At the Beginning,

There Wasn't a Nueva Trova
by Silvio Rodriguez


I started to compose songs that were later characterized as being part of the Nueva Trova, or "new song." People asked me what I was and my inclination was to call myself a Trovador (troubadour). "What are you?" "Iím a troubadour." I donít know if this was intuitive. At the time I was unclear about the history of the Trova, and the significance of what we were doing. I was in the Army; I had another job- I was a draftsman of comic strips- and my plans were to return to my old job once I left the Army.


I started off as a young man who liked music, took up the guitar and started to play. Like other young people, I used to dislike the traditional Cuban music played on the radio. However, I liked the traditional songs of the Trova I heard my mother sing.


At the time, people used to think troubadours were old men who sang out of tune with raucous voices. There was no intention of spreading or recovering our musical history.


So, there I was in the barracks, trying to compose my first song with the help of some friends who knew a little music. My first audience was my comrades-in-arms, my friends. I started to sing with another man in musical events organized for our unit.


Since the first time I picked up a guitar, I had the intention of saying things my own way. I always felt I had something to say. I was sure of that. Now, after many years of professional work, having studied music and with the necessary tools to analyze my musical beginnings, I look back to my first songs and realize that my songs had a different intention compared to what was heard at the time. Even in love songs, I always made a different preposition. I was just starting to read the Romantic classics- Lord Byron, Bťcquer, Hoffman- all of them. Later on, I was attracted to Poeís work. That interest lasted and even today I am a follower of some of his teachings.


From í64 to í65, when I began composing rhythmically, to 1967, when I left the Army, I was very prolific. I mostly wrote love songs, not chronicles of the times. However, I wrote my first political songs then as well. The very first one, called "ŅPor quť?" was against racial discrimination in the U. S. and the second one, called "La leyenda del Aguila" was against the Vietnam war. Later on, I wrote others about the Vietnam war.


Right after being demobilized, I met Mario Romeu by chance. Romeu directed an ICR (Cuban Institute of Broadcasting) orchestra. He became very enthusiastic about my songs, made the musical arrangements for three of them and invited me to be on "Mķsica y Estrellas," the most popular TV program. I was terrified by TV cameras, just like today. To me, singing in public and boarding a plane are the same thing- both produce an inexplicable terror.


Around 1969, I heard Bob Dylan for the first time. At the time the Blockade of Cuba, imposed by the U.S., was very harsh and effective. As the years went by and people realized that the Revolution was here to stay, many governments re-established diplomatic relations or trade with Cuba. When the U.S. declared the Blockade in the 60ís, only the Soviet Union, the socialist countries, and a hand-full of friends, like Mexico, dared to maintain relations with us. So I didnít have the opportunity to hear Dylan until the end of 1968 or 1969. Then he was going through an obscure period, which made it difficult for me to understand his songs.


I would say that The Beatles left more of a lasting impression of me. The Beatles expanded all the traditional parameters of "popular" music. They made "culture" music synonymous with "popular" music. Iíve always been an impassioned listener of so-called "cultured" music; the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Brahms, StravinskyÖ I began to see how The Beatles were doing away with the formal aesthetic norms. And I identified with that attitude because I was inclined to experiment with songs. For instance, Iíve written plays within songs and made speeches interrupted only by a chorus midway.


When I started to sing, someone from TV told me, "If you didnít sing those strange songs, youíd become a star overnight." Many people described me as "a poet who sings." I donít think of myself as a poet, but as an author of songs. Iíve tried to write poems, but have never succeeded. Iíve experimented to see how much you can get out of a man with a guitar. A song in a hybrid which produces a mulatto product- music and poetry. That is, a song is a mestizo product, just like cinema, because itís a mixture of more than one artistic form.


The Nueva Trova became conscious of its importance to young people at a certain moment. Pablo Milanťs, Noel Nicola, and I worked together in many events. We began talking a lot about the role of singing in a society like ours. What role should music play? Commercialism had relegated singing to being a commodified, pseudo art. But singing had or could have artistic qualities and could be seen and treated as great art forms like painting, poetry, and symphony. This was the spirit of our work, committed as we were to the revolutionary process. We felt there was no way to evade the lights that had been turned on in our heads.


There were people, including leaders, who didnít believe in us because before us, singing had never been used to criticize or question. We didnít ask anyoneís permission to do so and there were people who misinterpreted our intentions and even tried to silence us. On the other side, there were people who understood our songs and tried to help widen our audience.


We rejected artistsí outdated habits, their way of dressing and performing. We objected to that mythical being who appears and disappears like magic on the television screen amidst colorful lights and sounds. We wanted to clarify that we were human beings, perfectly earthly, that we could compose socially committed songs and that we had to because we all shared the same problems, the same struggle, and the same ideology. That was our objective. It wasnít only a new way of creating, but a new way of being.


I feel that art should entertain as well as educate. It fails when it doesnít entertain. An audience should feel comfortable with an artist. One can also be overcome with awe by the work of art. That too is a way of learning and being entertained. In that sense, Iím a follower of Brecht.


Even nightclubs can be important. I am not against them. One can have a good time at a nightclub with friends. But nightclubs need constructive content and artistic quality. There will always be music to dance to and music to listen to. When the lyrics of dance music become so good that they deserve to be heard also, we will have reached the ideal. Or looking it another way, we troubadours could aspire to compose dance music. I think that todayís dance music has been influenced by Nueva Trova. When we began, people didnít like the traditional Cuban music inherited from our parents and grandparents. The Nueva Trova helped renew our traditions.


The Nueva Trova has influenced young composers of dance music. Theyíve recognized that it has also introduced new options and a new perspective. Juan Formell of Los Van Van understood this. Formellís compositions also help young people appreciate the Orquesta Aragůnís music and other orchestras, which were not as modern as his.


We all knew that the term Nueva Trova would eventually become too narrow. The Nueva Trova and its troubadours are not so new any more. We knew that this would do away with the term. But we needed a term when we began to organize. Every time you classify and label, a tomb is dug. Nonetheless, the Nueva Trova brought new truths to light and contributed to the development of the Cuban Trova song.


I donít care if the term Nueva Trova stops being used. I stopped being new a long time ago, but I will always be a troubadour. I will continue practicing the Trova, which has always existed as a musical tradition of our people. Thatís whatís important.


Excerpts from an interview by Rina Benemayor, Havana, Cuba, March 1980.



Taken from