Pepe and I
by Mark Brazaitis
The old men ignited dreams.
In 1999, Wim Wenders’ film, Buena Vista Social Club, reintroduced a world audience to Cuban musicians famous in the 1940s and 1950s but since forgotten. Reunited by U.S. guitarist and songwriter Ry Cooder, they returned with grace, emotion, and thrilling success. The Buena Vista Social Club CD sold more than a million copies and peaked at number twenty-two on the U.S. Billboard 200. The group, whose members were in their seventies, eighties, and even nineties, performed in sold-out venues in Amsterdam and New York City, and Wenders’ Oscar-nominated documentary played in movie theaters around the world.
The reunited Buena Vista Social Club was no nostalgia act. It wasn’t Kiss returning in full makeup or the Go-Go’s giving it another go. These were musicians whose careers, because of a political tempest, couldn’t follow a natural arc. They were silenced in mid song. Their return, with music so old it sounded, to younger generations, fresh, inventive, and alive, was less a comeback and more a resurrection.
If you were eighteen years old at the turn of the last century and aspired to be a musician, you might have emulated Britney Spears, Ricky Martin, or Christina Aguilera. If you were eighty years old? Your heroes were Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Rubén González, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, and Pío Leyva.
José “Pepe” Gomez—stage name: José Ramón—saw what the Buena Vista Social Club achieved. Why, he wondered, couldn’t he do the same? He, too, was a musician steeped in traditional Cuban songs. He knew 1,500 of them by heart. He had solid credentials, having performed in the best venues on the island. But in 1999, his hair having yet to go fully gray, he might have been too wet behind the ears to make a Buena-Vista-Social-Club-like run at stardom. Twelve years later, he had the requisite gravitas. His C.V. said he was sixty-four, but he admitted to being ten years older.
The time was right. All he needed was a break.
I met Pepe when I visited Cuba in June of 2011 to give a reading at Torre de Letras, an artists’ center in Havana. My mother, long interested in traveling to the country, joined me. She lives in New York City, where her friends include a woman who left Cuba a decade ago. My mother’s friend suggested we visit a few of her friends in Havana, one of whom, a retired dentist named Lourdes de los Santos, picked us up on our second day in the country at the casa particular where we were staying. Pepe accompanied her.
Pepe’s thick white hair and black-rimmed glasses suggested a mad scientist, but his good looks—picture Gregory Peck with Montgomery Clift’s blue eyes—conjured a well-preserved matinee idol. As we drove toward Havana Vieja in Lourdes’s 1991 Fiat, our conversation turned to Cuban music, its great past and, in Pepe’s opinion, its banal, unmelodic present. “Today’s music is noise,” Pepe said. “Fifty, sixty years ago? Sweetness for the ears.” Turning around in the front passenger seat to face us, he launched into song. The words were in Spanish but the melody was familiar.
“Recognize it?” he asked.
“Of course,” my mother said. “It’s ‘Strangers in the Night.’”
“Extraños en la Noche,” he said. “Sinatra.” He said he admired other American singers, including Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, but his idols were Cubans—Benny Moré, Celia Cruz, Vicentico Valdes, all from his era. He knew their histories the way Lourdes knew, or wishes she knew, the potholes on the Malecón, Havana’s oceanfront thoroughfare, where waves from the Gulf of Mexico crash against the steep retaining wall. Pepe’s singing was punctuated by the bang and rattle of the Fiat dipping into the road’s chasms. He didn’t seem to mind. I had the feeling he was like Sam-I-Am from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham: He could have sung in a train, a tree, a boat—anywhere.
With Lourdes and Pepe as our guides, we hit the mandatory tourist sites, including the Plaza de la Revolución, with images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the surrounding buildings. We dropped in at Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, La Floridita, and posed next to his bronzed statue at the bar. We ate dinner at La Torre, a restaurant on the thirty-sixth floor of Edificio Focsa, with a 360-degree view of Havana.
Our tour had a soundtrack, courtesy of Pepe: “Quizás, Quizás” and “Como El Viento” and “Me Enamore de Ti.” His singing made what was inside the car more engaging than what was outside it.
