Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pedro Luis Ferrer: brilliant light, vibrant sound

One spring in New York City, I visited with famed Puerto Rican singer and percussionist, Choco Orta. ' You have to hear this CD', she said and proceeded to play a CD by Havana's Pedro Luis Ferrer. I was hooked on his harmonies, voice, and guitar playing immediately. During my next trip to Havana, I found the Maestro for an interview.

Nueva Trova singer, composer and musician, Pedro Luis Ferrer is from Yanguaji in the old province of Las Villas. He is self-proficient, with his own recording studio at home. Sitting in the air-conditioned studio, we talked. But first, coffee was made, as Ferrer is a 'cafetero' and smiles warmly as his daughter, Elena, who also sings with Ferrer, brought coffee and joined us.

Q:Tell us about your music and history,

Pedro Luis Ferrer: I am a Nueva Trova musician. By Trova, I mean the type of music I write. Popular music that encompasses the most affective types of feelings in songs to concert music as well. I write music for piano, guitar, orchestra and symphonies. In general, I have a great deal of interest in music, but I consider myself to be a pop musician, because the way I like to project myself is precisely, in one way or another, to be able to communicate with the masses, although I do concede that the elite classes exist". I believe that the masses transform themselves with time, however, within that population mass there are sectors who attend to more important matters. Sometimes I write music that later I find out, doesn’t really assimilate with the interests of the masses. I started working as a professional musician in 1970, I worked with several bands, some of which were as a hobby, they didn’t really have any professional possibilities. Then I started working as a solo artist in the eighties with my own band. It was actually a group of accompanying musicians. I’ve always presented myself this way since I’ve been working solo. I consider myself to be a troubadour since I compose and sing with the guitar. The guitar is any instrument I really like, not only to accompany me, but also as a concert instrument.

Q: Did you study music in school?
PLF: I am self-educated. Even though I have studied music a lot, and consider myself to be knowledgeable in music, I think of myself as self-taught, because truthfully, I am not an academic musician. I’ve had several professors who have helped me out.

Q: Are there any influences that perhaps originate from your family?
PLF: Yes, in my family I have uncles and my father...I consider them to be great poets — they wrote poetry. I had aunts who were music professors as well. My family was always involved with art and I believe that somehow that always shapes they way we become. It’s not the most decisive factor, because within that same environment there are also family members who don’t have an artistic calling. My background, as I said, is self-educated, although I’ve been shaped, I believe, very seriously within the music scene. I’ve studied music, I’ve studied staff, composition, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, anything that is related to music of any form I’ve studied it, and without praising myself, or saying that I am a better musician than anyone - that is not even the case - but I cannot say that I improvise without any knowledge, that is the truth

When I was a child, back home, my uncle was a music composer. He was an excellent composer within his era — back in the forties. And I learned from watching my uncle write poetry, and from my father writing poetry, and from my uncle writing songs I learned to write songs as well. I always had, from an early age, a creative calling, let’s say. I’ve always liked to be able to express how I felt, or what I wanted to say through music. Some people like to sing what other people write. I wanted to have my own version of the world. I felt I had things to say, and I started saying them. At first it was with a lot of errors, it was missing a few things, let’s say, but little by little life gave me a bit of maturity. It was a fairly critical environment in my own family, because my uncle Raul, for example, who was a poet, well, he never forgave even a gesture which he might have considered not done adequately. And things like that are important. Having people who are close to you who don’t allow you to fall in love with the garbage you create. That teaches you to be more selective and to understand that, even though perfection is not possible, there is a way to get close, and you have to strive to reach them. I do believe that family, in this case, I was lucky to have them close by, and also, later, to have close friends as well. I met people who helped me out a lot. They also instilled in me a critical spirit towards the things I created. And today I continue to be the same way; it takes me a while to fall in love with the things that I do, even though I love what I do. When I do finish something I do fall in love with it, but it’s not easy for me to fall in love with it since I have a critical sense of the things that I actually do.

