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- Posted on May 31st 2011 3:00PM by Steve Hochman
That was the scene one mid-'90s evening when Jackson Browne met his Cuban counterpart, Carlos Varela, sparking a mutual-admiration society that has grown through the years, bringing about a North American concert tour this month by Varela, presented by and, most likely, featuring some guest appearances by Browne.
The Californian was in Cuba back then, tagging along with a delegation of US politicians -- Democrats and Republicans -- on what is officially termed a fact-finding mission. Bonnie Raitt and Browne's longtime bass player Kevin McCormick had met Varela on trips before and told Browne to find Varela, who in the 1980s came under the wing of Silvio Rodriguez, a key figure in Cuba's politically progressive nueva trova music movement. Varela, now 48, brought the style into a new era with an approach more personal and cultural than overtly political.
"They told me to look him up -- 'If you go to Cuba, you've got to meet Carlos Varela,'" Browne tells Spinner. "And he heard I was coming and scheduled a party that his band would play at. But it had to be postponed because Fidel Castro suddenly decided to give a speech in that part of town and no one could get there."
So Varela scrambled and put something together for the next night, but the night of the original plans Browne hosted his counterpart in his hotel room. It turned into quite the scene.
"I bought a bottle of rum, we sat down in my room and began singing each other's songs," he says. "The room started to spill over with people from a film festival that was there. I'm sitting there and Benicio del Toro is translating my songs to Carlos! And all these others who know Carlos were telling things about his music and why a particular image has resonance."
Images such as those in 'Guillermo Tell,' one of Varela's most popular songs among Cuban fans, both those on the island and those in the US. Browne is well-versed in the politics of Cuba and among Cuban exiles here, as well as the politics of US policy toward Cuba, a distinct situation of embargoes and restrictions that, as collateral damage, inhibits cultural exchange. But the nuances of Varela's music are not really about politics.
"Carlos' songs are not full of these kind of discussions," Browne says. "He just really wants something like everybody in Cuba: Wants something to happen, wants something to change, wants to move beyond this. I think people in general think Castro is locked into a version of opposing the US that comes from historic necessity, but is frozen. In 'William Tell' -- 'Guillermo Tell' -- he tells the story from the point of view of the son with the apple on his head: 'Listen, father, I have an idea. Why don't you put the apple on your head and I'll try shooting the crossbow?' An enormously popular song. Step away from the crossbow and let's try to fashion something more practical."
For Browne, bringing Varela to the US this year -- he was here in 2009 for a couple of shows, as well as a musical testimony to a congressional committee, as seen in the video below -- is just an extension of the exchange they had in that hotel room. The hope is that it will dispel any notion that apart from the relations of the two governments there is no deep-seated adversarial relationship between the Cuban and US citizens. That, he believes, is even more important as Cuba is in a transitional state with an ailing Fidel Castro having turned the leadership of the nation to his brother, Raul.
"It's impossible to mistake the good will from the Cuban people when you hear it coming in these songs: The way to build a bridge, build a future and a safe future with a very near neighbor," he says.
Even apart from the military and political aspects of the situation -- again, something that Browne has studied and on which he has sharp, informed views -- getting to know the people can have only a positive impact, he believes. The strictness of the George W. Bush administration, which made it hard for Varela and other Cuban artists to travel to the US, set this back considerably at a time when interest in Cuban music was growing in the US. That's improved in the Obama years, but there is still a long way to go. So through this tour, plus recording and film projects, Browne hopes to be able to give American fans a look at Cuban life via this prized artist.
"To sit in his home with his wife and be served a little bit of cheese and crackers and to talk -- they share this apartment with their daughter and her husband and it's tiny. Cubans don't have a lot, but he's got a Grammy!" Browne says with a laugh.
A great irony is that Varela is often referred to as "Cuba's Bob Dylan," whereas given such songs as 'Telón de Fondo,' it might make much more sense for him to be called "Cuba's Jackson Browne." The opener of Varela's most recent album, 'No Es El Fin' (which tellingly begins and ends with a music box playing the classic 'Send in the Clowns') is 'Telón,' the title of which translates to 'Backdrop,' an indication that the songs are about what goes on in everday life behind the political drama. The song is a piano-centered, mid-tempo rocker with colorfully incisive lyrics that's much less Dylanesque than it is reminiscent of you-know-who.
"Well, that's not my favorite way of referring to any artist like that, comparing to other artists," says Browne.
But he understands the inclinations for such things. Right from the beginning of his career in the 1980s, Browne says, Varela got a reputation for "telling the truth about the way Cubans feel, especially people his age. He was a truth-teller." Early performances happened in an environment that underscored the sense of challenging convention and authority, particularly a scene in a Havana park where ad-hoc concerts would be held outside of the tight government control of "official" Cuban music. The songs aren't anti-Castro, just pro-change in regards to social and economic policies.
The Dylan comparison, as is the case of so many singer-songwriters who have been tagged as sharing qualities with the Bard of Hibbing, was merely a matter of familiarity and convenience.
"Latins really relate to the Bob Dylan, who was outspoken about human rights, and that has really connected with them and endured," says Browne, who has a longtime passion for Latin music and has cultivated relationships with artists from both Latin America and Spain. "I've met so many Mexicans, Spaniards, Nicaraguans who know Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. It's the power of his songs, which are learned and sung in other languages. Bob Dylan's a more universal symbol of that than me."
But perhaps the relationship these two artists have developed can become a universal symbol.
"It's exciting for me," he says. "Nothing about my music is Cuban. [I'm] not going to write a song about Cuba that sounds like my other music. That's just a particular thing to me. There is a song Carlos has invited me to be involved in, to help him write. Maybe we'll get that together. 'Power of Your Smile' [is] about making connections with people. Even if we need a little help with bilingual people to explain in detail what the other is saying, that power of a person, power of music, that infectious happiness of seeing each other sustains our friendship."