* * *
My father used to sing when he was driving. If he didn’t know 1500 songs by heart, he knew 500. He always tried to interest the rest of the family in joining him, but only my sister participated regularly. I learned to play the guitar when I was twelve and became serious about it in my last year in high school. I allowed myself to imagine fronting a rock group. But I had one drawback: a terrible voice. I ended up dedicating myself to different arts.
When in 1998, at age thirty-one, I won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for my first collection of stories, The River of Lost Voices, I thought I was on my way to fame and fortune—or at least to a literary career in which rejection would be a memory. But although several agents contacted me after I won the award, the agent I selected had a hard time finding a publisher for my novel. After she did, the book didn’t sell well. A few literary journals solicited my stories. But the big-name journals in which I aspired to publish mostly did as they’d always done: turned down my work.
So it is with most artists—writers, musicians, painters, performers—who don’t come one day to a house called Success and live within its golden rooms forever after. Most of us find Success as we might find flowers in the cracks of a long road we’ve chosen to travel. There are usually miles of asphalt between bursts of blooms.
As excuses for lack of success go, living in Cuba is a good one. Most people, even most music fans, would find it difficult to name a single contemporary Cuban performer who lives in Cuba rather than, say, Miami or New York. The United States’ embargo of Cuba hasn’t only devastated the Cuban economy; it has crippled the careers of talented Cuban musicians, painters, and poets who have been given little, if any, access to three hundred million potential aficionados ninety miles north. Without a viable market for their work, they usually hold down full-time jobs in peripheral fields, earning the standard salary of $20 to $30 a month, supplemented by a government allotment of foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, and coffee.
Pepe spent his entire professional career—forty-two years—as a government bureaucrat, working at the Ministry of Agriculture and other institutions. Whatever artistic life he wanted for himself had to be pursued at night and on weekends. In the late 1970s, he finished second on “Todo El Mundo Canta,” a Cuban precursor to “American Idol.” Later, he sang at a festival of boleros and “feeling,” a hybrid of romantic ballads, jazz, and blues popular in the 1950s, at the University of Havana as well as in the National Theater alongside actress Diana Rosa Suárez. When he wasn’t singing in official settings, he performed anywhere he could.
But as much as he has achieved, he confided in me, he wanted more than his island home and its eleven million inhabitants could give him. He wanted the big time, like his idols in the Buena Vista Social Club. Amsterdam, Paris, the moon. Or, even better: New York City.
“You can be the biggest star in your country,” Pepe said. “Mexico, Spain, Brazil. You can fill stadiums and your songs can be on the radio all night. But if you haven’t performed in New York, who are you?”
After I won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, I mapped an extensive book tour. I was going to read from my collection in all the major cities east of the Mississippi River. I thought a nice prize would equal a nice audience would equal nice book sales.
A friend, an experienced author, warned: “You better stock the pond.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Bring along friends and family. This way, at least you’ll have a couple of people at your readings.”
In Fairmont, West Virginia, where I’d been asked to read by the owner of a bookstore, the reading I gave—or, in the end, didn’t give—featured exactly two audience members: my wife and my one-year-old daughter. The local newspaper sent a photographer to cover the event. She had me gesticulate as if I were orating to thousands. Her shot, published the next day, focused on me and not the empty seats. I have never been so grateful for dishonest journalism.
In Cuba, I wasn’t another writer on tour, eager to interest strangers in buying my stories or poems. I was a curiosity, an envoy from the maligned, mythic north. On the night of my reading, thirty people crammed into a second-floor apartment on 10th Street in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. The apartment belonged to Luis Trápaga, a shaggy-haired sculptor and painter. Unlike Pepe, Luis quit his government job—he worked in animation for Cuban television—to pursue his art full time. He made more money selling his work to tourists and the occasional flush Cuban than he did working in TV.
The apartment had a Bohemian flavor, with Luis’s artwork on the wall and jazz on the stereo. Refreshments included hot tea—difficult to find in Cuba—and rum with ice. The woman whose organization hosted the event wore tennis shoes with anti-Castro language scrawled on the sides. She publishes a blog critical of the Cuban government. I asked her about the risks she faces. She said she didn’t think she risked death. But golpes—physical injury—certainly.
