely does one of their songs make it to the top of the lists, although on TV they are still presented as “unsurpassable” or “indisputable.”
Among these shaggy ones of the easy verse, the most roguish have ceded their guitar to some power they criticized years ago, to vegetate in the shadow of festivals, tributes and interviews. The few darts they still throw in their lyrics mix the most recurring commonplaces of progressive discourse, while their clothing maintains every trace of a disguise of calculated sloppiness.
The best-known names of a few decades ago, today they caress the discs with which they assembled crowds and made their consciences throb. In the absence of those emotions, they are now engaged – without score and with weakened voice – in their professorships of how to behave civically or how to incite a rebellion that they themselves dismissed as unprofitable.
Some of those musical themes they composed, when they breathed the air of making love not war, have been hijacked by militants and extremists who sing them – neck veins bursting – in front of their political opponents. From libertarian musical expressions they became the gags to silence differences, mere hymns of blind battle.
The times of rhyming and believing each verse have given way to cynicism. Many of the minstrels who put rhymes to nonconformity moved away from the public scene; others parked their uncomfortable songs in search of greater income, while the majority, having lost the muse, have become defenders of whatever cause can hide their creative drought.
Nostalgic for a time when crowds gathered, more than one has chosen to sing to the powerful and dedicate his refrains to certain unpresentable populists. They compose to order, exalting in their refrains faded revolutions transmuted in dictatorships, and so they earn a space on the official platforms where the promises abound and the sincerity is lacking.
These are not the times when Victor Jara took his art to the ultimate consequences. “I do not sing for singing / nor for having a good voice, / I sing because the guitar / has meaning and reason,” said the Chilean who died at the age of 40 with dozens of bullets embedded in his body. Now there are plenty of artists who take care with every word to avoid moving beyond the scheme of the politically correct. Composers of polished rhymes and well-combed hair who walk through government palaces and whose honoris causa is welcomed.
They are a part of that plethora of intellectuals and artists who appear in the family photo, pointing out anyone who confronts them as the cause of all problems. Bitter anti-imperialists, false ecologists and distrustful of wealth – as long as that phobia does not affect their own pockets – they star in cantatas against distant powers and governments under which they do not live.
About four years ago, the Spanish singer-songwriter Luis Eduardo Aute said that he identified with President Rafael Correa’s Citizen Revolution. The statement was made at a time when the Ecuadorian ruler was engaged in a tough fight against the media in his country and put strict limits on freedom of the press. The irreverent poses always involve a lot of myopia, of not seeing beyond the fabricated irreverence. Under the influence of his own refrains, Aute believed in the character of his songs and that: “They say that everything is tied / And well tied to the markets,” when in reality he forgot that other powers also like to control every detail, especially words.
In Cuba lives an extreme case. Silvio Rodríguez lost the ‘blue unicorn’ of his creativity many years ago. As his subjects were filled with visible seams and boredom, his public outlook became closer to the official discourse. He stopped writing unforgettable songs to engage in diatribes against “the enemies of the Revolution.”
Recently, the singer added his signature to the manifesto Let the Catalans Vote, asking the Spanish Government to allow a referendum on independence in Catalonia. Rodríguez’s name is accompanied by other figures such as artist Yoko Ono, African-American philosopher Angela Davis and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú.
Rodriguez, author of Ojalá, initialed the statement that “a large majority of Catalans have repeatedly expressed in various ways the desire to exercise the democratic right to vote on their political future.” He considers that “preventing the Catalans from voting” contradicts democratic principles, precisely those that Cubans have been unable to enjoy for decades in their own land.
There is nothing left in this Rodriguez of the rebellion that characterized his first tunes. In 2003, he signed the Message From Havana To Friends Who Are Far Away, in which a group of intellectuals offered justifications for the imprisonment of 75 dissidents on the island. The document also supported the decision of Fidel Castro’s government to shoot three men who hijacked a passenger ship to try to escape to the United States.
With a comfortable life, a recording studio authorized by the Government and with a full table, the minstrel went astray in bows and silences. His music, which once accompanied the disobedience of so many citizens in this part of the world, is now a part of the official lyrics, of the symphony of power.
Editorial Note: This text has been previously published by the Spanish newspaper El País in its edition of Sunday 30 of July.