‘Yo no Tanto Como El’ – Pedro Luis Ferrer

The beauty of this song comes not only from Ferrer’s huge talent, his professional delivery, his emotional yet dignified sentiment (though all these factors are major considerations for me), but that the song is allowed to operate on a number of levels (to use that most worn of musical clichés). The apparent simplicity of the song allows listeners – and I don’t just think Cuban, or even Spanish speaking listeners – to engage with and find poignant meaning in the song.

A summary of song and performer perhaps may help here. Ferrer is a Cuban songwriter who has been working since the 1960’s (effectively the life of the Cuban revolution). In the 1970’s and 80’s, he enjoyed fame and, if not fortune (a difficult thing to find in Cuba) then certainly artistic commendation. His songs were well known to many Cubans through their numerous television and radio broadcasts and Ferrer was entering the tightly guarded pantheon of ‘Great Cuban artists’. However, some of his more pointed, critical social commentaries began to attract the wrong kind of attention, and by the 1990’s, Ferrer was black listed by the government. His albums are now unavailable (legally at least) in Cuba, his songs never broadcast. This song, ‘yo no tanto como el’, comes from around the time of Ferrer’s personal censorship. It is, on the surface, a description of the ideological differences between Ferrer and his father. Yet there are an almost limitless number of avenues of personal interpretation open to the listener to explore, hidden within the simple, repeated words.

Below is a quick translation of the lyrics to ‘Below is a quick translation of the lyrics to ‘Yo no Tanto Como El’, which leaves a number of words un-translated, with explanatory footnotes. Particularly, I will leave the title of the song un-translated, firstly because I am struggling to come up with a succinct translation – it effectively means ‘I am not so much like him’ – but secondly because the sound  of the original line, to me, is as crucial as its meaning.

My father was a Fidelista[1], Yo no tanto como el

Whoever touches my father Touches me as well

Yo no tanto como el, Yo no tanto como el

 

My father was a communist Yo no tanto como el

Whoever lays a finger on him Will know my wrath[2]

Yo no tanto como el, Yo no tanto como el

My father was a ‘cederista[3]Yo no tanto como el

Whoever touches my father Touches me as well

Yo no tanto como el Yo no tanto como el

I detest the bureaucracy That converted efficacy

Into a mountain of misfortune Of vain prohibitions

That augmented grudges And killed one thousand loves

What has happened to life For so many to repent?

My father who, in that January[4] Didn’t take me out of the country

He dressed me as a pioneer[5] And taught me to fight

Yo no tanto como el Yo no tanto como el

 

I will not apologise for my life I am all that I could have been

And how wonderful. How wonderful

 

What I love about this song, as mentioned previously, is the apparent simplicity. The same words and phrases repeat, ever so slightly changed, throughout the song. This trait – a changing same –is utilised by Ferrer constantly throughout his oeuvre. However, whilst in other songs it is used for wither comic effect – a cunning play on words, or to illuminate some social point, here it just feels reassuring. Of course there is a biting political statement at work here. Through repetition, Ferrer is highlighting the plethora of ‘isms’ that spring up under such rigid ideology. So, it is not enough to be  just  socialist, or just Communist – you have to be a ‘Fidelista’ as well – one has to complete the whole set of ‘isms’ as it were. However, as Ferrer constantly reminds us, he is not like that. But, going back to my original point, on the whole this feels like a reassuring repetition. It is not trying to trick the listener with hidden meaning. As a non-native Spanish speaker, I find this very welcome. In fact, I was a fan of this song before I fully understood its lyrics. That is why I suggested that this song may be as approachable to a non-Spanish speaker. For me, the pure aesthetic – the sound of the words, divorced from their meaning (if such a separation is ever possible) is attractive to me. The restrained lament in Ferrer’s voice transcends language barriers and the ‘grain of his voice’ as Roland Barthes would put it, is as noteworthy as the social commentary of the lyrics.

Delving into the lyrics further, another thread can be pulled out that transcends cultural boundaries. The person to whom Ferrer is addressing the song (and comparing himself) rings true no matter the country, no matter the epoch; his father. Ferrer speaks of the often irreconcilable generational differences between father and son. However, it is not done with venom, or resentment. His is a quiet lament. Yet more, he sees the realism in the situation. “Whoever touches my father touches me as well”. Ferrer cannot write off his father’s beliefs. He recognises the impact they have had on his own life, on who he is.

This recognition of the impact of a parental force that is inescapable also mirrors Ferrer’s attitude towards the country as a whole. Having lambasted the bureaucracy of his country, responsible for so much misery, he again reflects that this too is responsible for making him who he is. “I am all I knew how to be” he reflects – a product of his surroundings. This state of affairs is not a source of rage, not resented, but accepted. Ferrer forges a new definition of the people, alluding here to Cubans who have left Cuba, their grudges augmented to the point of insupportability. But crucially he references the once-efficient regime that, though a lack of ability (or willingness) to change and redefine itself, has become obsolete in defining the Cuban nation. As a result, Ferrer finds common ground in Latin American and the Caribbean, and attempts to bridge gaps between Cuban and other traditions, looking both for those cultural forms outside of Cuba with which he feels a personal, aesthetic connection, irrespective of a link with the narrow definition of Cuban tradition and identity outlined by the revolution

Through the lamentation, this song offers an extremely positive message about the ability to deal with frustration, hardship and a life shaped by forces outside of your control. We all suffer loss and sadness, make the wrong decisions and have the wrong decisions thrust upon us. But these are the experiences that shape us. We can no more change them than we can predict what will come next. All we can do is reflect on them, extract the positives and try not to make the same mistakes for the following generation. Nowhere is this sentiment better than in the only verse that doesn’t follow the lyrical repetition patter (immediately after the bridge – worth repeating here):

My father who, in that January[6] Didn’t take me out of the country

He dressed me as a pioneer[7] And taught me to fight

Yo no tanto como el Yo no tanto como el

Would Ferrer’s life have been different has his father left Cuba with him as a child? Undoubtedly. Would it have been ‘better’? Ferrer leaves this point alone – maybe it’s irrelevant because he’ll never know – he can’t change what has been, whether he would or not becomes lost in speculation. What he does know is that he is different from his father. He does not resent him, but understands him – absolves him even, realising that his father was a product of circumstances as he is. As he does not castigate his father for his decisions, so too he refuses to apologise for his own life, his own critique of the Revolution; y que maravilla.


[1] A supporter of Fidel Castro

[2] Literally , the word ‘caray’ of the original is a type of stick

[3] A member of the CDR; an organisation akin to neighbourhood watch, divided into subgroups by city block, they are responsible for reporting any ‘unrevolutionary’ activity.

[4] Referring to January 1959 and the success of Castro’s revolution

[5] The pioneers are a communist run equivalent of the scouts – effectively a communist youth league.

[6] Referring to January 1959 and the success of Castro’s revolution

[7] The pioneers are a communist run equivalent of the scouts – effectively a communist youth league.

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