Interview With Pedro Luis Ferrer: May 2010

TA: the first thing I want to know about is this idea of ‘double Africanness’, which we have spoken about before. What does that mean?

PLF: What happens is that in Cuba, Africanness arrived even before the slaves came. Because it comes with Spain. Spain is not a country of white people as is thought. The Spain that arrived in Cuba is a mixed Spain. A geography dominated by the Moors for seven centuries no less. So the Spain that reaches us is not only that of the Galicians, of the Asturians, the Basque etcetera, but also the Moorish Spain, the Spain of the south, and with Spain arrived the free black man which is the ‘negro curro’; an Andalucian black man that became a free man there; a black man with economic independence and with different ways, that is, when I say that the mixed world comes to Cuba, I mean to say that ‘mestizaje’ [racial mixture] begins practically from the moment that Spanish arrived in Cuba for the first time. Therefore we are double African. It’s not like people think that Spain is a white country, that’s mostly the work of racism of the time and also sometimes out of ignorance. So here in Cuba, North Africa, whose influence comes through Spain, as I said before, meets with the Youroba and Bantu Africa which comes to us through this horrible process of slavery. It is not understood well that our Africanness comes from these two cultural worlds. Thus it is important to start seeing Spain as a source of African culture to be able to understand why certain rhythms, musical instruments and cultural traits are the way they are.

TA: can you give a couple of examples of how double Africanness is found in the music that you write? How is it expressed?

PLF:  it’s a bit difficult to give you examples of that because, for example, an instrument like the laúd [Cuban lute] is said to be Spanish in origin, but they speak of what is Spanish as if it wasn’t African. The laúd comes from the ‘oud’ and the oud is from Arabic origin, which came to Morocco, and came to Spain through Morocco, and thus to Cuba. Instruments that are considered Spanish have their origins in Africa. In the same light, you find the so-called ‘musica campesina’ [countryside music] which at many moments in history has been said to be the music of the whites in Cuba as if there hadn’t been any black people in the countryside or as if mestizaje hadn’t started with Spain. We need to start revising everything in this matter. This doesn’t mean that those elements of the indo-european culture that came to us with the Galicians and the Basque and the Asturians are not present, that’s another culture. But these two cultures [northern and southern Spain] are different when it comes to rhythm. In northern Spain, the so-called Celtic nations – which I think is a bit of an invention – the rhythmic concept is based on ‘amalgama’ [amalgamation] which are irregular time signatures and the music that comes from Africa – either the Yoruba or the Bantu – or the one that came through Spain is a music mostly based in syncopation. These two concepts are completely different. I always say that Galicians perceived the music that was being made in Cuba with that mixture differently because they interpret the syncopation as the strong beat – their musics are danced to like that and made like that. Musicology would also need to explore what happened in Cuba with the dialectics between ‘amalgada’ and syncopation – these two completely different concepts. But I cannot contribute much, because what I try to do is art with those elements and what I say, I say with art – that is trying to make a series of abstractions and put to the fore things that have been left behind or mixing things, taking their origins into account. In this new album, all these things are shown more. I am working with genres such as changüi[1] and others. I don’t do changüi per se, but based on it, I try to give some explanations regarding why changüi is the way it is. I think the more I create songs that take from all these sources, I will be able to explain more about these issues, because it’s still something I am investigating.

TA: how has your music changed through time – I’m thinking particularly about Natural and Rústico[2] and the new album. How has your music changed through these albums and why?