Q: I don’t know much about the history of Nueva Trova. How did this movement begin?
PLF: Nueva Trova. I have a point to make about this issue. First of all, I believe that Nueva Trova comes from origins such as Silvio [Rodriquez], Pablo [Milanes], Noel, Vicente Feliz, and maybe one or two others. It is an aesthetic movement that evolved with the creative elements of Silvio and Pablo Milanes. I believe that they are the ones who truly defined the esthetics of what is now known as Nueva Trova. After that, everything has been defined as Nueva Trova. So what happens? Let me give you a bit of history: in Cuba, people develop Cuban history and they forget that Cuba was once Spain — Cuba became a nation at the beginning of last century, precisely because of the intervention of the United States during the war. Cuba used to be Spain. You can say that Cuba came to be at the beginning of last century practically, and before that, Cuba’s history was, in one way or another, Spain’s history as far as cultural issues and everything else is concerned. The influence of our culture or the formation of our culture initiates from African elements which resided in Spain’s intention to bring Africans to Cuba — slaves. And from that Spanish culture we get our guitar influences. When we became an independent nation from Spain, life went on, and the guitar became a "Cubanized" element, so to speak. And there was a great tradition of music composers who mainly wrote with the guitar. I believe that [the guitar] is a constant element in our culture the way Trova was and always has been, since it is a part of our culture, as it is part of the culture of many places of the world. There are definitely many troubadours in the entire world. It is Cuban because we took it over, in a sense, but only for that reason. We did not invent it, and we’re not the only ones who write music using the guitar. And when the revolution succeeded, a Nueva Trova concept was developed. I believe that starting from everything that young people wrote with the guitar, after the revolution, in one way or another, was placed under the Nueva Trova category. A lot of people composed, emulating the styles of Yalun Sanza, Pablo and Silvio, and what was to become — I mean, emulation, was diluted with esthetics and essential elements [of music]. I believe that those who truly set the standards for esthetics were Silvio, Pablo and Noel as part of a movement which had been done previously by Jose Antonio Mendiz and Portillo de la Luz during the feeling movement. There were a lot of people who contributed to the feeling movement, however, it was Jose Antonio Mendiz and Portillo de la Luz who jump started that movement. And these are aesthetic movements that have developed naturally within the music genre, which now, after the revolution, has been branded as Nueva Trova. So, there’s Nueva Trova, little Trova, and all of those diminutives, and I think that this modernized denomination has taken away from the fact that within music, as it happens in Trova, there continues to be aesthetic movements. There is no reason to give them the same names because they're different [and] independently, everything is related. All of the Trova that is written today might be related to the Trova that was written at the beginning of the century because of one simple fact, as a poet once said, "you can’t pull the weeds from the ground without shaking the last star in the horizon" — everything is related. But only for that reason. So I believe that Nueva Trova existed as such, and continues to exist. However, there are many other aesthetic movements within the Cuban musical artistry that have been, or have been assumed to be viewed under the same scope, and have been incarce¬rated in a vision that doesn’t seem to be adequate to me because the essence of things is lost. It is not the only movement that existed and it will never be. And that has been a fact overseen by many, and has even caused great harm to its artists when they have been classified as Nueva Trova, and they are not. It is related to the past, it is related to Silvio, Pablo, Sindo Arai, with the the entire world, but a person always has a relationship to the past. It’s impossible not to. But that’s another aesthetic movement. I think there have been various movements within the Cuban musical artistry that are still being defined within the same genre. That’s what I have to say about that subject. I do believe that Nueva Trova exists and that Silvio, Pablo and Noel are the keys to that movement. And there were plenty of people who imitated them somehow, and there was a push to create a massive movement, but those are, sometimes, considered to be political perspectives. And it is a political issue also because ideological issues were combined with esthetics, when ideology is only an ingredient of the aesthetic. Ideology and esthetics cannot be held at the same level when ideology is just an ingredient of the aesthetic and that’s it. Some factors of the art were portrayed as over dimensional, and overstated issues were developed out of predominant interests, purely political interests, they have nothing to do with art, esthetics or anything. Now, I do recognize that there was a movement, and I believe that Silvio’s work was similar to Pablo Milanes’s but I believe that they are the base and the ones that can truly be defined as Nueva Trova. With everything else there has been a great diversity of possibilities and none of the musicologists, aesthetic professionals or anyone has gotten to the point and attempted to clarify these issues. And you continue to see this, because not even in the times of Silvio and Pablo were there ot;her things taking place in song and music here.

