Cuba. So full of contradictions and difficult to understand. Every single one of the elegant buildings in Havana has peeling facades. The air on the renowned coastal boulevard, Malecón is saturated not only with iodine vapours in the morning but also with saltpetre. (See ‘Dirty Havana Trilogy’ by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez publ. by Faber & Faber). Cuban women are incredible mothers because they breastfeed their children until the age of 6, but isn’t it just that they do it to be able to use the milk they’re due from their book of coupons? It’s hard to say. About one thing, though, there can be no doubt: the Cuban education system is of a very high standard and the complex of National Arts Schools in Havana (Las Escuelas de Arte de la Habana), apart from the fact that it’s recognised as an architectural masterpiece of the 20th century, is one of the Cuban Revolutionary Government’s successful projects. It has become a touchstone for education in the field of the arts. Irenia Vazquez also studied there and now she lives in Sofia. Music is her element. Every time I hear her performing live, an idyllic image floats up in my head, which for me is synonymous with the Cuban fiesta-someone puts on music at home, can’t hold back and starts to sing, along come the neighbours, they end up out on the street, the whole neighbourhood joins in the party, it goes on until morning. I’m not sure whether this isn’t the scenario of some film I’ve watched a really long time ago or just a naive idea born of my short encounter with late-period communism in Bulgaria, but this image is very vivid in my consciousness. Irenia herself brings it alive too. I met up with her one morning in the Music High School in Sofia. In response to my request for her to play a little on one of the pianos in the corridors for me to take a quick photo of her, we were given access to a concert hall, they lit up the stage spotlights and let us position ourselves in front of the biggest grand piano in the building. Irenia started to play with incredibly fast fingers, a fantastic mood pervaded the hall and people started to peep in through the windows.
And once again that image popped up in my mind and in my imagination I could already see how the hall grew too confining and we ended up out on Oborishte St together with all the students. That was only the start of my meeting with Irenia; after that we got talking:
Irenia, you’re from Cuba. Tell me more about your childhood, which city you grew up in, what games you played there…
Cienfuegos is a small town situated on the Southern coast of Cuba in the Jagua Bay, that’s the original Indian name of the bay, which means origin, source, wealth. This town is often called the Pearl of the South and has been in existence since 1819. It is the only town in my country which was founded by French colonisers rather than by Spaniards as is the case with the rest of the towns in Cuba.
smells of: the food and kitchen of my granny and of wet earth because one of the loveliest things in Cuba at that time was to go wild in the pouring rain with friends from the neighbourhood.
and tastes of: HAPPINESS
is BLUE in colour
Share with us an intense experience from your younger years:
The thing that shook me most in my youth was the death of my father. That was a turning point in my life and changed it forever and I changed too. Something which can’t be overcome.
What do you miss most about your country?
MY FAMILY, first of all: my mother, my brother, my niece-all of them. Also the JOYFULNESS OF THE PEOPLE… the noise of the streets…the music coming from the radio in the bus…the laughter…the optimism of the people, despite the problems.
Tell me a legend from your region:
The indigenous Cubans, the Indians, who had inhabited Cuba before Spanish settlement and of whom practically nothing is left, they were all wiped out, have a legend which tells of how Amao, the first man and Guanaroca, the first woman, fell madly in love and of their love was born a son, Imao.
Guanaroca was so delighted with her son that she devoted herself to him unreservedly and so Amao started to be jealous. He saw how the love his wife felt for him had been forgotten and replaced by that for their son. One day he decided to snatch the child away to the mountains where he could not stand the hunger, the thirst and the intense heat and he died.
Amao, seeing what had happened, took a gurio*, hid the little body inside and hung it on a tree.
When Guanaroca realised that her husband and child weren’t there, she set out to look for them, running madly around the whole forest, going out of her mind at her son’s absence and with a premonition of what had happened. In the midst of her despair, she heard a sound. She looked at the tree. There hung a gurio. She approached, opened it and inside she recognised her dead child. She started to weep inconsolably. Out of the gurio there started to come fishes and turtles and the tears of Guanaroca were so many that they started to form a whole lagoon. This is one of the legends of Cienfuegos, the Guanaroca Lagoon is located there.