PLF: as I began to get more and more interested in music, and in music from an aesthetic perspective, I am not as interested as I was before in writing songs – I am more interested in making art. Each song used to have, for me, a soul of its own. But now, for me, songs come to fill in those spaces that I need to cover to express my aesthetic vision. When I record an album or when I do a concert or a recital etcetera. I do think my music has been changing from these concerns – from wanting to experiment with these ideas, from taking on seeds of Cuban music genres that I have found throughout the island, seeds that are either forgotten or not given importance, and I ‘redimensiono’ [take to another dimension] them and try to make a music that may at times not even seem Cuban, but I have knowledge that it is part of out culture. My problem is that I don’t have a musicological sense of music. I don’t feel like a scientist, I just feel like an artist. So, whilst a scientist tries to find an objective truth outside of his feelings, I, as an artist do the opposite. For me, the truth is found in the artistic work that I do and the success of my thesis is in my artwork. I sometimes try to fill in gaps that musicology doesn’t fill in for me. So I speculate a lot. I have my own speculations and what I cannot find through scientific investigation, I invent it and recreate it. So, that’s why I speak about some sort of artistic historicity. My vision is not as musicological, although I do work based on some musicological work, but this sometimes seems insufficient to me. I also take from what I find around, from my daily experience of my life in Cuba, so I work with that and I create my artwork, and in the process, I also find musics from other countries that share those seeds. In the end, we are a new country, a country that is still being made, even though it already has ‘cha cha cha’, ‘son’ and ‘mambo’, we still are a new born culture and we will continue growing, and many things will continue being Cuban in history but, for example, you cannot say that danzόn[3] is the national dance when nobody dances danzόn. I have a good relationship with tradition, but with some distance and detachment because I don’t think tradition has to behave like a dictatorship over what I have to do in the present. I also have the right to speculate and imagine things. I have found many seeds throughout the island that take me to cultures that came from abroad. Because in the end this is a country made with men that came from other continents, from millenary cultures. So in that sense I feel that by taking on tradition I am relating more and more with the world. Not only to I intend to experiment with those elements that I find here, but also with others that I find I am in tune with in other cultures, simply because I enjoy them. Sindo Garay[4], for example, wrote his music under the influx of Italian opera which was very popular in Cuba at the time. Take one of Sindo’s songs, such as ‘Perla Marina’, and you sing it in Italian, and it feels like it was an Italian song. So, he drank from those fountains which were of his time, which moved him and he re-elaborated them to make the songs he made, which are amazing – big songs. But again, he took influence from the world. So why if a man like Sindo was capable of taking from the world around him, why don’t I have the same rights? So we have to be very careful because traditions… I think that going deeper into and exploring traditions one can also free oneself of dogma that is born out of the institutionalisation of tradition. There are certain dogmas when people start saying ‘this is like this’, same as with stereotypes, when we say ‘Cubans are like this, Cubans are like that, Cubans are happy’ but Cubans are different in so many ways. Cubans are like Ñico Saquito[5] but also like Jose Marti[6] who never ever laughed. [laugh]. Yeah! Can you think of anything funny that Marti ever wrote in his books? But he’s Cuban as well! In music I simply use elements that are in tune with me, same as with food. Some people like cod, some people like rice, some like beans. Not all Cubans like black beans or pork. So, within this that makes us Cuban, each person chooses what each person likes or finds himself in tune with according to their sensibility. The music I make is, to a large extent, an abstraction of the cultural reality that surrounds me. That’s how I see it.

TA: how is your music perceived in other countries?

PLF: the issue here is that in the world, there is also a preconceived perception of what Cuba is due to commerce – what is commercialised, not only through the Buena vista social club, but also even before the revolution, the companies that traded or exploited Cuban music throughout the world were giving an image of what Cuba was. With the boom of chachacha and mambo etcetera. So there is a preconceived image of what Cuban music is. Later on, with nueva trova as well, with ‘filín[7]’. All these genres and elements integrated into what became the image – the photograph – of what Cuban music is and that has an impact – a weight. When people see me performing, people notice that I approximate that tradition of what Cuban music is, but that I am also step outside of it. So I explain this, and people find it very attractive because also people are bored of the same thing. At least in the stages where I have performed – which are not very big – sometimes they are big – so on those modern stages, you find an audience that is very interested in discovering new music from Cuba. They show interest when I tell them about changüi and this and that. I even tell them that my music is not representative of what traditional changüi is, because I don’t do changüi, I don’t do ‘coro de clave’[8]. Take changüi into account to create music, because my creation comes from there – changüi is not something that I made up. I feel that people see me as someone who is close to that fixed image of what Cuban music is, but also as someone who detaches themselves from it and can step out of it. And also someone who sometimes has nothing to do with that image at all [laugh]. So I find this very interesting. Sometimes I speak about traditions that are unknown within Cuba; local traditions. When I speak about the ‘sones de güiron’. These were things I used to see in Yaguajay[9] when I was a child, I never imagined they would be of any use. Then one day I realised I could do something with them and so you start working with them – they are experiments. Sometimes reconstructing things that you keep safe in your imagination, things that aren’t exactly as you think they are. Because these are things that happened a long time ago, they are fragments of my childhood, so you don’t remember them very well, but they are still in your mind. I saw them, I give them a name and I say that these things are part of a tradition, which is true – I saw them there, I didn’t invent them – but if you go there [Yaguajay] now, they don’t exist anymore. Maybe someone remembers that in the neighbourhood ‘sansaria’ that those Sones used to be played. But they come across as more of a circumstantial experience of the time because although many towns do generate traditions that are artistic in essence, if they are not commercialised or documented – written down – they disappear. If there is not an artist that recreates them, they disappear. So that’s what I do. And I perceive that the audience I relate to knows this, because I tell them as well. Not only do I tell my audience about existing known traditions, but I’m also telling them about things that were traditional in the past and have disappeared – that are almost non-existent. I was lucky to have lived and seen a lot of these lost traditions in Yaguajay thus I have seen in Cuba things that have been circumstantial that afterwards I have gone to find out more about them and they have vanished. That’s why I believe so much in the importance of the artist as a creator or re-creator of these almost lost traditions. As he somehow documents them, albeit from his own, personal vision. Changüi, for example, has been developed a bit more as a dance, but little has been done with it when it comes to song. Returning to your question, I try to say two things to the audiences I work with. One, that I work with traditions – with what I would like traditions to be and with my imagination most of all to make music that is somehow still Cuban but is, at the same time, universal and at the same time that contributes new things to those existing traditions. In that way, I try to be as free as I can. I think the European audiences – which are the audiences I have worked with the most in the last few years – understand this and they assimilate it very well, they enjoy it a lot.