Q: What was your part in this movement?
PLF: I’ve never liked to define myself because, first of all, those definitions are unimportant. I come from a creative perspective. I want to be an artist and a composer. And more than a creator, a recreator. That is what interests me. I don’t care about those definitions, I can belong to all of them, they can classify me in all of the categories, they can put me in anything they want to, because that is none of my business. I’m not here to get involved with that, I’m here to do my work, and my work doesn’t follow organizational ideals of any kind. My work follows my personal intentions as a man, because my vision is what must be, and like I said, I am the artist. I am an artist. It’s not even about what’s going on in the world, it’s about me, in order for the work to be mine and I can provide my vision to people around me. To help people on that quest, on that end to diversify the vision of how the world is seen and to expand the horizons of their imagination and their spirituality. That’s who I am. It’s possible that someone wants to associate me with the Nueva Trova movement. And if they want to do that, hell, great! I feel really important! (laughter) They want to associate me with symphonies, awesome! I am really good!

Q: Speaking of which, did you play and sing with the symphony?
PLF: Well, I like music, generally speaking. I have written many different compositions for concerts, and I like it. They expand my horizons. Concert music or music that is not necessarily associated with song allows me the ability to travel through terrains that song limits. Song is a very brief act that has to have a level of synthesis and preciseness. Song is an art, a specific in which the concept is left up to me, musically speaking, similar to the way in which a poem is not a song. Song allows me the concept, and so does the poem. I need to write my poems as well, and they have nothing to do with song, and the same thing happens to music. A song is something that helps me to bring those two worlds together — the two worlds that interest me: poetry and music. And that is what I do with songs, with the guaracha, and all of those things.

Q: I love to hear you sing. Your group has a tremendous chorus. Where I live there is a chorus group and they sing three or four parts. Is there a choir or chorus group here that sings your material?
PLF: Well, there are some choirs that are arranging some of my work. The other day I got a record of mine that a choir played. I like choir music, but choral music doesn’t interest me. It interests me in the sense that a choir implies the participation of the people, and that is interesting to me. And it’s not that choral music doesn’t interest me altogether, what happens is that, I believe that people who are dedicated to choral music have their own ways, or give the music a direction that is not organic. There is a lot of choral work that I believe is organic, and I like that, but although I like choral arrangements, I’m not someone who has wanted to get involved with it. There are some choirs who have sung my work, but I believe that choirs should be an institution that should invite the public to join in. And sometimes, because of the sophisticated nature of the arrangements, they have succeeded only at segregating the public from participation. Because everything can be elaborate, but with elaborate arrangements you cannot always see the details. Things have to be simple and they should be - they don’t have to be - things are the way they are. Everyone does whatever they want to do, and I do what I do for myself, and what I like is simply a very small piece of the truth. I like it a lot. To me, the work with vocals is very important because it involves—it is a type of reaffirmation of the consensus of what is being sung. It involves making the song less of an individual act. It makes it less solitary. The project involves inviting the public to join. When people hear others sing, it makes them sing as well. I believe that the choir is an enormous opportunity to communicate with society.

Q: This last work you did has been around for a couple of years now, but do you have any more recent material?
PLF: Look, I’ve recorded very little. In Cuba, I’ve only recorded three albums. I think there was a point that where, because of that, I worked towards creating my own conditions and environment to record my music. I wanted to record with my sound and with the tranquility that I need to record. The studios, the so called professional studios, don’t allow the tranquility I need, and I also stumble against the bureaucracy that has always been a thorn in my side. It has caused me a great deal of damage. Therefore I haven’t recorded much. Here I’ve recorded three albums: one that was published without being completed since there were staffs without string arrangements—it was incomplete and it was published anyway. There was a second album titled Debajo del vivo and a third album entitled Puma de Arena.

Q: When were they released?
PLF: Between 1975 and 1984, more or less.