I read poems I’d written about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala, first in Spanish (the translations my own), then in English. It was difficult to gauge the audience’s reaction, and not only because the apartment was dark. There were only occasional murmurs from the crowd—and few laughs. I had opened with a joke about how after I’d finished my service in Guatemala, where I had worked with subsistence farmers, I had taken the Foreign Service Institute’s oral Spanish exam. The examiner said, “You speak fine, but you speak like a peasant.” In Cuba, where there are no official class distinctions, this evidently wasn’t worth a chuckle. Some of my poems touted the anti-materialistic lifestyle I’d lived in Guatemala. Such a lifestyle had been my choice; for most Cubans, it is their life.
During my reading, Pepe, who sat next to my mother on a couch at the back of the room, gazed at me with a supportive grin. Periodically, he nodded at what I said. He was the oldest person in the room, and the only one who had lived in Cuba before the Revolution and could therefore compare the two eras. He didn’t seem uncomfortable, as Lourdes, who had promised to attend but had failed to show, no doubt would have been. As someone who had benefitted from the Revolution—she received her Fiat after doing dental work on behalf of the Cuban government in Mozambique—she might have bristled at the anti-Castro sentiment in the room.
After my reading, there was brief applause. The Cuban poet Juan Carlos Flores, who had been sitting five feet from me like an over-eager Gong Show judge, stood and launched into a critique of my translations. His gray-blue eyes seemed illuminated from behind as if by torches, and he spoke in a torrent. His message: Poems are best translated by native speakers of the language into which they’re being translated. At the end of his diatribe, he volunteered to find a Cuban translator for my work. I had the unusual reaction of feeling at once insulted and grateful.
Later, I mingled with people in the crowd. No one mentioned my reading. Was silence their way of holding back their disdain? I couldn’t remember a reading I’d given at which no one had at least said, “Good job.”
Or was longing to hear “Good job” too bourgeois?
My mother would certainly have given me uplifting words, but she had disappeared in search of a bathroom.
But there was Pepe, who emerged from whatever conversations he’d been having and smiled and grasped my hand. “I could sense how much you loved the people in Guatemala,” he said. “I could feel your heart in your poems.”
At one point, he gazed out a window and spoke so softly I couldn’t hear him. He turned back to me. “It’s here,” he said, touching his chest. “It’s all here.” He congratulated me again and left.
My mother and I stayed another couple of hours, watching films people in the audience had made, including one that imposed Spanish subtitles mocking Cuban politics over a Sesame Street skit. (Who knew Kermit the Frog was a counter-revolutionary?) I admired the intensity and passion of the films. I also noted a certain self-indulgence. But what art isn’t a little self-indulgent? It’s full of itself enough to say: Spend your time with me. I will entertain you. Or surprise you. Or teach you. Or make you see your world—and yourself—in a new way.
* * *
As we were touring Havana, I asked Lourdes what neighborhood was the city’s wealthiest. I had imagined Havana being like Guatemala City, where a person could travel in minutes from one extreme (gated and guarded mansions) to another (the city’s garbage dump, where people competed with wild dogs and vultures for discarded leftovers). “This is,” Lourdes said, gesturing out the window at buildings and houses whose faded, crumbling concrete we’d seen everywhere. Some of the buildings reminded me of the projects in New York City.
“All of this was built before the Revolution,” Pepe said. If he intended his comment as a criticism of the current regime and the Castro brothers’ inability to do so much as paint the buildings they had inherited from the Batista dictatorship, it was subtle. The only outright criticism I heard Pepe utter during my ten days in the country was about modern Cuban music. On this topic, he spoke frequently and firmly.
Lourdes’s apartment was on the second floor of a building on Third Street in Vedado. It contained two modest bedrooms, a modest living room, and an even more modest dining room, which could hold a table and nothing else. It behooved a person using her kitchen to be slim. On the days we visited, the lone toilet was on the blink. The plumber had several jobs to perform in Lourdes’s apartment, and although he was a friend of hers, she vowed not to pay him anything until he’d completed all of his work. “Otherwise,” she said, “he’ll never come back.”
Lourdes shared her apartment with her 91-year-old mother and on occasion with other relatives, especially a grandniece and a grandnephew. We spent most of our time in her living room, its coffee table holding a variety of ceramic knick-knacks. As we drank coffee, my mother suggested—casually, as she might remark about the weather—that she could film Pepe singing and put the video up on YouTube.
