Leo Brouwer —guitarist, composer, and orchestra director, recipient of the National Film Prize for his musical contributions and of the Tomás Luis de Victoria Prize (the classical-music equivalent to the Cervantes Prize for literature)— is a soft-spoken man who carefully chooses and rectifies his words, evoking a Santiago de Cuba before and after the Revolution.
He needs a map even to get to his own home, says the maestro. And he immediately adds that he might be exaggerating, but that it’s almost, almost like that. If he doesn’t take the same well-worn path, he gets lost.
I believe he must have a terrible sense of direction. Just like I can orient myself easily in any physical space, but my ear is so square that will soon become cubic. That’s not the case with the maestro. His hearing is unique. Thus, I think, we are opposites. And by opposite I dare say that we complement each other.
Having a terrible sense of direction is not a defect. It’s almost a gift, because it gives you the opportunity to sometimes feel lost, which is a way of being alone with oneself.
The maestro is walking through the streets of Santiago de Cuba. That he almost always gets lost doesn’t bother him, because getting lost is magical: “the magic of walking in a labyrinth, not a closed one, rather a labyrinth of spaces,” he says.
Santiago de Cuba is a city facing the Caribbean Sea. A sea that doesn’t flow north, but rather south. A sea trapped between two extremes of land, a bay. On one tip stands the Castillo San Pedro de la Roca, one among several Spanish fortifications spread throughout the island, watching over it for 380 years. On the other end there’s a lookout point, a beach and a cemetery, which the inhabitants of Cayo Granma —the key that stands strong in the middle of the bay— reach by boat to bury their dead.
The Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Cathedral, the former town hall, the house of Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez with its original wooden structure and bars, are located in the center, now called the Historic Center. There is also the park that was later named Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Park, in that nationalist mania that led us to obviate the former names of places and rename sites in honor of patriotic figures.
But the park where the people of Santiago enjoy the nightlife is located in the Plaza de Marte, where Garzón Avenue ends and Enramadas Boulevard begins, the two principal streets that cross Santiago.
“What amazes me the most is that abrupt landscape of the streets, the hills with their ups and downs… It is a rugged city inside a valley, it is a prodigy,” affirms Brouwer. Santiago is, moreover, a city protected at its back by the hills: the Sierra Maestra, Cradle of the Revolution. That is one of its ironies: the township built 500 years ago between the hills, to avoid possible attacks, was the one that gave birth, among those same hills, to those who attacked it and later triumphed.
Because, according to the maestro, “there’s a human conglomerate, which we commonly call people, that reflects its leaders. Generally, the leader represents the conglomerate that elects him, generally.”
It’s not in vain that Santiago is called tierra caliente (“the hot land”). Because of the heat, but above all because of its bravery. “This is not a people who love development,” Brouwer continues, “rather they love certain traditions they want to preserve. And that is essential in the eastern part of the country. We must recall that they produced the largest number of revolutionaries to authenticate and recover Cuba’s identity for over 200 years.”
“And don’t you find it ironic that the area that has revolutionized, now remains conservative?” I ask.
“The thing is that conserving a revolutionary mentality no longer means being conservative. It means being a spectator.”
To understand it, Leo Brouwer —a man who recurrently resorts to abstraction during our dialogue— explains that in Santiago de Cuba there is an attitude about life that is compartmentalized into two elements: the players and the observers. “The former live as if life were a serious game. The latter are spectators of their environment, as the philosopher Ortega y Gasset would say.” And he clarifies, “it has nothing to do with politics or with ideology, it has to do with people.”
Before 1959, Leo Brouwer was one of the boys in the Cine Club Visión, the group that would later give rise to the Cuban film institute, ICAIC. Through that small group —which was comprised in turn of people from television, radio, theater— Brouwer began to come into contact with musicians, actors, and playwrights from Santiago. Leo would bring them medicines that his father, who was a physician and an amateur guitarist, collected and gave to him. The medicines traveled from Havana to Santiago, and from Santiago to the Sierra.
“Many of those activists from the culture sector later became leaders,” he says. They became the spectators who helped conserve the revolutionary mentality, I think.
“A very lovely thing” came out of that Revolution born in Santiago, according to Brouwer. The intellectuals arrived—almost all the world’s great intellectuals came. “They didn’t come on their own, they were invited. It is very significant that politicians invite cultural figures; or better, that the military man invites the thinking man.”
The maestro doesn’t say it explicitly, but in reality Cuba as a country owes a lot to Santiago.
Despite the fact that he insists on the need for a map, Leo Brouwer confesses that he has never used one. He would get lost in the Ciudad Héroe (Hero City) —the only one with that designation in the entire country—although in reality I believe that he lets himself get lost. And after two hours he would return, not knowing how, to his point of departure. “It was fascinating, it always happened to me and I never tried to fix it.”