Cuban singer and songwriter Carlos Varela is an exquisite musician you’ve probably never heard of. That is about to change after HBO Latino's national premiere of the documentary film “The Poet of Havana,” celebrating Varela’s thirty years in music. Viewers will be introduced to a musician who has been hailed as one of the greatest singer songwriters of our time.
“He’s been hidden behind the wall of the island and my hope was to introduce him to a wider audience,” explained the film’s director, Canadian filmmaker and musician Ron Chapman. Chapman fell in love with Varela’s music while researching a film about Cuba’s extensive musical genres. “His music gets into people’s hearts regardless of language and I knew that if I succeeded in telling his story I would, in a sense, tell the story of the Cuban people.”
Chapman is one of hundreds of thousands who’ve been captivated by the 52-year-old singer, born and raised in Havana. He is part of an elite generation of Latin American singer songwriters whose music become soundtracks of their country’s generation. He is a modern-day Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés, except that he is beloved by both sides of the Cuban community, those on the island and the exiled compatriots.
“If you listen closely to his music, you will hear the history of the Cuban people in the last three decades,” says Chapman. “His music mirrors what has happened, what they have been through, dreams, victories, failures, and losses,” he says. “It’s a mirror into the soul and heart of the Cuban people.”
“What Cuban on the island doesn’t have a friend or a relative on the other side?” remarks Varela about having fans both in Cuba and among Cuban-American exiles. “Just because you leave your country to find better opportunities does not make you a traitor like so many of our people have been viewed from people in power in my country.”
Varela, a small bearded fellow who is lovingly called El Gnomo, or the gnome, by his fans, dresses in black from head to toe. He looks more like a Goth yogi than the revered rock star that he is in his homeland. His fervent critiques of the Castro government over the years made him a target on the island but also garnered him hundreds of thousands of fans inside Cuba and in the tight community of exiles in Miami’s Little Havana. Acclaimed Cuban-American singer and songwriter Gloria Estefan is a fan. But his fan base extends beyond his fellow countrymen and women.
American singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, Puerto Rico’s Calle 13’s Eduardo Jose Cabra and actor Benicio del Toro traveled to Havana for a concert celebrating Varelas’s three decades in music. Del Toro, one of his biggest supporters, is featured extensively in the film discussing the impact the composer has had on his artistic life, as well as on music and Cuba.
I spoke to Varela from Miami where he had just screened the film to a packed house of Cuban exiles. When it’s pointed out that he has managed to achieve something that only Pope Francis has been able to do—to be respected and adored by both sides of the Cuban Florida Straits – Varela seemed grateful.
“What Cuban on the island doesn’t have a friend or a relative on the other side?” he remarks. “The theme of the separation of the family has always been in my music,” he says, “Just because you leave your country to find better opportunities does not make you a traitor like so many of our people have been viewed from people in power in my country.”
He continues: “I am not alone in my thoughts, I am part of a larger group of Cubans on the island- writers, playwrights, poets, athletes, and others who have been expressing these feelings for years.”
He added he has always insisted that there was no logic to having people with so much in common be so near and yet so far.
December 17th is a hallowed day in Cuba not just because the day commemorates San Lázaro, the patron saint of the sick, but also according to Varela because it was the day when news broke that the cold war between the US and Cuba was beginning to thaw.
“It’s a very important day for all of us in Cuba,” he said. “I just wrote a song about the day. It’s not going to be easy or quick as everyone would like but this is a good beginning—there is a spirit of openness that we are breathing in Havana. It’s so wonderful to see Cuban and American flags flying together from the balconies of Havana. This was the unimaginable twenty years ago when I sang about the desire for the melting of the snow.”
He says that what he does with his songs is to share a dream about a day when travel and openness is part of everyday life on the island but also he has captured what has happened to the Cuban family living on opposite shores, and about the friends he has lost to the sea while making the treacherous voyage from the of the island to the mainland USA.
“I remain hopeful that the reconstruction of Cuba will be done by Cubans here and those abroad and that those who sadly had to leave their barrio can return as well," Varela says. “It’s their island as well."
Varela says he sings because he has seen how arts and especially music can tear down walls and bring people together.
“I have met many Cubans here who were not contaminated with the philosophy of hate or revenge,” he says. “Young Cubans in the US have been the agents of change in Cuban families and many have taken their old folks to visit after years of bitterness.”
He believes that that the future of Cuba is rightfully theirs.
“I remain hopeful that the reconstruction of Cuba will be done by Cubans here and those abroad and that those who sadly had to leave their barrio can return as well," Varela says. “It’s their island as well. It’s going to take time, and we have to be very careful. There are deep issues to resolve such as the fact that we have an aging population that has only known one kind of government and we must help take care of them.”
“Its going to be a long haul, you have to change minds, and ways of thinking. But the healing has started and the change has come,” he declares.
And like his songs, the poet is filled hope: “Just because it won’t be easy does not make it impossible.”
“The Poet of Havana,” airs on HBO Latino Friday, October 23 at 8 pm EST.
Sandra Guzmán is a frequent contributor to NBC News Latino. She is an award winning journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter.