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Varela Thriving as Cuba's Independent Troubadour

Pop music: The controversial singer's songs about frustration and yearning for freedom have made him an icon to the country's youth.

March 11, 1998|JORDAN LEVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela straddles many contradictions. He is both a rocker and a troubadour in classic leftist Latin American mode, except that Varela's trova is critical of socialist Cuba, with lyrics about tourist "apartheid" and refugees dying at sea.

He has had concerts shut down and songs banned from radio, but is also allowed to tour and record abroad and to continue performing in Cuba. Youth on the island adore him, as did their counterparts here during his recent visit, while he is regarded with distrust by their parents on both sides.

Varela, 34, refuses to simplify any of this. "I ask questions with my songs," he said last week at the Park Central Hotel in South Miami Beach, where he performed in a songwriters' showcase and at a private home. (He will appear at LunaPark in West Hollywood on Saturday.)

"Some are more political than others. Of course, when they're made and sung in Cuba, they have this polemical dimension, but if you dig deeper in certain songs, especially in the last three or four years, they don't only refer to Cuba. The first reading is always that it's some kind of social criticism. But if my society changed tomorrow I would keep on criticizing."

Varela's political critiques are humanistic, and his songs can almost always be interpreted in more ways than one. In "Robinson" he compares Cuba's isolation to that of the marooned Robinson Crusoe and wails, "Where is your revolution now?" In "Foto de Familia" he laments the families separated "beyond all the governments, the borders and religion." He indicts the "friend" who refuses to fix a broken 1959 Chevrolet in "Politics Doesn't Fit in the Sugarbowl," but also explodes with "[Expletive] your embargo!"

"Carlos Varela is something many people don't think can exist in Cuba--an independent voice," says Ned Sublette, whose QBADISC label released Varela's "Monedas Al Aire" in 1993 and who arranged for Varela's current tour of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Even cloaked in metaphor, Varela's songs about frustration and yearning for freedom have made him an icon to Cuban youth. At a December concert in Havana, they waited patiently in line for hours while police guarded the theater doors. Inside they passionately cheered and sang along. Recordings of his concerts are passed hand to hand, making up for the fact that his CDs are hard to find and his music is seldom heard on radio.

The meaning they find in his music keeps him in Cuba. "I believe artists are supposed to ask questions, and the way I do that in my songs communicates directly to the people who make me ask these questions," Varela says. "Youth in Cuba live in the margin, in a deteriorated system. There are not record stores in 20 places where it's easy to buy music. But this creates a system where music lets you know what is happening. The songs are full of meaning for them."

Besides, Varela says, "I need Havana. I love to travel and know other things and places, but I am always thinking of Cuba."

His refusal to reject his country has made Varela controversial in Miami's right-wing exile community, even though his subject matter would seem to make him a natural candidate for their embrace. His equivocal position may enable Varela to bridge the two sides at a crucial moment. Between the attention generated during Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba, the death of hard-line exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa last November and the aging of his contemporaries, the coming of age of second-generation Cuban Americans and an influx of younger exiles, the situation in Miami looks as if it is softening. Many saw the fact that Varela could play--albeit quietly--without incident in Miami as a significant turning point.

At his concert in a private home, the audience wept, cheered and sang along, with a sense of relief and excitement that often paralleled the one he evokes on the island.

"Sing without fear!" someone yelled. "I sing without fear in Cuba," Varela replied. "Why should I sing with fear here?"

"This is the reunification of people born into something they had nothing to do with creating," said Maria Romeu, a producer and publicist who arranged Varela's Miami appearances. "And it justifies my faith in Miami that we are going to reconcile our generations."

That is the kind of politics Varela understands. "We are both too close and too far from each other," he said. "But I think my role has always been to break the myth on both sides."

*

* Carlos Varela plays Saturday at LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, $15. 8:30 p.m. (310) 652-0611.

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