Q: How did you end up working with Caliente?
PLF: Well, Caliente showed up in my life, because after a few years of recording on my own, I started talking to a group of people about a record I was interested in releasing. So among a large group of people who came to listen to my material, to see which offers would not convince me to sign, Caliente was there as another one of these people, and they were really interested in my music. I can tell you that the album was practically finished when they came to see me— it was practically completed. But there were some adjustments that needed to be made since I had used certain instruments—some strings, for example, that were played with keyboard, and they wanted to use a real keyboard, and real strings for the parts where I used a keyboard—I didn’t have a lot of resources to pay for a real string arrangement. And there were a few things that were added, some things that were improved as far as recording was concerned, because I had recorded the material as a demo initially with the intention of getting a buyer and improving some of the recordings. But they appeared when the concept and the the work had been practically elaborated. That’s the truth. And I’m telling you this because this album that Caliente recently released — first I have to clarify something about Caliente: Caliente signed a contract with me which I didn’t sign directly with them, I signed with Harbor Beach — I didn’t sign with Caliente, rather, I signed with Harbor Beach. Harbor Beach sells them [artists’] material. I don’t know if they are one of the same, I imagine it probably is.

Q: Caliente has a small company.
PLF: It’s a small company. I don’t like to be unfair and I believe that they gave me a great opportunity to release this material and I am very grateful to them for that. Because they gave me the opportunity, they believed in the material and the edition they released is very good. There are plenty of errors, the text and information is full of errors. I’ll tell you more about that.

Q: Really?
PLF: Yes, totally. There are a lot of mistakes; but I am coming from the angle of recognizing the good part. They trusted my work, they gambled on my work and they released my work and for that, I am grateful. The concept was nice, it’s good, is worthy of applause. They made several mistakes in the information, in the lyrics there are many things that are incorrect, which shows a lack of effort in the care that they should have had in those sort of things. I made a list of things of all of the mistakes which I had trusted they would correct in another edition or release, but I don’t think they did it, they haven’t done so, or perhaps there hasn't been another edition, I don’t know. But I do want to start by saying that I am completely grateful because they took a chance on my music and, in one sense, it gives precedence to the album. I don’t think that they have done a great job with the distribution, it has been two years, but what I do want to clarify, the delicate point of this subject is, that two years have gone by and I haven’t had any type of communication with them, which I believe is a total violation of the contract we signed together. They are under obligation to provide me a report every six months of everything; the accounting statements and everything else. I am not saying that there is any money, I am not talking about that, I am talking about my right to be informed about everything that is going on with a subject that is important to me and a commitment that we made. We’ve been under contract for two years and they haven’t provided me any type of information, nor have they called me once. Nothing. They just called me and I told them that I was willing to sit down with them, but they’ve been out of contact with me. So there’s no explanation for that.

Q: Do you own the rights to your songs?
PLF: Well, I also signed a publishing contract with them and I they haven’t given me any sort of explanation in two years about anything.

Q: Well, you should probably get an attorney.
PLF: Yes, yes. I believe that’s what we’re going to do. I think we have to do that because things can’t continue to go on this way. However, I am telling you , I don’t want to be unfair with anyone. They could have had difficulties, I don’t doubt it. I don’t know what those difficulties were, but I am not a mind reader.

Q: Well, but not every record label work that way.
PLF: Yes, I agree, but they made a number of mistakes on this record. Look, first of all this album was recorded in my personal studio.

