14ymedio, Luz Escobar, 3 March 2018 — Recording a record at age 18 is something that doesn’t happen every day among troubadours. Frank Mitchel Chirino has joined that short list, overcoming censorship and family resistance — his father defined trova as a “chernas (homosexuals) thing” — and has now released the album Bodies of Water.
“Since I started playing in places linked to government institutions I heard the same thing: ‘this or that is censored’,” he recalls now with a mischievous smile on his lips while he talks with 14ymedio.
“Sometimes they made it clear to me that I could not invite certain artists to my performances, like Jorgito Kamankola, and other times they warned me about some song I could not play, then I said to myself, I do not want to live behind this fence.”
The artist opted for the independent way that opens a path, in spite of the limitations in the Cuban reality. Last year he won a scholarship, A Muleta Música, awarded by Galería-Estudio La Marca to promote young and independent art and, according to the promoters, an opportunity for the “production, management and positioning” of his work.
Chirino believes that the scholarship arrived for “a little bit of luck,” because the designer Roberto Ramos, organizer of La Marca musical space, heard him at troubadour Noslen Porrua’s club in Bejucal and that led to them considering him for the scholarship. At that time his artistic life took a favorable turn and he was able to afford to record several of his songs.
“In the beginning we were going to make the album with just the guitar, nothing else, but then the musicians appeared and together we made the arrangements,” recalls Chirino.
In its beginnings, the musician played in some clubs but later joined others to form the band Náufrago (Shipwrecked), which came to perform regularly at the Old Havana House of Poetry. “It did not last long due to censorship, fear and lack of organization,” he laments, in reference to the guidelines issued by the institutional media about what can and can not be sung.
Censorship also dogged the heels of Chirino on the radio and at festivals. On several stations where he sang he was always warned that some of his songs could not be played. “Everything that is new and seems outside the norm disappears,” complains the young musician, with regards to the prohibitions placed on those musical themes with elements of social criticism.
The clashes with the institutions reached their climax at a trova festival in the city of Bayamo. Before going on stage, Chirino and another troubadour were summoned to the office of a cultural official who demanded that they sing before him, and before going onstage, the songs they had prepared.
For the artist, this constituted a lack of respect but it served to cement his opinion about the official media and the circuit of places where artists can perform. He also believes that the spaces to promote trova in the official media only work for authors who sing “in favor” of the system.
According to his vision, television programs such as Cuerda Viva already “have nothing to do with the idea of those who are starting out” and now “the same faces are always seen.” He considers that the producers have fallen into “mediocrity” and points again to the fear of event space managers about “the consequences” they may face if they move away from what is allowed by the authorities. “It’s a real fear but you have to fight against that,” he emphasizes.
Part of those experiences with officials, terrified cultural promoters and informers, are reflected in the theme “Échate pa ’allá” included in his recently finished album.
“Censorship persecutes us by stabbing bodies, they are assasins of a sleeping freedom” he warns in one of the verses of this theme that hs considers “an amulet” against this phenomenon. “I was hooked on the truth and the truth is that I do not let go,” says the author of compositions such as Palenque and After the Smoke.
“Rest assured that I do not want to have anything to do with the government and less with the bureaucracy,” he explains in the interview, evoking the feelings that led him to compose the song with Kamankola. “It’s to scare off all of that and to get the powers that be off my back.”
His song circulates in the alternative networks of musical distribution as a kind of hymn against the snitch, the figure of the informant who is so present in Cuban life. “There are many people who do not live their lives, who are just waiting for others to live,” says Chirino.
Trova enjoyed privileged media coverage in the ’80s, but in the last two decades other genres such as salsa and reggaeton, which are more commercial, have been prioritized. Programs such as Cáscara de Mandarina that promoted genres such as trova and rock from the island disappeared from television, while others such as Piso 6, which mainly promote international music, salsa and Cuban pop are shown endlessly on national TV.
As a competent digital native, Chirino considers new technologies essential because they allow him to independently disseminate his work. “If I had to subordinate myself to the conditions of a label, I would never have been able to make Bodies of Water.“
“The problem comes when you stay silent, what happens is that people do not want to say what they feel because they are afraid” but “the duty is to relate, in a more direct way, what is happening.”
However, he believes that he began his career in a “hard” way to make it clear that he is not planning to moderate his art or censor his lyrics to win “an institutional space.”
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