Singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, dubbed “The Poet of Havana,” has walked a cultural tightrope in Cuba for decades, questioning the island's communist government in his lyrics, while also hitting out at Washington's five-decades-old trade embargo.
His songs earned him a following on both sides of the Florida Straits despite their Cold War divide.
Artists hope the thaw in relations and a documentary about Varela will allow them to bring audiences closer together in both countries.
“The Poet of Havana,” by Toronto-based film director Ron Chapman, depicts Varela as a symbol of a generation of Cuban artists born soon after the 1959 revolution who opted to stay in Cuba rather than emigrate. Although they have grown disillusioned with the island's communist system, they did not actively seek to overthrow it.
The documentary, which premiered last month at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, will be shown in the United States, Cuba and England. It features interviews with actor Benicio Del Toro and American musician Jackson Browne, as well as Cuban music critics and musicians.
“There is a misperception about Cuba and Cuban music in the world at large, more so in the United States because of the embargo,” Chapman said in an interview.
Many people associate Cuban music only with the traditional “son” music made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club documentary and album. But Chapman said Cuba has produced many other styles of music.
He was in Cuba working on another film when he came across Varela's music and loved it.
“When I looked at the lyrics, I realized I was listening to an exceptional artist of incredible depth,” he said.
Varela's popular 1989 song, “Guillermo Tell,” recasts the William Tell fable with the son seeking to switch roles and shoot an apple on his father's head. It was widely interpreted as a metaphor for younger Cubans speaking to Fidel Castro and the country's aging leadership.
The film shows Varela during a U.S. visit with members of Congress in 2009, when he sang “Walls and Doors,” with the lyrics, “There are those who build walls and those who open doors.”
Regardless of how long the governments take to restore relations, Varela said, artists have outpaced them.
“What we can demonstrate to the politicians on both sides is that as artists we can accomplish that which politicians have not been able to accomplish in more than 50 years,” he said.