I'm sitting in Borders last week waiting for Victor Alvarez of local Cuban salsa band Savor. I've had way too much fucking coffee, and I've smoked about 800 cigarettes, and I'm already cranky because I've bought a new video game that I learned sucks. I kind of dread doing interviews because they seem to usually make for boring columns, and it's hard to think of better questions than "Who are your influences?" Alvarez is a little late, which I suppose should be expected from musicians, but I try instead to focus on the 3 dollar root beer I've just bought. It was not the best root beer I've ever had, and I'm getting even crankier.
Alvarez arrives with his agent, Jane Larson and we get down to talking. He tells me that Savor plays a very informal style of Cuban street music. It's no surprise that after
Buena Vista Social Club
Cuban music became exceedingly popular, and I'm the first to admit that I regard it as kind of cheesy trend for the flavor-of-the week, new age crowd, but Alvarez is blowing my mind with the passion he feels.
He tells me that he grew up on the streets of Havanna, and that from an early age he discovered that music is in his blood. This is clear to me, as I speak to a lot of musicians (both as a music writer and as a musician myself) and he speaks with the kind of intensity that only one who has given his entire life to music can muster.
I ask him how he came to be in America, and he lets me in on a program set up by the US government in the 60s called Operation Peter Pan, or Operación Pedro Pan (pedropan.org) for my Spanish speaking homies
I am forced to admit my ignorance, but I'm eager to learn more. Turns out that from 1959-1962, all these Cuban minors were sent out of Cuba in an attempt to protect them from Communism. Of the 14,000 children who left Cuba, only about half were ever reunited with their parents. Some have even speculated that the program and subsequent visa waiver program were part of a CIA plot to cause doubt and suspicion among Cuban citezens.
Wow. I honestly can't believe I haven't heard of this before. Alvarez goes on to tell me that he actually left much later in '66. "The saddest part was leaving my guitar behind." I hearda that, Victor. Any musician knows that losing an instrument is one of the worst things imaginable. I am thinking to myself that it must have been like losing an arm for Alvarez. That's not even mentioning that he was sent away from his home and his mother. Oh yeah, did I mention that his father was murdered? Yikes.
But you can't keep a good guy down. Alvarez tells me that he never ever stopped playing music. He played on the streets anywhere and anytime he could. I learn that this is a big deal in Cuba. Perhaps because the country is perpetually stuck in the 50s (thanks, United States), music is the kind of thing that everyone gets in on. This is the kind of thing that bums me out when I remember that I'm a honky, and we don't feel passion the same way. On almost any street corner, people can be found in a
a ton of musicians just jamming out. Alvarez tells me that he used to love getting in on these public jams. "It's not like a caste system. It doesn't matter how good you are, everyone is allowed to play." This kind of openness and community doesn't seem to exist in America. Unless you count drum circles. And I don't.
We start talking about this documentary that he's the subject of. A real tear-jerker called
One Among Thousands.
It's one of those "journey of self discovery" numbers. It's been around 40 years since Alvarez was in Cuba, and the film takes him back. It's my understanding that it's a bitch to get into that country, but they do it. More passion bursts out of this guy as he is all but welling up in tears talking about places he used to go, and riding his bike and eating the food and some such. It's clear that even though he left Cuba, it's still a huge part of him. My white boy self-loathing starts to return. I start to feel bummed that I can't feel things half as deeply as this guy. He loves his home country. I nothing my home country. I leave the interview having made some startling discoveries about myself, and lack of pride, but I also leave feeling lucky to have met someone like this. Sure, the music might not be for me, but I'm a huge fan of anyone who gives 100% to their art and what they love. Hats off to Alvarez, and a big fat fuck off to Borders for a 3 dollar root beer that tastes like shit. Feel like seeing Savor sometime? It won't be hard. Pick up our fine publication and check any day of the week...Savor is probably playing somewhere.