*a gurio is a Latin-American percussion instrument whose origin dates back to the pre-Columbian period and was used in the classical music of composers such as Stravinsky.
People often associate Cuba with music and dance. Do you agree with this connection? Which art-form would you identify yourself with?
Without a doubt, with music. Art as a whole for me is proof that the imagination is transformed into creation, that reality also has a magical side, but my language, that’s music…that’s what defines me…what drives me…it makes me cry and makes me laugh…it’s the meaning of my life, the reason for me to be in this world…everything is a matter of vibrations…magical moments…things which you can’t touch…it’s hard to explain it but it’s there…there is a very individual way in which I commune with music.
Tell me 5 names which, according to you, are a starting point for getting to know Cuban culture:
Benny Moré, the ‘King of Rhythm’ … a composer and one of the best performers of all time…born in Cienfuegos…a master of all the genres of Cuban music, but especially of mambo, bolero and son montuno. So for me, the names in music are Benny Moré and Arsenio Rodriguez, who for his part laid the foundations for and contributed to the initial development of what the world knows today as salsa.
In literature I’d highlight the names of Nicolás Guillén and Alejo Carpentier.
In the visual arts those of Roberto Fabelo and Amelia Pelaez.
In dance: Alicia Alonso
and in general the whole folk heritage of Cuba.
What brought you to Bulgaria?
It was one of those things that just seemed determined by fate. I was a member of a vaudeville troupe in Cienfuego in which there were 50 performers, amongst which there were musicians, singers and dancers in addition to a choreographer and a director. When the trip to Bulgaria came up, only 23 of us were able to travel and at that point this was an opportunity to leave the country, the likelihood of which for me was effectively zero. I was the newest in the group and apart from that I was a keyboard player, which meant that if anyone would travel, then that would be the pianist, not me. To my surprise, they chose me contrary to all expectations. That’s why I say it was fate’s decision and here I am now. As we say in Cuba, the tuft of grass that’s meant for you won’t be grazed by any cow.:))
Why did you decide to stay?
Because of the better financial situation… Thanks to everything, I can now live from what I like doing most of all, music and my work with children in the kindergarten. But without a doubt, I greatly miss my native land. Despite the years I’ve spent here already, this is a pain in the soul which doesn’t go away-it remains there always.
Have you learnt something new about yourself here?
Of course! Every day you learn something new…that is a law of life, sometimes the days go by so quickly that you’re not even left with time to analyse them, but when you direct your path towards learning from every second, from every moment and from every situation then little by little it becomes clearer, you start to accept incomprehensible things too, which at first glance you can’t decode, those about which you ask yourself: why like this? Why to me? You never stop learning, learning is a process. Bulgaria has taught me a lot and I’m very grateful to the people of this country for accepting me and allowing me to reveal a part of what I am; I’ve met wonderful people, and got to know a beautiful culture. I’ve also learnt to love my own culture more, to rediscover myself, to be proud of my origin and to appreciate what I am more, since a person doesn’t know how much time he will be here and whether or not one day he will once again have those things which he currently takes for granted.
How do you envisage your life in 5 years’ time?
Who knows? I try not to focus much in life on what lies before me, even more so when it comes to such a long time ahead. It’s always nice to have a goal…to pursue your direction, but you also need to know that there are a thousand surprises which appear without warning. The nicest thing is to go on your way happily and calmly… but that’s difficult, oh so difficult! …but it’s precisely that which is beautiful about life…you come up against various obstacles, you tread different paths, which shape your own path and after you’ve passed along them, you start to love them, you start to love even the most dreadful obstacle. In five years’ time I don’t know what might happen…I don’t even know if I’ll be here…but for the moment I can tell you that I have plans….I want to work towards a better quality of music for my group…I would like my ‘big boy’ and me to keep loving each other so strongly and, who knows, for us to have a baby some day.
Translated by Neil Scarth.