Music and Revolution: Interview with Cuban Musician Vicente Feliú

Singer Vicente Feliú discusses the origin of the Nueva Trova, the influence of the Cuban revolution and responsibility towards Cuban society and other countries facing repression, as well as the aesthetics of Cuban revolutionary song.

Political upheaval in Cuba, from the struggles for Cuban independence to the triumph of the Cuban revolution on January 1, 1959 resulted in the Nueva Trova – a form of music which derived inspiration from Fidel Castro’s revolution, but retained a personal expression on social issues. Singer Vicente Feliú, a founder of the Nueva Trova along with Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, discusses the origin of this type of music, the influence of the Cuban revolution and responsibility towards Cuban society and other countries facing repression, as well as the aesthetics of Cuban revolutionary song. 

Ramona Wadi: How did the Nueva Trova Movement originate?

Vicente Feliú: In the mid 19th century Cubans were strongly developing the notion of independence from Spain. In 1851, three young friends composed a song called La Bayamesa, referring to the city of Bayamo where these three friends were born and raised. Years later, on October 10 1868, these men rose against the Spanish rule. A battalion led by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes declared the Republic of Cuba in Arms and hastened to the mountains, where they freed the slaves who quickly joined the insurrection. The other two men were Rafael Castillo and Jose Fornaris. On January 12 1869, unable to continue defending Bayamo and pondering the potential fall into enemy hands, the people of Bayamo decided to set fire to the city. The lady to whom the song was dedicated – Luz Vasquez; Castillo’s wife, was amongst the first to set fire to the city. The Nueva Trova Cubana was born in those days, entwined within the struggle for Cuban independence.  

Until 1898, three successive wars were fought for Cuban independence from Spanish colonialism. All Cuban troubadours of those years, without exception, were linked to the struggle of Cuban independence; many of them with arms in their hands and a guitar or three slung over their backs. Some of these early Nueva Trova singers fell in battle.  

The Cuban independence was hijacked by the nascent US imperialism and during the first five decades of the 20th century the Cuban Nueva Trova musicians continued their chants for homeland and sovereignty. The 1959 revolution defeated the US backed Batista regime and Cubans embraced their new reality which spread throughout the country. In the mid 1960s young people from all parts of the country started composing songs based on their individual experiences which, suddenly and without prior coordination, became a collective memory. When in 1972 it was decided to form the Nueva Trova movement, it gained momentum throughout the country because, for the first time, there was a new reality and because we were the great Trova foundation of the Cuban song. 

RW: How did the Cuban revolution affect the movement?

VF: The group which initiated the Nueva Trova was formed of adolescent people who epitomised the revolution. That new power gave people the responsibility to rebuild Cuba. The influence of the revolution strengthened our roots. Participants did not simply emulate a transformation of those early years. We grew like other people; the Revolution grew in us and with us. The songs were our personal experience, which coincided with those of a generation. 

RW: What is the relevance of the Nueva Trova today?

VF: In February 1968 the first Nueva Trova concert was held at the Casa de las Americas, which hosted the First International Meeting of the Protest Song a year earlier. In that concert Silvio Rodriguez, Noel Nicola and Pablo Milanes invited me, Eduardo Ramos and Martin Rojas to perform with them. In 1972 a meeting was held in the city of Manzanillo, organized by the country’s leadership and the Union of Young Communists. Participants discussed aesthetics, Cuban ethics and culture. This first meeting of young troubadours was the initiation of the Nueva Trova Movement. 2012 marks the 45th anniversary of a memorable concert in the theatre of the Palace of Fine Arts in Havana involving troubadour Teresita Fernandez and a group of poets, including Silvio Rodriguez. The concert was called ‘Teresita and Us’. ‘Us’ included Victor Casaus, Luis Rogelio Nogueras, Guillermo Rodriguez Rivera, Felix Contreras and Antonio Conte. For many, the Nueva Trova embodies the sound track of the revolution and, considering that there are several generations behind ours, it still is.  

RW: Did you collaborate with other nueva trova singers, such as Carlos Puebla?

VF: Not only with Carlos Puebla. I collaborated with many others: Saquito Nico, The Guayabera, Cesar Portillo de la Luz, Jose Antonio Mendez, Angel Diaz, Compay Segundo, Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, Marta Valdez, Teresita Fernandez, Hilda Santana and Tata Villegas. Their influence has remained with us.  

RW: How did your songs develop through Cuban historic events, such as the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Che’s murder and the special period?

VF: I composed songs for heroes and heroines, international solidarity campaigns, cities and countries, love and indifference, the past, present and future, life and death. In 1997 I dedicated an album to Che Guevara called ‘Guevarianas’. 

RW: Do you consider the Nueva Trova Cubana as able to transcend political borders? 

VF: We learned from the beginning that the Nueva Trova is a cultural phenomenon which infiltrated every aspect of life, be it political, social, philosophical, military, in short; everything which defines and incorporates the culture of a country. The Nueva Trova remains valid because it is of a cyclical nature, despite emerging within a specific political situation.   

RW: What is your role and responsibility as a Nueva Trova singer, and how do you impart the Cuban revolution to new generations of Cubans?

VF: Anyone who communicates ideas shoulders the responsibility to retain an honest and fearless approach. Although not exclusive to the troubadours, they are amongst the most important features and the most essential. In conveying experiences, hopes, pending cases, dreams and even frustrations, I am imparting knowledge, experience and challenging myself to see how far each effort will reach. It is a natural process within each song.  

RW: What is your involvement in the socio -political sphere?

VF: I am a member of several organisations in Cuba and internationally: Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, Cuban Association of Musical Authors, Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution, Cuban Communist Party, General Society of Spanish Authors and Publishers. I am also the coordinator of Cultural Project for Latin American Song. 

RW: How did the Nueva Trova movement evolve since the revolution? Is there any difference in the metaphor within the song?

VF: The stage of Cuban music known as Nueva Trova is synonymous with the revolutionary triumph of 1959. Keep in mind that no aesthetic movement is homogeneous. The common feature in the Nueva Trova is the pursuit of beauty, in both texts and music. “Every time has its abyss, his sword and sun,” quoting a song by Silvio Rodriguez, and I can think of nothing which expresses this sentiment more eloquently. 

RW: Was there any collaboration between the Nueva Trova movement and the Nueva Cancion Chilena?  

VF: I must say that the Movement for the Nueva Trova movement comes after counterparts in several countries; the United States in the 1940s, Catalonia in 1961, the late 50’s Argentina, Chile and Uruguay from the late 60s to the early 70’s. In the bright days of Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile, the Cuban group Manguaré was formed, with support from Quilapayún, Inti Illimani, Victor Jara and other brothers of the Nueva Canción Chilena. In our country we recorded some exponents of the Nueva Canción Chilena before the coup of September 1973. Between 1973 and 1974 Nueva Trova musicians composed several songs; one or two of our albums supported the struggle of the Chilean people.

Vicente Feliú’s blog may be accessed at .

Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog here.