Q: Here?
PLF: Yes. This album is the result of the work that I did independently. It was a lot of work, and pulling resources from underground. That compromises the work because of the esthetics. The basic story of the recording was this: the company obligated me to do some of the work at Abdala studios, which I could have completed here. So, when they release the album, they indicate that the album was recorded mainly at the Abdala studios, and that is a lie. The secondary studio, the very important point is that the secondary studio was studio Abdala...the secondary. So what happens with all of this? The person who recorded at Abdala was Charlie de los Santos, the company’s engineer. Apparently he is Maria’s husband, the company’s director. Charlie de los Santos, the engineer, is a very capable person and I have great deal of respect for them, I appreciate the tons of advise and collaborations that was made for the album. But there is a truth: he was not the main sound engineer of this album. The main sound engineer was someone else, someone who recorded here with me. So if you write down that Abdala was the main studio, then that means that he was the main engineer who recorded the album. And if you indicate that my studio was the secondary studio, then that means that the person who recorded with me, the one who actually did most of the work, was the secondary engineer. And another thing that is incorrect is that Charlie de los Santos is co-producer of the album, because Charlie de los Santos heard this album when the company had sent it in to see if the recordings were good. The recording was practically complete. I am telling you these things because you’re a journalist, and I have to tell someone since they haven’t given me the opportunity to speak with them in two years. So, I believe that they have lost all of the rights to that contract because in two years, without providing me any information, I believe that the laws of the United States, in order to have [contractual] rights, you have to comply with the obligations. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Q: I think so. I don’t know...not talking to your artist for two years....
PLF: Two years! And the phone just rang less than a week ago.

Q: I think that company has many problems in general. They probably don’t talk to their other artists either. I don’t know.
PLF: I don’t understand that. They have never once contacted me. I was surprised to hear from them a week ago. And I just found out that there is a movie that released in the United States about Reynaldo Arenas’ work [Before Night Falls © 2000] , in which they use my song "Mariposa" almost in its entirety.

Q: And did they pay you for that?
PLF: Yes, but I just found out about it. I was asking myself, why was it that in two years they never called me, and now, out of the blue, they call me, and then I find out that they are trying to get paid by those people. And I’m thinking, what is this? What is going on?

Q: Yes, I ask because you should have the rights to your songs and lyrics.
PLF: I signed a publishing contract with them, but within that contract it is understood that they have certain obligations due me, and that on a regular basis they must submit a report to me. I have a right to see those accounting statements and they have alienated me. They have not sent me any kind of information in two years.

Q: What are you going to do now? Are you recording again?
PLF: Yes. I’m always recording! Always recording. I have a lot of music recorded. I have enough music to release five or six albums.

Q: But are you thinking about signing with a different label to record a new album?
PLF: I would like to release a new album and I feel that they have breached the contract with me two years ago, but what I don’t understand is that, on one hand, they don’t meet their obligations, but , on the other hand, they want their rights. That can’t be.

Q: But, in general, have you played in other countries?
PLF: I’ve been on tours to other countries, but not through them [Caliente]. On my own. They never promoted my album at all. They didn’t do a thing for that album, the truth is that they never did anything, nothing. It doesn’t bother me. You know why I say this? Because yesterday, an American journalist called me, who said he was coming to see me, he said Charlie de los Santos had told him about me. I told the reporter, well, I’m sorry, but the people that work with Charlie de los Santos haven’t been in touch with me for over two years. They just called me a week ago, and I find out that they’re trying to collect on some of my money. And I had thought that they had resigned to anything that had to do with me, and it just can’t be that you can violate my rights that easily. It is very unforgiving. You know why? Because, I’ve had my stumbles with bureaucracy here, and I have dealt with people who have tried to do me wrong. So, these things, handled in this sort of manner, add up to the pile of disasters. And I just cannot comprehend, I don’t have any sort of explanation why they...look, if you don’t want to continue working with me, just tell me. But you have me under obligation anyhow, you signed a contract with me and you have certain obligations, like it or not. And I didn’t sell an album last year precisely because I didn’t want to take the initiative in violating my obligati;ons. I didn’t want to do exactly what they did. I waited two years.

Q; I think they should have called and said, look, there are some problems. But not being in touch, that’s not right.
PLF: I think what worked in this case was the fact that I told them that, the first chance I had, I would deny anything having to do with what they released about Charlie being the co-producer of the album, and that matter about the studio. I told them that I would not continue working with them in that manner. I was meeting all of my contractual obligations, but from the moment that they did not provide me with a clear explanation within the timeframe set forth in the contract and established by law, I informed them that I did not wish to continue working with them. What they did was disappear and never gave me an explanation.

