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Album Review

When Ry Cooder went to Cuba in 1996 in search of the "deeply funky" rhythms the island had been famous for at mid-century — danzón, bolero, rhumba, son — the resulting album, The Buena Vista Social Club, made Grammy-winning, arena-packing superstars of its octogenarian musicians, and cleared the way to international airplay and success for dozens of others. And so it came to pass that northern Europeans flocked to salsa classes, that bartenders in the Midwest began serving up mojitos, that Celia Cruz received a queen's burial; yet the international reputation of the unassuming man who is arguably the island's most influential living recording artist failed to profit much at all from these high years of Cubanismo.

Silvio Rodriguez plays the guitar and sings with the voice of one of its own high strings, pulled perhaps a little tight. Melancholy, sardonic, tender or bemused, his is an organic music, starting with a spare, oddly syncopated bassline, gaining chords and momentum with each go-round. It's a ballad that arrives half-remembered from a bustling coffee house, hemmed in by a crowd of would-be poets, intellectuals, and revolutionaries. You sing along before you even know the words. Rodriguez is a trovador, a folk singer/balladeer. Much has been made of the Nueva Trova movement's leftist political agenda, yet the songs on this acoustic self-titled release are for the most part lullabies and gentle love songs, full of barnacles and constellations and vast Whitmanesque "Song of Myself" lyrical gestures. Recorded between 1992 and 1994 in Havana and dedicated to Rodriguez's father, who died during this time, it is the artist's most personal and accessible effort, his Ars Poetica.

Rodriguez's great talent as a lyricist may be one of the reasons that so few people outside of Spanish-speaking circles know his work; and while it's true that foreign listeners will miss the subtle delights of wordplay and metaphor, the raw emotion of Rodriguez's voice translates perfectly, and the occasional gorgeous misstep (a melody carries on a cappella when the guitar falters, or a silly chorus of childish voices bursts in to temper a bit of ontological excess) has all the charm of freckles or a crooked grin. In a catchy chorus set in the middle of the album and sung clearly enough for Spanish class, Rodriguez insists on the universality of his language of love: "Mi cancion no es del cielo/Las estrellas, la luna/Porque a ti te le entrego/que no tienes ninguna//Mi cancion no es tan solo/de quien pueda escucharla/porque a veces el sordo/lleva mas para amarla." That translates, rather lumpily, as "My song doesn't belong to the heavens, the stars, the moon, because I'm giving it to you who are without one. My song doesn't belong only to the one who can hear it, when a deaf person might have more of what it takes to love it." But listening to Rodriguez's most engaging music, you knew that already.


Born: November 29, 1946 in San Antonio De Baños, Cuba

Genre: Raíces

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

The tender balladry offsets the hard-edged, politically slanted lyrics of Silvio Rodriguez. A spearhead of the nueva trova (new ballad) style of nueva cancion (new song), Rodriguez masterfully blends romantic tunes with protest material condemning colonization and the tyranny that swept through Latin America in the late '60s and early '70s. Inspired by French chanson, Rodriguez recorded his debut album in 1976. Although his early albums showcased his solo acoustic guitar playing and silken vocals,...
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Rodríguez, Silvio Rodríguez
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