TA: reading academic articles about Cuban music, the one word that keeps appearing Cubanía[10]. And it is used to describe something very narrow – very specific. What does it mean? Is it applicable to the music you make?

PLF: I don’t have a defined sense of what Cubanía is. I think somehow people tend to define me as Cuban because I take influence from certain sources that are historically given in Cuba that I like and that somehow make up my sensibility. I’m going to speak like this because I’m going to try and see if, by talking to myself out loud for the first time about these things, I can come to an approximation about what I think Cubanía is. But there are many things about Cuban culture that I don’t like, things that I don’t identify with. And there are things that I would like to change – to transform. Because behind all these concepts, there is a philosophy and sometimes even some kind of fundamentalism in relation to things such as the national symbols, rituals such as saluting the flag, singing the anthems. Curiously, the national anthem has no Cuban music in it! [sings the opening fanfare of the Cuban anthem] because if only it went [sings the same part, but with syncopation]. Then it becomes a conga. By moving a crotchet, the national anthem becomes a conga! Sometimes, to make things serious in official issues and events, even before the triumph of the revolution, we do things that we do not identify with – things that distance us from our own idiosyncrasies as people. As people we are considered happy, ‘choteadores’ [self-deprecating and mocking of others in a light-hearted way], rumberos [people who dance rumba, natural dancers] and all that. But at the same time, we have a national anthem that is marching music – a war song – which doesn’t register with us, unlike what happens with other African countries whose anthems have the rhythms that they dance to and the songs that they make on a daily basis. So, see what a curious thing, that our national anthem, which is Cuban inasmuch as it identifies our nation, but its music is not Cuban. Its not a son, its not a mambo, its not even representative of any regional rhythmic traditions. Rhythmically, it is a rancid anthem in the most European, old fashioned manner. That’s our national anthem. So there are many things that are considered Cuban and they might be Cuban for some reasons, but not for others, like in this case. Cubanness is also a series of customs; a way of defining ourselves as a people and in that sense it is no different for the same concept would be for England. How would you call it?

TA: Englishness

PLF: I think in the end it’s just a way nations and peoples have to define themselves, to name the characteristics that define their collective selves. Although each conglomerate has a large variety of people in it. Not all English people are the way English people are said to be. That’s why I don’t have a generalised sense of what Cubanness is. I have always had a sense of approximation with this conglomerate, but also a detachment, because within this society, I relate to some and not to others. I am not friends with everyone, not everyone is my friend. I have my affiliates. I have a better idea of what Cubanía is said to be than about what it really is. Sometimes what Cubanía is said to be, I feel as some sort of dictatorship forced upon my way of being and there are many elements within it with which I don’t relate at all; I just don’t identify with some elements. So I try many times to create a new sense of Cubanness for myself. A way of feeling well with those values that I feel an affinity with and somehow to discard those that I don’t. In that sense I can be a Cuban man with a sense of Cubanness with whom part of the Cuban society doesn’t identify, but others do. It’s a risk, but to tell the truth there are not said parameters to define Cubanness. We have influences from all over the world. For example, find a ‘trovador’ [troubadour] that writes songs using elements of ‘amalgama’, irregular tempos etcetera. Kind of Celtic. And then someone tells you ‘that’s not Cuban’ and you say ‘why not, if the Gallicians came here and we are their inheritors as well?’ and then some other musician uses elements of the Arab culture. ‘why not?’ I say if we also come from the Moorish. And when the Batas [African sacred drums] are used, it’s also justified because we come from the Yorouba culture and from the Bantus. So we are a new country and we come from everywhere. The most important thing is that there are certain things that we start to establish as Cuban. Such is the case with chachacha. But there is a musical work, for example, composed by Haydn that if you listen to it, you will notice it is a chachacha. All the basic musical traits of chachacha are found there. But that of course does not mean that he created chachacha. Chachacha as a genre was born here for other reasons. Stop here to see for a moment what’s happening [PLF goes to shout at his dog]. The same thing that happens with Cubanness happens with love. What is love? [shouts at barking dog again]. I tried to sing to this conglomerate. I try to take into account the elements that conglomerate is familiar with and also to suggest other things. So, Cubanness – to conclude this part – is, for me, in a way, a proposal that I make to people so that they identify with what we are and have been, but also so that we are a little bit different. In that sense, it is no different from how this process happens in any culture.