Q: Your style is very different — it’s not very commercial, the way a lot of companies like it. Are you playing much here in Havana?
PLF: No. The truth is that in Havana, I rarely make an appearance. There aren’t many places to play. The problem with live shows here is that it’s turned into — you do it mainly, how can I say this, as a hobby, or as a show of respect for people or the culture. From the financial point of view, I spend money when I play live shows. I have to spend money, so I am becoming a potential migrant...we have to migrate to other places, and then we’ll see if we can come back with that money and put up a concert or something, but no, what you get paid for shows here is purely symbolic. It’s better to do studio work, make music for documentaries, films, record for someone, or make an orchestra arrangement. That, financially, is practically better that doing live shows.

Q: Do you have a particular recording project in mind?
PLF: No, no clear projects right now. There are projects, things are being talked about, but I’ve told everyone that if they don’t...look, what happens? They tell you, let’s do this. You make a commitment. Then, unilaterally, they cancel things, and you stop making other commitments, and no one is held liable. So, anyone who wants to talk to me, I tell them, I demand from them - I work with seven musicians - if you want me to go on tour with you on such a date, I have to rehearse with these musicians for a certain amount of time. You have to send me the money to pay these musicians, because I have to pay them to rehearse. They’re rehearsing, and after they rehearse, you cancel the tour. What are people supposed to live off of? These people worked for you. I can’t do that. So what happens? Since they don’t make any guarantees, I don’t guarantee anything either. Because, if you say, we have a tour, I have ten concerts in these places, in France, for example, and there are ten concerts, which might turn out to be more, but here is 50% of the monies up front so you can rehearse with your musicians, and you can pay them for rehearsals. I’ll say, perfect, I’ll pencil in the date for you. But if you tell me that we’re going to France, and then you say it’s off. Do you know what they did to me? I wrote off a project to go to the United States precisely because they had asked me to go at the end of the year, and some people came to talk to me about a project that was taking place here in the Caribbean, and I had to go to Spain. And the people from Spain canceled the project and I had abandoned the other projects. My musicians stopped doing other things they were working on, and that created a huge financial burden on us because we didn’t make money we could have made and I need money for my equipment and other things. So, no one is serious. I make no promises to people who don’t want to commit, because if you don’t give me a commitment, I won’t give you a commitment. You see how it goes? And a lot of people who come to Cuba to do business have heard, or hear that I’m the type of person that doesn’t get along with organizations, so to speak. So, since they have predetermined interests, they don’t want to lose those interests, and that’s why they leave me on the sidelines. They don’t want anything to do with me. That happens as well. That doesn’t mean that it happens all the time, but it happens. No one is going to risk their business because of me. Why should they?

Photo courtesy Caliente

Q: Did you go to Miami?
PLF: I’ve been to Miami several times, as a matter of fact, before I started working with Caliente, I was in Miami two seasons. I played a concert.

Q: And how did it go?
PLF: Wonderful. An exquisite crowd. People love me a lot there. Places were always packed. It was very nice. I went with Caliente also, but Caliente didn’t do what they were supposed to do for me. It was just one of the ways that they worked things with me. It was something I just couldn’t understand because he could have put together a great concert in Miami. There was a concert organized at the university and it came out really well. But they put us in these small places like Starfish, very small, hardly anyone fits in there. It was a nice place, but they didn’t take advantage of the possibilities.

Q: I think you need a theater, not just a dance hall.
PLF: My music also gets people dancing, because I also play guaracha and soneras as well. I am not a salsero but I am a guarachero and the guaracha works perfectly for that as well. But the festive nature of a place doesn’t bother me, because I even have political songs that are quite festive. I like playing in concerts. I prefer it over theaters. Theaters are a bit cold. I’d rather be in a place where people can have a drink...

As the Maestro was ready to join the rest of his group for rehearsal, we ended our talk. Ferrer is one of the most brilliant and well versed people I have interviewed. His breadth of knwoledge runs from music to politics, history and art, to the latest video and computer equipement. Keep an eye out for the Caliente CD that can still be found in many CD stores. And hope that we will all be graced by a visit one day.

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Interview, photos and video ©2002 by Julia Sewell
Transcription and translation ©2002 by Wright Interpreting
All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

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