Carlos Varela has been called the voice of his generation the same way Bob Dylan has been called the voice of his, which helps explain why Varela is so often presented in the English-language press as "Cuba's Bob Dylan". But once you acknowledge that both Bob Dylan and Carlos Varela are singer- songwriters whose intensely loyal fans treat their every musical utterance as gospel, the similarities evaporate. Dylan wound up distancing himself from the U.S. folk music scene, while Varela has always been a proud proponent of Nueva Trova, Cuba's homegrown folk movement. Dylan came to fame dressed as a dandy, Varela dressed like a gnome and wrote a song about it ("Soy un gnomo"). The more Dylan's music received airplay on U.S. radio, the more eagerly he retreated from public view. The more Varela's music became absent from Cuban radio, the more eager he became to remain in public view. And so on.
When he first started playing music, Carlos Varela was in the dark — literally. Growing up in Havana's Vedado district, he would drum and sing with his neighbourhood friends whenever a power failure killed the lights. In secondary school he played in rock bands inspired by the illicit sounds blowing from across the sea — "Beatles, Peter Frampton..." — which he picked up with a homemade radio antenna. Then one night in 1977 an uncle took him to see Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés in concert. These two standard-bearers for Nueva Trova's first wave helped lead Carlos Varela to the conclusion that music could be a lot more than just a fun way to pass the time. "I felt an enormous connection with a lot of their songs," Varela recalls. "Although I was very young and I couldn't understand all the subtlety of the lyrics, I felt electricity."
By the age of 15 Carlos Varela had taught himself to play guitar and was writing his first songs. He started gigging in small venues around Havana but made his parents happy by attending university. He received an acting degree from Cuba's Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) but that didn't keep him away from music for long. He started a band with some friends from art school and he soon emerged as part of the new wave of Nueva Trova stars (sometimes labelled Novísima Trova) in the 1980s.
Nueva Trova has often been defined as political music. The first wave in the 1970s (Rodríguez, Milanés, Noel Nicola...) tended to focus on colonialism, racism, sexism and other broad forms of injustice, keeping consistent with the tenets of the Cuban Revolution.
With the 1980s-'90s wave of singer-songwriters (Varela, Geraldo Alfonso, Frank Delgado, Santiago Feliú, Pedro Luis Ferrer and others) a shift in direction became apparent. Their lyrics tended to put a finer point on social critiques, occasionally aiming inward at the policies of the Cuban government, but many of these songs were just ambiguous enough to deflect charges of cultivating anti-Revolutionary sentiment. Varela insists that, as far as he and his fellow lyricists were concerned, poetics took precedence over politics. "We made poetry that was very connected to Cuban reality of the 1980s, '90s, and 2000s — poetry that was more urban and more critical of this reality. Musicially we were influenced by elements of pop, rock and, of course, [traditional] Cuban music."
As Varela gained popularity with the Cuban public in the 1980s, his songs were often deemed too controversial for Cuban radio. Nobody in Cuba was offering him any record deals, either. His fortunes improved when Silvio Rodríguez took him under his wing and brought him on a 1986 tour of Spain. Three years later Varela's first CD, Jalisco Park, was recorded in the Canary Islands and released on a small Spanish label.
"Guillermo Tell", the third track off that first album, went on to become Varela's most widely loved tune, evoking the shared experience of growing up Cuban and all the unrequited yearning that comes with it. "Guillermo Tell" also revealed Varela's deft hand with allegory. The song re-imagines the William Tell story from the perspective of the son who has had enough of facing his father's arrows and wouldn't mind seeing Dad put the apple on his own head for a change. Varela's audience had no trouble deciphering this as a message from Cuba's young generation to the country's leaders.
Varela struggled along with the strictures of censorship throughout the 1980s and '90s. While other artists might have curtailed their output or sought refuge on other shores, Varela looked to Cuba for inspiration and has never made a home anywhere else. And he has been relatively prolific, releasing eight albums of recorded songs. Which means that Varela has managed to enter the current decade with the status of a Cuban national treasure.
"In Cuba, musicians and artists don't ride in limousines, that doesn't happen," Varela says with a smile. "People can always come up to you and they feel they have the right to tell you, 'Hey, I didn't much like such-and-such song, I didn't like what you said.' And you feel like you always have your feet on the ground. That really helps you grow, to be better, and to feel part of something. Your work helps you know people a bit more."
To see what Carlos Varela means to the home crowd, watch a video of his performance at the 2009 Peace Without Borders concert, the largest open-air concert in Cuban history. Listen to the roar of devotion from a million people in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución when Varela asks them, "¿Dónde está mi gente de La Habana?" When he dedicates his songs to "my people of Cuba, to whom I've been singing for more than 20 years", the roar comes back even louder.
Among Varela's biggest champions outside his native country is Jackson Browne, a Californian singer- songwriter who might as well be labelled "America's Carlos Varela". The two met in Havana in the late 1990s, and they toured Europe together in 2004 and the U.S. in 2010. Carlos Varela "sings out about what people feel in Cuba," Browne told an American journalist. "He's from a generation that's really impatient, that wants something to happen, something to change. He's the voice of Cuban youth."
Jalisco Park (1989)
Carlos Varela en vivo (1991)
Monedas al aire (1991)
Como los peces (1995)
Nubes (2000 )
Los hijos de Guillermo Tell Vol.1 (2005)
No es el fin (2009)