“I will never accept anyone telling me how much of a revolutionary I am,” proclaims Cuban musician Pedro Luis Ferrer, whose CD, Rústico, will be released in the USA on March 8, 2005 by Escondida. “When people talk to me about the concept of Cuban-ness I say ‘I want to be the Cuban that I want to be,’” Ferrer continues. “I am my own version of what is Cuban. I am my own version of changüí, I am my own version of son. I am my own version of trova. I am even my own version of the Cuban revolution!”
This spirit of reinvention appears throughout Ferrer’s latest work. He continually draws upon his country’s rich musical traditions and transforms them to create new meaning. So transformed is his music on Rústico, that he invented a new word—changüisa—to describe the style. Ferrer takes changuí—from the mountains of Guantanamo, in Cuba’s East—and mixes it with related genres that have not received much attention, such as trova espirituana (from Santi Spiritus) and coros de claves, two styles from Central Cuba where Ferrer was born.
By transforming the word itself from masculine to feminine, Ferrer simultaneously creates a musical concept that is more receptive and which can integrate more diverse elements, and pokes fun at the macho way in which music from the Eastern part of Cuba is often played. “In Western Cuba, they sometimes play in a mocking way,” explains Ferrer. “They play the son—from which salsa originated—with a special beat, with a ‘female touch.’ I am trying to recreate that in my word. This new term I use frees me from any kind of conventions, in terms of the changüí per se, and allows me a lot of freedom in creating music.”
This freedom is further emphasized since Ferrer gave up on having a band, instead forming what he calls a bunga, an old word from the countryside that refers to a small, improvised music group. “A bunga is simply people getting together in small groups playing for the sake of playing,” Ferrer explains. “It didn’t have an established format. Anyone could bring any instrument: an accordion; a drum; you could have a bottle with a clink-clink sound! And that’s how we play: we rotate instruments, bring in new elements if we want.”
These new elements range from almost-lost Cuban traditions, instruments from elsewhere, and techniques from modern songwriting conventions. “I’m trying to get away from a nationalistic concept of music,” says Ferrer. “That’s why you hear different elements.” On “Cómo Viviré Mi Cholita,” a song about the struggle of a man that lives in the Andes, Ferrer uses vocal harmonies with Andean musical traces. On this song and four others, his daughter Lena Ferrer—whose voice is featured throughout—uses the Peruvian cajón, rather than the more-Cuban rumba box. “The Peruvian box has a sympathetic sound with the guitar and better capacity for subtleties—it has a hole in the back giving it more tonality and a loose plank that creates a snare-like sound; whereas the Cuban version is closed and sturdy. That doesn’t mean I won’t use the rumba box one day.”
Percussionist Basilio Perodín uses the marimbula, a large thumb piano of African origins, which was the first Cuban bass used in 19th century son. Whereas the early Cuban marimbula was not tuned, here it is re-created so Perodín—who simultaneously plays clave, cow bell, and bongos—produces musical notes to sound like a regular upright bass. The group uses an African clave rather than the more typical son clave.
Even with these references to African origins in Cuba, Ferrer has a unique take on the subject. “Music critics often refer to the African elements that originate from slaves,” says Ferrer. “But the African element also arrived from Spain thanks to years of Moorish domination! There are elements from Moorish culture that still survive in Cuban music. In changüí, the tres guitar sings along with the singer, without the use of the concept of harmony.”
The music on Rústico creates dialogue. Sometimes it is a conversation between Cuban instruments and those from elsewhere. Sometimes it is a discourse between tradition and innovation. And on “Fundamento,” the lyrics argue with the music. The song uses the son tradition of commenting about everyday life. It tells about going to a vegetable market and finding that a papaya or a mango costs almost your entire monthly salary. The lyrics are a sharp critique of Cuban reality today. Ferrer ironically teams the words up with music in the spirit of Carlos Puebla, a central singer of The Revolution. “The original songs were not meant to critique The Revolution,” explains Ferrer. “But in this song you have a social criticism and reflection.”
Irony and word play is a Cuban tradition that Ferrer embraces. “Conga Vegetariana” is dedicated to two Norwegian, vegetarian friends. Ferrer found irony in their advocacy of a meatless lifestyle in the context of Cubans who go weeks without eating meat because of scarcity. Once again, two worlds collide in Ferrer’s dulcet yet profound music and lyrics.“Traditionalists in Cuba might tell you my music is not as traditional as it might sound,” says Ferrer. “I use tradition, to reinvent it, to join pieces that were separated. To bring forward elements that were left behind. People use tradition as a means of communication. But after a while their traditions just get repeated and they get bored with it. By reinventing these traditions for an audience, the tradition becomes alive again.”