Pedro Luis Ferrer
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Pedro Luis Ferrer

Playa, Ciudad de La Habana, Cuba | Established. Jan 01, 1975 | INDIE

Playa, Ciudad de La Habana, Cuba | INDIE
Established on Jan, 1975
Band Latin Acoustic


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"Music without Makeup: Pedro Luis Ferrer"

Sing Out! Music without Makeup: Pedro Luis Ferrer

Pedro Luis Ferrer's music reflects his rebellious refusal to be pigeonholed as a songwriter or as a person. Firmly rooted in Cuba's diverse musical styles, Ferrer reinvents tradition in his own unique mix on Natural, his latest CD, released by Escondida Music. His songs push and pull with tradition and innovation, lyrical poetry and biting satire, and the classic call-and-response of the coro (chorus) in Cuban song. Some of his well-crafted verses are snapshots of daily life and love. Others are loaded with irony, double meanings and humor, exploring life's contradictions, and offering social commentary about those who "always repeat the same old formulas," asking us not to argue, to think or to differ. Still other verses offer clever wordplay about hallucinogenic parties and gibberish soup.
The second of a planned series of four albums, Natural continues in the direction of Ferrer's previous release, Rustico. He aims for the series to have rustico flavor ... that rawness, that roughness in the music. I mean music without makeup. Ferrer says his latest work uses a broader palette of genres and concepts from the length and breadth of the island ... a diversity that counters the common notion that Cuban music is comprised only of son, mambo and cha cha cha
Ferrer's music draws on better-known Cuban genres (including son, guajira, guaguanco, guaracha and the classic trova song) that will make your feet move. But his signature style is one he has named changuisa, inspired in part by disappearing styles from rural Cuba. His own "reinvention," changuisa draws on changui from the mountains of Guantanamo in southeastern Cuba, and on coros de clave espirituano, a strolling, vocal street-music tradition from central Cuba, where Ferrer was born. By choosing a feminine term, changuisa, Ferrer says he not only pokes fun at some of eastern Cuba's more macho playing styles, but also feels freed from changui's musical conventions.
Changuisa is my own manner of mixing traditions, says Ferrer, but this time, I'm trying to move closer to Cuban song. Ferrer adds that Natural features themes based exclusively in percussion, surrounding myself in the essence of Yoruba and Bantu cultures. Other songs, including La Nieta Micaela, are inspired by son, a popular rural dance form that may date back to the 1500s in Cuba's eastern Oriente province and is considered a predecessor to contemporary salsa music.
Despite his fervent support for the 1959 revolution that overthrew the Batista dictatorship, a regime under which his family suffered, Ferrer's independent spirit and biting lyrics have at times cost him airplay and album sales in Cuba. For two years, I wasn't allowed to perform in official performance spaces and wasn't aired on radio or TV. Any work of art that questions the established order--whatever or wherever it is--inconveniences those in power. At the end of the 1980s, he says, the government expressed itself clumsily and there were tremendous discussions with the political/administrative bureaucracy. I think now there is less of this. Or maybe my desire to discuss this has lessened.
Ferrer's gutsy yet beautifully sonorous voice and six-stringed tres are seamlessly intertwined with the full-bodied, spirited sound of his daughter, Lena Ferrer, who sings backup and some lead vocals. They are joined by Lerlys Morales; well-matched backup vocals and guitar, and everyone joins in with percussion instruments, augmenting percussionist Basilio Perodin's inventive playing. Leandro Gracia and Claudio Nunez also sing backup vocals; Jorge Wrve pitches in on bass.
The group's tight ensemble playing and impeccable tres and guitar lines never detract from the album's spontaneity: Ferrer prefers a relaxed singing style that maintains the spirit of West African Bantu and Yoruba-style song, or of Cuba's dance bands, over the "symmetry and perfectionism sought by more formal vocal groups. For me, Ferrer asserts, to sing in a group means simply to invite everyone to sing.
To accompany the vocals, Ferrer revives instruments not commonly used, seeks out others from beyond the island, and invents some of his own. On many songs, Ferrer plays the tres, which has three double sets of strings and is related to the Arabic oud. I've given a central role to the tres as the only accompanying instrument, as I've seen it used in the Sierra Maestra, in Guantanamo, says Ferrer. Or the ways played by El Guayabero, a popular bard who sings verses with double meaning, accompanied only by tres.
As a bass instrument, Ferrer brings back the little-used marimbula, a large wooden box with metal prongs that belongs to the same family as the African mbira, or thumb piano. Africans tune these instruments, says Ferrer. But in Cuba, according to Ferrer - Sing out!

