Silvio Rodríguez’s sold out June 4 concert at Carnegie Hall will be a watershed moment. Often referred to as “The voice of the Cuban Revolution,” Rodríguez, whose poetic ballads have become anthems for more than a generation of followers throughout Latin America, has been granted a visa to enter the United States for the first time in thirty years. Dates in several American cities will follow the New York show. Billboard reached Rodríguez in Havana, where he responded to questions via email.
Why is it important to you to sing in the United States, after all this time and after the barriers that have been put up in the past for you and other Cuban artists?
I see myself as just another musician, among so many who have gone there to play. On a political level, between, the two countries, I see my visit as a step forward. Let's hope that the relations between the two countries keep advancing in the direction of mutual respect.
Do you think it is unjust that Cuban artist cannot be paid for performing in the United States under the laws of the U.S. embargo?
Of course I think it is unjust.
How do you think this new period of cultural exchange could affect Cuban music in the long run?
Cuban music has proved to be indelible, because despite of having many influences it has always preserved its essence. In the 1930s, when the Trio Matamoros was recording in New Jersey, they absorbed harmonic influences, but their son continued to be son. When the American big bands came to Cuba, Pérez Prado had them playing mambos and Benny Moré has them playing montunos. I think it's good for musicians to get together because something interesting always comes out of that contact.
Each one of your songs has its own message, but what, more generally, is the message you would like to give to your American audiences on this tour?
I'm not really thinking about this visit in terms of any particular message. I don´t think of myself as an archetypal artist, much less a political one. Perhaps I would like people to think of me as a neighbor who is coming to them with feelings and with friendship, and I expect the same from them.
Do you still think that a better world is possible, and that music has the power to change things?
Music and poetry does not have the power that you can imagine it does when you’re twenty years old. But they certainly are not useless or pointless. Art improves people, I have no doubt about that, and it´s people who can change the world.
You have your own recording studio, Estudios Ojalá. What type of projects take place there?
Ojalá was built in two upstairs rooms of a little house. I provided the technology and the instruments, and the State financed the renovation. I direct the studio, but the studio is the property of the government, like almost everything in Cuba. More than 60 percent of the recordings we do are donated to the artists. We have been able to help music school students we need to send demos to competitions and artists who have never had the chance to record.
You are often referred to as “The Voice of the Revolution” – are you comfortable with that description?
Not at all. The voice of the Cuban revolution is Fidel, and its singing voice was Carlos Puebla. I agree with the principles that the Revolution was founded on. I respect it and I could say it is an intimate part of me, because I became a man learning from the revolution. I’ve never tried to write political pamphlets; my love of poetry won’t allow me to. I feel committed to the dignity of my people, who have gone through a lot without giving in.