Pepe didn’t know what YouTube was. Most Cubans who have access to the Internet—and Pepe didn’t—rely on dial up. To call up a YouTube video can kill an entire afternoon. To Pepe, the idea of giving millions of people around the world the opportunity to hear and see him perform seemed like a dream. An agent or promoter might discover him, he mused.
“Should we do it now?” my mother asked.
“No, no,” Pepe said. “I need time to prepare.”
He thought he’d like to sing three songs. But which three? With 1500 to choose from, it would be like selecting the three sweetest plums from an abundant orchard.
As we had a second cup of coffee, Lourdes’ grandnephew popped a DVD into the player in the living room. It was of a concert by Marc Anthony, the Puerto Rican-American singer and soon-to-be-ex-husband of the actress and singer Jennifer Lopez.
“He was a kid on the streets,” Pepe told me, pointing at Anthony’s image on the screen. “He was nobody. But along comes Tito Fuente. Do you know him?”
“Famous. Tito Puente discovered him on the streets, and the next thing Marc Anthony knows, he’s singing at Madison Square Garden in front of thousands of people.”
Pepe sighed. “If it hadn’t been for a lucky encounter with Tito Puente, we never would have heard of Marc Anthony.”
The biographical notes I later read on Anthony made no mention of his miraculous ascension to stardom. He was a successful backup singer before Puente and several other older performers helped him become a solo act. Fame followed.
But Pepe’s story about Marc Anthony wasn’t about Marc Anthony. “I have never been able to push myself to succeed,” he said. “You read about musicians who knocked on doors, who talked their way into meeting record producers. This isn’t me.”
He shook his head. “I have always needed someone behind me, pushing. But there’s never been anyone. So here I am.”
Later, after downing a Cristal beer, he said, “With a push—a strong push—well, who knows what I could become.”
Using pseudonyms, Walt Whitman wrote glowing reviews of his own Leaves of Grass. “The public is a thick-skinned beast,” he explained, “and you have to keep whacking away at its hide to let it know you’re there.”
I, for one, have found whacking unpleasant. I recoil at emailing friends about my latest book, although on average I receive an email a week from writers—friends and strangers—hoping to interest me in their most recent publications. Always upon receiving these emails, I feel dispirited. Why? Because the idealist in me believes great art should succeed without a push from anyone, that its power and beauty shouldn’t need marketing to draw the audience it deserves. This is laughingly naïve, of course. Even Shakespeare pandered.
When my mother and I visited Trinidad, a colonial city on Cuba’s south coast, we had drinks at the Iberostar Hotel, where a local trio (guitarist, pianist, and singer) performed traditional Cuban music. My mother and I were talking, so I didn’t listen closely, but when the singer passed our table during a break, I complimented her on her group’s performance. She stepped over to me. “Would you like to buy our CD?” she said.
Her name was Yani, and she was as slim as a moonbeam. Was it her smile or my feeling of artist-to-artist solidarity that inspired me to pull $10 from my wallet?
A decade ago, Pepe, who has never traveled outside of Cuba, auditioned for a musical ensemble slated to perform in Europe. His audition, he said, was excellent; the feedback he received from the musical director was all positive. But when it came time to select the ensemble, Pepe wasn’t chosen. Why?
A simple reason, he believed: He had no phone. The government hadn’t deemed his neighborhood worthy of phone service. Instead of listing Lourdes’s phone number on his audition sheet, he had left the space blank. “How are they going to call me if they have no number to call?” he told me, his face contorted at the memory. “I’m sure they moved right on to the next person on the list.”
Every artist has had waking nightmares of similar scenarios: the manuscript—sure to have won the prize—lost in the mail; the audition date written down incorrectly.
There was no way for me to know if Pepe’s lack of a phone was the real reason he wasn’t invited on the European tour. But I understood why he was drawn to this explanation. We would as soon spare our art the pain of rejection as we would our children. It had nothing to do with you, sweetheart. If I’d only had a phone, we would be crooning in Copenhagen right now.
Pepe called Lourdes every day, although he was hardly alone in this respect. Vivacious and energetic, Lourdes, in her early sixties, was a one-woman fiesta from the time she woke up each morning.
