By Olavo Alén Rodríguez
© 2007 Jon Griffin
During the 19th century different forms for presenting songs appeared in Cuba, all of which were marked with elements that offered national pride. Among them the Cuban lyrical songs were emphasized: habaneras, boleros and, in a very special place, the trovadoresca (or, troubadour-style) song form.
The name of this last one, was taken from the form in which they called themselves: troubadours. With that title they established a reflection of what they thought was the form of life of the European medieval troubadours. They imagined the troubadours wandering with a lute in their hands, singing from town to town and relating with their music all that they had experienced or that they desired to bring to light. It was in this manner that the first troubadours of Cuba behaved; however, they did substitute the ancient lute with a guitar and created forms and melodies for their accompaniment that, in time, became more and more Cuban. This comportment created a tradition in the Cuban musical forms that has repeated itself in different historic moments.
Similar attitudes during the 1940s and 1950s directed the development of musicians that cultivated a type of bolero that was later to be recognized under the name of "feeling.” Likewise, during the latter half of the 1960s, a group of young musicians decided to resurrect this movement toward its songs in order to make evident the social transformations and politics introduced in Cuba since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. At the forefront of this campaign were Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanés and Noel Nicola.
In 1967 the already important cultural institution Casa de las Americas (House of the Americas) created its Center for the Songs of Protest. Part of the important activities organized by this Center is to nurture the songs created and interpreted by the new Cuban troubadours.
Nevertheless it was in the Cuban Institute of the Art and Film Industry (ICAIC) where these artistic attitudes were persecuted, specifically the sector designated for the creation of music for the Cuban cinema. This sector would later be known as the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora (Sound Experiment Group). In 1969, their director, the famous guitarist and Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, began to meet with as many of the most important musicians that had adopted this nonconventional song form.
Their numbers increase rapidly as every young Cuban musician was encouraged to adopt these attitudes and in December of 1972, in the city of Manzanillo, there was constituted an official meeting to establish those intentions: the Movement of the Nueva Trova.
The lyrics in the songs of the Nueva Trova continued relating the most important events experienced by those that had crossed into the new Cuba. Subsequently, they became increasingly more epic in nature and were filled with praises to the country and to everything that had historically occurred. They abandoned writing songs dedicated to the Cuban woman and this constituted one of their more important links with what is now called the old or traditional ballad. But among its main contributions in this sense, was that of offering the idyllic image of a new Cuban man, that finally moved away from all of the supposed negative aspects with which he had lived with himself to that moment. This image rose above the jealousy and lust of beautiful women, the envy of lost love, the pleasure of alcoholic beverages, and, of course, the fear and insecurity in all its possible forms. The figure that inspired this new image, by his example, was that of the legendary Commander Ernesto “Ché” Guevara.
With the exception of their main advocates, the new troubadours looked after the beauty of their lyrics but neglected the quality of the music. That is, there were many repetitive patterns in the melodies and redundancies in the accompaniment of their music which existed in practically all of the music from the members of the Movement. It was exactly this point that slowly contributed to the development of the phase of decadence for the Nueva Trova. When some songwriter or group of musicians proposed something new, then the criticism tried to identify them with a different name, like that of Novisima Trova, which suggested that these singers were doing something that did not conform with the main movement.
During the 1970s and part of the 1980s, the Nueva Trova was favored by the musical inclinations of the new generations of Cubans in detriment to the usual music dance numbers. But the boom of the Salsa in Cuba, above all since the latter half of the 1980s, changed all of that.
In spite of the fact that in some moments they appeared in the Movement, songwriters such as Carlos Varela, Pedro Luis Ferrer and Gerardo Alfonso contributed to the image of the new troubadours, the true pioneers continue being Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés—the main figures in all of the history of the Nueva Trova in Cuba.