This morning I went for a walk in New York with the right soundtrack for a mournful day like today: Pablo Milanés. What better tribute to the artist who recently died in Madrid, and who marked several generations of Cubans? The irony is that when I was a child, the music of Pablo Milanés— and other members of the Nueva Trova —was also played on days of mourning, and on patriotic celebrations, such as the anniversaries of July 26, the landing of the Granma, the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or the triumph of the Revolution.
My grandfather used to say that the Nueva Trova was an instrument of the Revolution to keep the people asleep, to silence the true trova, that of Sindo Garay. According to my parents, Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez were simply political singers. They were still tied to the music of the years that the Revolution erased: Olga Guillot, Celia Cruz, La Lupe.
My cousins, who were young when Pablo and Silvio became the soundtrack of the Revolution, were rather interested in the forbidden music: every day a new singer or group joined their list. I remember that they listened to Beatles records in their house with the windows closed.
In my early teens, I went to a Silvio concert in the small hall of the National Library. I never saw Pablo live in Cuba, I think. I remember now a debate about Silvio and Pablo that started in a class at the Instituto Superior de Arte. It was the eighties. Who was more talented, who was more honest (Silvio had just sung at the quinceanera party of the daughter of a general of the Armed Forces)
At the end of class, the professor, Rine Leal, who was also the tutor of my thesis, told me that he would always pick Pablo. When we went to his house on the rooftop of a building in Vedado, he told me why he had chosen him: Pablo had been a prisoner in one of Cuba’s concentration camps in the 1960s. “In the end, everyone is a victim, we are all victims,” I remember him telling me.
Now, Pablo’s death has sparked a controversy on social media; as if there were two parties: those who belong to Pablo’s party and those who do not. We like those battles very much: those who are in favor of Trump or against him; those who are groupies of Ana de Armas and those who do not see a shred of talent in her.
Zoé Valdés wrote in her article “Pablo… and Silvio”, that she felt close to both artists simply because of a “lack of alternatives”; in other words: “There was nothing else. Pre-1959 artists were banned, also foreign English-speaking artists (the problem was not only that some musical genres were inconvenient, also English was considered the “language of the enemy”). The “old trova” was bitterly branded as decadent, like the rest of Cuban traditional music. Then the Nueva Trova emerged with its plan, for although it seemed to vindicate the patriarchs of the “old trova” in a way, it nevertheless tried its best to tinge even the most deeply lyrical love songs with deep political overtones”.
Jesús Rosado goes further. He confessed: “without remorse, that the Nueva Trova, apart from its innovative aesthetics, is, in my opinion, an ideologically Nazi project. A sophisticated instrument in the hands of the oppressive and unstoppable tropical autocracy”.
I have been studying Nazism for more than two decades, and I am increasingly impressed by how the Cuban Revolution has been inspired, from its origins, by Adolf Hitler’s ideology. Read Fidel’s History Will Absolve Me, and let me know if you see any parallels with Mein Kampf, also written in prison. One called for purity of ideas; the other for purity of the Aryan race. The first to call the dissidents “worm” and “scum” was Hitler. Before being banished from their country, Jews in Germany were subjected to the dreaded Vermögens-Erklärun [“declaration of assets”]. If anything was missing, if anything was broken before they left, they could be banned from leaving. Remember the inventories the “gusanos” were forced to make in Cuba? The Jews, when they left, were repudiated by their neighbors in public rallies outside their homes: they spat at them, shouted “scum” at them. “Let them go!”, was a headline in the newspapers.
Songs were written and made into hymns in the Nazi era. Nostalgic songs about great Germany. There was one actor who “could not” refuse to appear in the most anti-Semitic, popular film of Nazi Germany: Jud Suss (1940). Ferdinand Marian was cast as the protagonist —perhaps against his will. Goebbels saw him play Othello in Berlin and thought he was the ideal artist to portray the “bad guy” of the film: the Jew—. In the end, Marian was just another victim, as reflected in Oskar Roehler’s film Jew Suss: Rise and Fall (2010).
It was during the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann that the great Hannah Arendt —who covered the trial for The New Yorker in 1961— coined the term “the banality of evil”. Eichmann, kidnapped by the Mossad in Argentina and brought to trial in Jerusalem, “had performed evil acts without evil intentions”. And, “He never realized what he was doing because of his inability to think from another person’s point of view.”
In 2015, as I completed research for my novel The German Girl, I went to Berlin to meet with a publisher friend of mine. As we walked the streets of both East (Soviet-era) and West Berlin, she told me that what had struck her most about my novel was realizing the damage Hitler was still causing. How his ideology still inspired dictators. She also told me that, sadly, neo-Nazi groups were most prevalent in the formerly Soviet-occupied part of Germany. “Hitler was only in power for seven years; the Soviets, 40: that damages your DNA,” she said.
And we’ve been around for over six decades. How many centuries will we need to clean up our genetic code, I think, as I keep listening to Pablo’s songs. Now, in my Spotify playlist, I listen to “Yo me quedo [I Stay],” the anthem against the “Marielitos,” those 125,000 Cubans who fled the island during the spring of 1980, and suffered the most atrocious acts of repudiation. Pablo begins the song with several questions: “What house will shelter you? What corner will you stand on? What neighborhood will you walk up and down to find yourself? What neighbor will talk to you? What compadre will come looking for you? What friend will you share to unburden?”
Today, as we say goodbye to Pablo Milanés, I want to give thanks for having grown up in Cuba, for having been able to leave in time, for having created my family as far away from evil as possible. And like Pablo, I prefer to stay here: “with all those small, silent things”.
With those things, I’ll stay.