T: moving on to songwriting and specifically your songs – are there any particular cultural aspects to which your music relates. What is the aim of your music?

PLF: that has changed through the years. First I started singing because I liked it. Singing was, when I was younger, a way of getting people to know me – a way of becoming known. What I sang didn’t matter that much. I liked a song, then I didn’t like it anymore. But then you begin to fall in love with art and you start to discover it and you start to feel like an artist. So you start to develop a different relationship with music. At some point I was doing chronicles of my own life, of love. Songs sometimes don’t even attempt to say anything at all – they are simply a kind of roar. Even if you use words and try to put a message across, what the songs were at some earlier stages of my life was not entirely clear to me. It wasn’t clear to me what I wanted to say in them. So, what came out was a roar perhaps, like a lion’s. here’s a story. I saw this woman passing by in ‘la rampa’[11] and there was a man looking at her and he wanted to tell her a ‘piropo’[12], but nothing came out, so all he did was [roars, then laughs]. So my songs in the beginning were a bit like that. Still, these days, one has to return to some earlier stages, in which cases one only feels like roaring and simple express through music. There are many reasons why one sings. Sometimes you indent to communicate, sometimes you want to have an influence in the collective social consciousness and thus create some sort of consensus or simply just participate in the social and political life of the country. I have been through many stages in life, so like I said at an earlier stage, I was very interested in chronicles and mainly the kind of chronicles that try to show contradictions in the official way of thinking. The thinking process of those allegedly in power. So I have used many musical resources, from irony to double meaning because there is no place where you can say everything you want to and also because you have to find the appropriate ways to get into people’s conscience to communicate and say the things which cannot be said openly. Because either people get offended, or… but all those things can also be left behind. With time, I have been refining certain concepts in the sense that, for example, poetry – I am more interested in it as poetry and I am more interested in music as music. The song, in me, as a musical form, is starting to dissolve itself and to disappear. I am still writing songs, but when I want to write good lyrics, I just write a poem. So I am increasingly more interested in music as music. I don’t think there has been a general way of defining my musical work throughout my life. I have gone through many stages. I am not interested in chronicles anymore because before I used to think I understood my reality better – which wasn’t true, I was just more interested in it. I think today I understand it less. I think we are all more confused [laughs]. But within that confusion, one thing is clear to me, and I am increasingly more interesting in making art and to invite people to participate in and to make art make people happier. I think society needs art. Hauser[13] said that art doesn’t say anything to people who don’t ask questions. And many people don’t ask any questions to art, or if they do, they don’t ask the same questions I ask. And there are many people that have been educated in a way that they don’t like the same art that I like. Today this is a moment like any other in my life. I am very focussed on my personal perception, which goes beyond philosophical reasoning and is based on the need to express my feelings, where sometimes words serve a purpose or not. Words are not necessarily needed to express yourself in music, unlike poetry which does need words to be an expressive form.

[1] Changüi is a musical genre from the east of Cuba. It is traditionally considered a ‘countryside’ form. Interestingly, PLF claims to play a ‘more feminine’ style of Changüi, which Ferrer calls ‘Changüisa’.

[2] The two albums Natural and Rústico were released in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

[3] The Danzόn is a ‘Cubanised’ dance form, incorporating elements from European dances and Cuban forms such as the Hanbanera, Danzόn was popular in Cuba from the mid 19th Century.

[4] Sindo Garay is called one of the four greats of Trova (Cuban folk song).

[5] Another Trova composer, famed for his wit and humour.

[6] Jose Marti is a Cuban hero from the independence war with Spain, famed for his seriousness!

[7] ‘filín’ – a Cubanised pronunciation of the English word ‘feeling’ – is a musical genre from 1940s Cuba.

[8] coro de clave is another genre of Cuabn music

[9] Yaguajay is a town in central Cuba


[11] La rampa is a busy high street in central Havana.

[12] piropo – flirtatious complement – similar to a chat-up line

[13] I think he is referencing the art historian Arnold Hauser


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