"Underground Man: An Interview With Pedro Luis Ferrer"

Cuban troubadour Pedro Luís Ferrer is well known, and well loved, on the island, but he hasn't been blessed with the good fortune and official backing enjoyed by the Buena Vista Social Club musicians. Born seven years before Fidel Castro’s march into Havana, Ferrer has matured with the Cuban Revolution, confronting in the process its contradictions and limitations, and his own ambivalence about what it has wrought. Although he has released only three albums in Cuba in 35 years (and three others abroad), his witty, sardonic social commentary so irked the Castro regime that in the late 90s the government banned his music from the state-run media--which in Cuba means all media.

Ostracized by the artistic establishment and many of his musical colleagues, Ferrer took his music underground, playing giving private concerts in friends’ homes, performances that were often recorded by fans and distributed illegally.

Ferrer's latest album, Rústico, which was released in the U.S. in April, is filled with love songs and humor set to a reworked mix of traditional Cuban musical styles. It's more danceable than some of his earlier work, which focused on the stark social contradictions of the post-Soviet bloc 1990s on the island, but its social critique is every bit as biting. In “Fundamento,” Ferrer implores, “I want to be told the truth/Down with the little lies/Because my mind gets messed up/And there may be a riot.” In another, he deals with the contradiction between first world vegetarianism and the reality of Cuba, where meat—a national obsession—is prohibitively expensive.

Ferrer recently sat for an email interview with Mother Jones from his home in Havana.

Mother Jones: What audience do you have in mind when you are making music?

Pedro Luis Ferrer: Someone said wisely that “art does not give responses to those who do not ask questions of it.” I offer my art to audiences who ask questions of art. I feel comforted when I encounter people who identify with my work, as it takes away the solitude.

MJ: Do you consider yourself a poet?

PLF: I can assure you that I am passionate about poetry. However, that’s not enough to be a poet. I feel that I have achieved moments of authentic poetry within and beyond my songs, but I tend to throw out more than I save because I am not easily enamored of what I make. I try to be a poet.

MJ: Tell me a little bit about your early life.

PLF: I am self-taught, and not just in respect to music. I was born in a very small town in the north of Sancti Spíritus province—in the part of the country known as “the cradle of the Revolution”—and then moved to Havana at age 11. I attended school until seventh grade, which I repeated twice, and never returned to school.

MJ: How has your background influenced your art?

PLF: I think that it has been influential in all aspects, because I never differentiated between my work and my zeal for learning. I simply saw myself as obligated to study even the most elemental things, and one day I realized that I was illiterate; I did not even know how to write.

As a self-taught musician, I’ve studied music with rigor and have dedicated a lot of time to the guitar; I am always studying something related to my vocation. I am interested in poetry, literature, and philosophy.

MJ: I read that at the beginning of your career you wanted to have a rock band. What effect did that have on the route your career has taken?

PLF: I started working as a professional musician in 1969 with a rock group called Los Dada (The Dadaists), which experimented with essences of Cuban music. I did not know anything about rock, but they fell in love with my voice and arranged and adapted some of my first songs. When I decided to work on my own, I tried to reproduce that same instrumental format, but it wasn’t possible because of the lack of material resources, and so I ended up working with a completely acoustic format that was closer to traditional Cuban music.

MJ: Cubanía (Cubanness) is talked about a lot in Cuba these days, in terms of what is considered patriotic and authentically belonging to Cuban culture. How does the concept of Cubanía relate to your own art?

PLF: I am my own version of Cubanía, and I refuse to let myself by trampled by the dictates of the past or of tradition. I think that all attempts at rancid nationalism are dangerous. Tradition offers us effective resources for communication, with its arsenal of common codes and signs, but a repetition of tradition tends to bore and tire society. Cultures need to conserve themselves by constant renovation, which is my objective in making music.

MJ: Do you feel a social duty as an artist?

PLF: I cannot speak of society as if I did not form a part of it. Every human being has an obligation to society, like it or not, and artists specifically have a [social] responsibility.

MJ: How easy is it to buy one of your albums in Cuba?

