Silvio Rodriguez still inspires millions with poetic and visionary song

HAVANA (AP) — In his 58 years, Silvio Rodriguez has watched wars come and go, ideologies blossom and wither, love emerge and evaporate.

Yet even as the Cuban musician struggled with disappointment and his own faith in the underlying beauty and magic of life, his poetry put to guitar planted hope in millions of fans and turned him into Latin America’s icon of idealism.

Rodriguez is a dreamer, a visionary, the Bob Dylan of the Latin world. Though not well known in the United States, generations of Mexicans, Argentines and Cubans have marked important moments in their lives to his haunting melodies: a first kiss, and ensuing heartbreak; protest marches in college; and subsequent political disillusionment.

An innate hopefulness defines the man and his music.

“I am quite an optimist — at least when I’m singing,” Rodriguez told The Associated Press at his Ojala studio offices. “I say when I’m singing, because it may not be the case in other moments. Perhaps I sing songs to convince myself of exactly that — that one must be an optimist.”

His nature is contemplative, his manner generally serious. Yet he’s still of Caribbean blood, and like his fellow Cubans, he uses his arms, his hands, to communicate, peppering his conversation with bursts of animation and laughter.

In his usual attire of jeans and a short-sleeved, button-down shirt, Rodriguez talked about the birth of his idealism in the turbulent 1960s. He was 12 when Fidel Castro’s rebels toppled Fulgencio Batista’s government. By the time Rodriguez started playing music, he had participated in literacy campaigns and embraced the revolution’s ideals.

They were heady times, and Rodriguez was intoxicated with romantic notions.

“At the time, it seemed to me that song could truly change the world,” he said. “I thought that art had unlimited power. And I dedicated myself with passion to try and be an artist.”

The son of a carpenter and a hairdresser, Rodriguez didn’t start out with such lofty goals. Initially, he didn’t even want to sing.

As a teenager he began composing songs to create music different from what was on the local radio. He was a Beatles enthusiast and an avid reader of history, poetry and literature, all of which influenced him when he put the words and sounds swirling in his head down on paper.

But he always intended for others to sing his songs.

“I don’t consider myself a singer,” he says matter-of-factly. “I have always been more satisfied composing music, as this is the form in which I best express myself.”

Yet as his fan base grew, so did the demand for him to perform the songs himself. “I realized that people weren’t just responding to my songs, they were responding to me,” he said.

As he connected with the crowds, their enthusiastic response inspired him. He met other young musicians and began creating new music — trova — similar to American folk music, sharing social problems through musical storytelling.

“He has a very lucid way of thinking, which he’s possessed since he was an adolescent,” said singer Vicente Feliu, who helped found the modern trova movement and has been a close friend of Rodriguez’s since the two were in high school. “He was always very firm in his convictions about the revolution, about life in general. Silvio has always been just a bit ahead of his time.”

Rodriguez was called a poet, a master songwriter, even a genius for his unique blend of lyricism and musicality. His songs challenged the Vietnam War and racism, embraced women’s rights and the power of love.

But it was not long before reality chipped away at Rodriguez’s rosy outlook: War, poverty and discrimination did not end.

And in Cuba, the revolution was going strong, but Rodriguez, who would later become a congressman and use his fame to help promote the island’s politics, was frustrated with the U.S. rejection of its communist neighbor and despaired of U.S. sanctions aimed at weakening Castro’s rule. His vocal support for the Cuban government had, in anti-Castro circles, brought animosity into a life that largely had been filled with affection.

Rodriguez’s belief in the power of music was also waning.

“I went through a stage of total lack of faith,” he said. “Everything was garbage. Art wasn’t worth anything — it couldn’t change the world.”

Despite his disillusionment, Rodriguez kept writing, his music more melancholy than ever. In this period he created “Unicornio Azul,” or “Blue Unicorn,” a soulful, magical piece in which he yearns for the return of something very special. The song became one of his most famous tunes.

The unicorn represented Rodriguez’s fading optimism. But just as in the song, as he continued to create, his faith in the power of music began to return.

“I see in Silvio a voice constantly trying to bring hope, and belief in a future humanity that we could all enjoy,” entertainer Harry Belafonte, Rodriguez’s friend for some 30 years, told the AP.

Rodriguez is not as well known in the United States as other Cuban greats like the Buena Vista Social Club, Chucho Valdes or late salsa queen Celia Cruz. His CDs are sold in some U.S. stores but are more likely to be found in the luggage of Latin American immigrants coming to America.

It’s not just the middle-aged who love Rodriguez. The performer has always had young fans throughout his lengthy career — testimony, some say, of the emotional relevance and timelessness of his music.

Belafonte recalled a Rodriguez concert in Cuba in the late ’70s and being struck by the reaction of the audience, which was filled primarily with young people.

“It was not only the extreme reverence with which the young viewed him, it was the way they began to sing the songs,” Belafonte said. “It was more than just mouthing the lyrics — they became deeply connected to his poetry.”

Earlier this year, Rodriguez performed to youthful throngs in an open-air concert in front of a Havana university. The audience stayed and sang along for hours despite an intense downpour throughout.

Rodriguez has also shown his support to young musicians, with the recording studio he’s built in Ojala.

On a recent tour of it, just blocks from the ocean and his own house, Rodriguez sweeps his arm around a small, carpeted area.

“It’s very simple,” he said, walking through the studio toward an adjoining room filled with guitars — many of them gifts — and microphones. He runs his fingers across a grand piano, the favorite of Grammy-winning jazz pianist Valdes.

Ojala, a Spanish word with Arabic roots, translates into “God willing” or “I hope so,” an expression that comes to life in Rodriguez’s latest CD, “Cita con Angeles,” or “A Date With Angels.” The CD was influenced by Sept. 11 as well as Rodriguez’s expanding family. As he was mourning victims of the 2001 terrorist attack, his wife, a young flutist, gave birth to their daughter; his first grandson, from a child of a previous marriage, also was born.

“All these things, all this anguish and joy, is put in to that disc,” he said.