Cuban singer gets a little help from a friend

Boston Globe, June 13, 2011

The story of Jackson Browne’s friendship with Carlos Varela – his Cuban singer-songwriter counterpart, locally acclaimed but little-known in the United States – begins, as do so many good Cuba stories, with a bottle of rum.

It happened when Browne and Varela, who were being introduced by mutual friends, found Varela’s plans for a big get-together with friends, family, and a full band thwarted because Fidel Castro was to give a speech that night in the same Havana neighborhood, and the area was shut down.

So instead, Browne says on the line from his home in California, they repaired to his hotel with a bottle of local spirits as libation. There was a film festival going on, and other visitors popped in, drawn by Varela’s presence.

“We were in my room and word got out in the hotel that he was there and that there was actually singing going on,” Browne says. “People began translating his songs to me, and mine to him. We had a sort of spontaneous house concert.”

It was the start of a close friendship that has led the two men to collaborate as best they can across the political divide that separates the United States from Cuba, where Varela, 48, has lived all along rather than choose to emigrate.

A vastly popular musician in Cuba who has carved out a niche that is neither pro-government nor dissident, Varela sings songs of daily life where the politics is implicit and wistful. He was unable to travel to the United States for a decade because of restrictions that only ended after the Obama administration took office.

Since then, he has made several visits, including one to members of Congress in Washington, in 2009. Now Browne has organized a nine-city US tour that brings the two men (Browne is not performing, but plans to introduce Varela and translate a few songs from the stage) to the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Thursday.

The rum and Castro speech notwithstanding, there’s little that is stereotypically Cuban about Varela’s music, which is squarely in the rock tradition, not neo-traditional fare a la Buena Vista Social Club.

“My generation grew up listening to broadcasts from `the North’ using antennas that we rigged up and hid from our parents,” Varela says by e-mail from Cuba. “As a teenager I played drums in a band that did Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin covers. We sang in English without understanding, just phonetically. Mostly we did it to get girls, but it ended up having a big influence on my music.”

Later, Varela says, he came to know Browne’s music and that of Bob Dylan, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and other classic songwriters whose poetic writing and thoughtful, present delivery he emulates on his records, most recently the 2009 album, “No Es El Fin.”

Among his famous songs is “Guillermo Tell,” in which William Tell’s son suggests he and his father switch roles, with the son aiming the arrow at the apple on his father’s head – a suggestion that it might be time for a change. And “La politica no cabe en la azucarera” announces that politics does not fit into the sugarbowl that every family keeps on its table. But Varela’s brand of activism is poetic, not militant.

“He’s just telling the truth about how people feel,” Browne says. “I think, just like all Cubans, he longs for resolution, for the embargo to be over, and normalization of relations with its closest and most significant geographical partner.”

Varela puts it this way: “When I wrote my first songs, I knew no other reality than Havana and my neighborhood. But once I began to travel, I realized these feelings of love, joy, rage, frustration, illusion were the same everywhere; only the backdrop in different. So I think I have written universal songs that are inspired by Cuban reality.”

No matter where they are on the spectrum of opinion, Cuban artists cannot help but find visits to the United States beset with political discussion, perhaps to the detriment of enjoying the music.

“I accept that is the reality of the situation,” Varela says, “but it continues to be frustrating and regrettable.” He agrees that artists can help accelerate the renewal of normal relations, if not between the two governments, then among regular people. “It shouldn’t have to depend on politicians.”

Varela and Browne say they appreciate the thaw in US-Cuba relations in the last few years, and the increased ability for artists to travel. Still, Browne says, “It’s nowhere near normal.”

In the meantime he is proud to introduce his friend to as wide as possible a US audience, both for the music and the political significance. “It’s so important to continue these exchanges,” Browne says. “Because it’s hard to demonize someone whose songs you can hum.”