Looking back at recent history, one wonders why certain wounds seem to take so long to heal. We already saw a huge wound open up, yet again, for reasons that defy easy explanation. The rise of neo-fascism and alt-know-nothings has to be a reaction to something. Just this past week another reminder of a seemingly deep scar that can’t quite fully heal itself was reopened through the death of Fidel Castro. Everybody seems to want to go back and revisit a past that can never be gone through again. Fighting battles that are no longer part of any war. What gets lost in all these corruptive nostalgia trips? Here’s my kumbaya moment: but it’s that we have to move forward collectively. No one idea or vision should monopolize the other. If we really want to advance, we have to actively find the worth in all sorts of foreign ideas. The things that brings us together and forward, stuff like the brilliant music of Nueva Trova visionary, and native Cuban, Silvio Rodríguez. It’s his forgotten masterpiece Días Y Flores [Days and Flowers] that’s a perfect testament to all of this.
Born into deep poverty, Silvio was just 13 years old, when Fidel Castro came into power after overthrowing the American-backed Batista regime. Spurred on the by the new Revolutionary spirit Silvio did what he could to volunteer or work within the new government to make the life of others much better than his was. Whether it was joining literacy campaigns, or enlisting in the army, he tried to repay the new spirit of ideas floating around Cuba, in some way. It was in these barracks where he took whatever few lessons on guitar he’d picked up as a teenager and used them to start fomenting some of his earliest songs and ideas.
Although the Cultural Ministry tried to remove all forms of western influence in this new Cuban culture, Silvio alongside others like Pablo Milanés, Noel Nicola, and Teresita Fernandez, new better than to ignore the revolutionary sound, poetry, and directions artists like The Beatles, Dylan, and others were promoting elsewhere. Under the direction of Cuban socio-cultural organization Casa de las Americas, and their director Haydée Santamaria, these artists were allowed the freedom to express themselves however they wanted to. These same musicians many who had arrived in Cuba from far-flung places like Chile, Venezuela, or the Dominican Republic could find there a way advocate for social justice and opposition to militarism/fascism without fear of retribution. By promoting, releasing, and cultivating these arts, then they in turn could be used to culturally influence Latin countries who didn’t have these types of voices to speak for them.
This idea of a new kind of singing, Nueva Trova, more interested in tying poetic lyrics to social activism and radicalism was what would spur Silvio to get to where he’d arrive to here. It’s what spurred him to leave Cuba momentarily. Sensing that he still needed even more freedom to truly express himself –free from governmental influence– in 1969 through 1970 he traveled on a fishing boat along the coast of Angola and really use this time to discover the many gradients to his beliefs and the way they could affect the world. This life-changing trip would be where he would compose over 60 songs that tied his new intricate, African-influenced playing, with his flowering Jose Marti-influenced lyricism.
When he came back to Cuba, he was invited to join the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora del ICAIC, and flesh out his ideas of a new, modern form of protest music. It was obvious that if the radicals were in the seat of power, the message had to change. It now wasn’t about protesting no it was about promoting personal revolution and reflection. It was to create music that reminded the listener of communal emotions and situations. It was to hold truth to power.
Just one year removed from the knowledge of Victor Jara’s torture and death at the hands of Pinochet-backed military must have rocked Silvio’s music to its core. Victor was a martyrdom no one expected. In his own way, Victor Jara had created a Chilean version of this kind of revolutionary music: the Nueva Cancion. Promoting forward-thinking ideas that lifted the spirits of the common Chilean during the progressive egalitarian rule of Salvador Allende’s Unity Government, it was Victor Jara’s songs that inspired self-worth and pride in a changing country unused to it.
When the CIA backed the ultra-right junta led by Pinochet it did so in tacit approval that whatever path Chile took forward had to go through corporate state-approved hands. This is fact. Of course, the first to suffer were the ones that stood against the newest, biggest voices in the land. It’s the most lingering of traditions we know: morality and national security imposing its will on liberty and fraternity. It was in this morass that Victor sought to find new words to sing, and ways to sing them, that could translate across any barrier. Songs well sung, built not for sloganeering, but for introspection, were the ones that could outlive and outpace any impasse. These are things that Silvio took to heart during the recording sessions of Días Y Flores.
Taking Dylan’s idea of making the personal — protest, Días Y Flores remains this astonishing surreal yet plain-spoken musical treatise on the unrelenting arc of justice. How it’s always going to be tied to communal awareness and progress. Largely led by the otherworldly guitar playing of Silvio, songs would coil and uncoil with equal parts joy, introspection, and deep mystery…our humanity, in a nutshell (more or less). Bridging the gap between atmospheric acoustic pastorales, worldly folk, Latin psychedelia, and African blues, and those truly mesmirizing lyrics, Días Y Flores was new, unclassifiable, musical revolution, serving as a new point of hope for those fighting the ongoing good, necessary fight. To hell with protest, this was revolution. Unsurprisingly, this would be the reason you’d see Días Y Flores released with massive censorship in Franco’s Spain and Pinochet’s Chile. In Chile they went so far as to rename the album and strike from its release “Santiago de Chile” a song aimed directly at the regime, in ways they couldn’t see coming. Unsurprisingly, a year after its release, Silvio would volunteer to help the people of Angola gain their own freedom.
In the end, these were songs speaking about the worth and beauty in simple people, in simple ideas, and how they can move in ways others can’t. No matter where you come from, you have to listen to new stories from other people, maybe in them you’re bound to see some of yourself. Right now, I’m looking at this list from Discogs detailing all the countries Días Y Flores was released in: //CLICK TO VIEW WHAT I SEE//. Can you guess which massive one is still missing? Time will cure that wound, this I’ll never doubt.