PLF: My - Mother Jones


Pedro Luis Ferrer, 1978, EGREM
Debajo de mi voz, 1979, EGREM
En Espuma y Arena, 1980s, EGREM
100% Cubano, 1994, (self-released)
The Best of Pedro Luis, 1994, EGREM
Pedro Luis Ferrer 1999, Havana Caliente / Atlantic #83188
Rustico, 2005, Escondida #6507
Natural, 2006, Escondida #6527
Tangible, 2011, Escondida
Final, March 2014, Escondida



Pedro Luis Ferrer Reinvents Cuban Music: Revolutionary Songs On His Own Terms

I will never accept anyone telling me how much of a revolutionary I am, proclaims Cuban musician Pedro Luis Ferrer, When people talk to me about the concept of Cuban-ness I say I want to be the Cuban that I want to be,' Ferrer continues. I am my own version of what is Cuban. I am my own version of chang, I am my own version of son. I am my own version of trova. I am even my own version of the Cuban revolution!

This spirit of reinvention appears throughout Ferrer's work. He continually draws upon his country's rich musical traditions and transforms them to create new meaning. So transformed is his music, that he invented a new word changisa to describe the style. Ferrer takes changu from the mountains of Guantanamo, in Cuba's East and mixes it with related genres that have not received much attention, such as trova espirituana (from Santi Spiritus) and coros de claves, two styles from Central Cuba where Ferrer was born.

By transforming the word itself from masculine to feminine, Ferrer simultaneously creates a musical concept that is more receptive and which can integrate more diverse elements, and pokes fun at the macho way in which music from the Eastern part of Cuba is often played. In Western Cuba, they sometimes play in a mocking way, explains Ferrer. They play the son from which salsa originated with a special beat, with a female touch.' I am trying to recreate that in my word. This new term I use frees me from any kind of conventions, in terms of the chang per se, and allows me a lot of freedom in creating music.

This freedom is further emphasized since Ferrer gave up on having a band, instead forming what he calls a bunga, an old word from the countryside that refers to a small, improvised music group. A bunga is simply people getting together in small groups playing for the sake of playing, Ferrer explains. It didn't have an established format. Anyone could bring any instrument: an accordion; a drum; you could have a bottle with a clink-clink sound! And that's how we play: we rotate instruments, bring in new elements if we want.

These new elements range from almost-lost Cuban traditions, instruments from elsewhere, and techniques from modern songwriting conventions. I'm trying to get away from a nationalistic concept of music, says Ferrer. That's why you hear different elements. On Cmo Vivir Mi Cholita, a song about the struggle of a man that lives in the Andes, Ferrer uses vocal harmonies with Andean musical traces. On this song and four others, his daughter Lena Ferrerwhose voice is featured throughout uses the Peruvian cajn, rather than the more-Cuban rumba box. The Peruvian box has a sympathetic sound with the guitar and better capacity for subtletiesit has a hole in the back giving it more tonality and a loose plank that creates a snare-like sound; whereas the Cuban version is closed and sturdy. That doesn't mean I won't use the rumba box one day.

Daughter Lena Ferrer sings and plays the marimbula, a large thumb piano of African origins, which was the first Cuban bass used in 19th century son. Whereas the early Cuban marimbula was not tuned, here it is re-created so Lena who simultaneously plays clave, cow bell, and bongos produces musical notes to sound like a regular upright bass. The group uses an African clave rather than the more typical son clave.

Even with these references to African origins in Cuba, Ferrer has a unique take on the subject. Music critics often refer to the African elements that originate from slaves, says Ferrer. But the African element also arrived from Spain thanks to years of Moorish domination! There are elements from Moorish culture that still survive in Cuban music. In chang, the tres guitar sings along with the singer, without the use of the concept of harmony.

The music creates dialogue. Sometimes it is a conversation between Cuban instruments and those from elsewhere. Sometimes it is a discourse between tradition and innovation. And on Fundamento, the lyrics argue with the music. The song uses the son tradition of commenting about everyday life. It tells about going to a vegetable market and finding that a papaya or a mango costs almost your entire monthly salary. The lyrics are a sharp critique of Cuban reality today. Ferrer ironically teams the words up with music in the spirit of Carlos Puebla, a central singer of The Revolution. The original songs were not meant to critique The Revolution, explains Ferrer. But in this song you have a social criticism and reflection.

Irony and word play is a Cuban tradition that Ferrer embraces. Conga Vegetariana is dedicated to two Norwegian, vegetarian friends. Ferrer found irony in their advocacy of a meatless lifestyle in the context of Cubans who go weeks without eating meat because of scarcity. Once again, two worlds collide in Ferrer's dulcet yet pro