Silvio Rodriguez, the great Cuban singer-songwriter who performed a dazzling set Thursday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre, has the type of lyrical and melodic gifts that transcend ideology, even the bitter Cold War-era rhetoric of U.S.-Cuba relations.
His sublime and prolific artistry has endeared Rodriguez to generations throughout Latin America and the world. It's earned him respect even from some of those who disagree vehemently with his ardent, lifelong support for Fidel Castro.
An adolescent at the time of the Cuban revolution, Rodriguez, 63, has served in his nation's parliament and been an emissary for the so-called "nueva trova Cubana" or "new Cuban balladry" movement that took shape in the 1960s, earning him a reputation as a kind of Caribbean Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan.
On songs such as "Ojalá," "Mariposa" and "Cita con Ángeles," Rodriguez filters a wide array of introspective emotions through his companionable, high-lonesome tenor. The best of his songwriting seamlessly weaves together graceful melodies and metaphors — on one song he describes a butterfly as a "silent dancer," on another he addresses an old pair of shoes — into thoughtful elegies and expressions of yearning, regret and hope.
On past North American outings, Rodriguez has brought large ensembles that included horn sections and batteries of percussionists and synthesizers. At the Gibson, he turned up only with his guitar, accompanied by a flutist, a drummer and three excellent acoustic string players on a generous set that included multiple encores.
Dressed in a baseball cap, T-shirt and jeans, Rodriguez was a vigorous yet unassuming figure, utterly devoid of star affectation, as he led off with "En el Claro de la Luna" (In the Light of the Moon), a characteristically bittersweet and dreamy meditation laced with surreal imagery. His voice shimmered with sincerity and humility.
Rodriguez put politics directly into the spotlight only a couple of times Thursday night. He dedicated "Canción del Elegido" to the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban intelligence officers who are imprisoned in the United States after being convicted of espionage and other charges. But by and large he avoided overt score-settling.
On several numbers he stopped singing entirely and allowed the audience to carry the lyrics, which many in the crowd clearly knew by heart. For many Latin Americans, Rodriguez's sones and boleros are as organic to their formation as a grandparent's lullabies.
Rodriguez's current U.S. tour is his first in decades. During the George W. Bush administration, cultural exchanges between Washington and Havana dried up as performers from Cuba, Iran, Syria and other countries were effectively blocked from traveling to the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Late last year, the Obama White House began lifting such restrictions, making it possible for Rodriguez and a handful of other Cuban artists to return. The joyful reaction of the crowd at the Gibson seemed to demonstrate the hope that such free exchanges of art and ideas will continue and even expand. In the long run they can only benefit the two countries that eye each other balefully across the straits of Florida.