“With all your invitations, how do you decide whose to accept?” my mother asked her.
“Whoever calls first,” Lourdes said, laughing.
Pepe nodded, as if in resignation. But then he smiled. “I’m an early riser,” he said.
Lourdes and Pepe, who met each other when he was a patient in her dental practice, invited us to have a drink at the government-owned, five-star Hotel Nacional, built in 1930. We sat on the back terrace and watched a Parisian Cabaret show. With their colorful costumes—“plumage” might be the more accurate word—the singers and dancers could have been an act in Las Vegas. Lourdes and Pepe were probably the only Cubans in the audience.
The singers and dancers performed a dozen songs. Toward the end of their show, they pulled members of the audience from their seats to dance. The average age of audience members couldn’t have been under sixty-five. The evening felt like a strained effort to evoke Cuba’s glory days. “See, everyone is happy,” Lourdes said, a phrase she repeated in other circumstances in subsequent days. Each time, the gulf between it and the truth seemed wider. At no point during my trip did Cuba strike me as a happy place. Had it ever been? Perhaps immediately after the 1959 revolution, when hopes were high, or in the 1970s, when money from the Soviet Union was flowing into the country. Or perhaps in the 1940s and 1950s, when members of the Buena Vista Social Club were showcasing their talents in packed Havana nightclubs.
As we walked to the parking lot after the show at the Hotel Nacional, I mentioned songs I’d learned how to play on my guitar when I lived in Guatemala. Pepe knew them all: “Guantanamera” and “Reloj” and “Anduriña.” In the car, Pepe sang my favorite song in Spanish, “Malagueña Salerosa,” from Mexico. It’s about a man who loves a woman from Málaga, Spain, but knows he’ll never win her: “Yo no te ofrezco riquezas/te ofrezco mi corzón” the song says—“I don’t offer you riches/I offer you my heart.” As Pepe sang, his voice resonant with melancholy, it struck me that the song could as easily have been about Pepe and music.
There was something unrequited in their relationship, as I suppose there is in my relationship with writing. As much as he loved music, and as much as it had given him, it had withheld from him, too; it had left him wanting. This wasn’t only about a bigger venue or a larger audience. We pursue art because the pursuit makes us feel more vibrant, more alive, more who we are. But to maintain this feeling, we must keep a constant chase. Otherwise, we feel lost. Hemingway, at the end of his life, believed he had lost his ability to write well. Friends told him to retire, to go fishing, to relax. He couldn’t stand the thought of being separated from his art. In its absence, life didn’t seem worth living.
Pepe was reluctant to take the stage—the small space in Lourdes’ living room—when my mother was ready to film him. He said he needed to warm up, which involved subtle vocal exercises and the consumption of first water, then wine, then rum. An hour passed. The rain came. The rain stopped. As the afternoon moved toward evening, Pepe declared, “All right. I’m ready.”
Havana was ninety degrees, and Lourdes’ living room had no air conditioning, only a large fan. We debated whether to leave it on and spare Pepe a sweat-filled performance, albeit one with annoying background noise, or turn it off and leave Pepe’s voice unchallenged but his guayabera drenched. We opted to do a little of both. Abbey Road Studios this wasn’t.
Pepe had decided on his three songs: “Allí,” “Reloj,” and “Extraños en la Noche,” all standards from the epoch he loved. He had the karaoke versions on CD and he popped it into the player. If his voice was tentative at first, it found its range and resonance midway into the first song. Lourdes smiled and nodded. My mother gave him a thumbs up. I grinned and lip-synched the words.
Was he anywhere near as good as the singers in the Buena Vista Social Club? I couldn’t say, but I hoped so. I do know it’s easy to dismiss the still anonymous, easy to celebrate the already acclaimed. As an experiment, someone—probably a disgruntled writer—once sent The New Yorker magazine short stories it had already published but with the authors’ names changed. The New Yorker rejected all of them. In the slush pile, Gabriel García Márquez and John Updike looked no more brilliant than the rest of us.
If pre-Buena Vista Social Club Ibrahim Ferrer had been singing in Lourdes’ living room, would he have sounded worthy of applause? And if Pepe had been on stage in Carnegie Hall with Eliades Ochoa and Compay Segundo, wouldn’t he have sounded marvelous?