21 February 2008

a boat ends its journey

playa girón : silvio rodríguez
click here or on the image below to listen

I believe that idealism is a mark of noble leadership, but its practice should not humble a people to poverty. I believe that every person has the right to health care and education, but not at the cost of his freedom of expression. I believe in the pursuit of national unity, but not to the point of denying individualism. I know very little about Cuba, I know very little about Castro. What I do know is just enough to make me both respect and revile the man, impressions I no doubt share with countless others who have neither set foot on the island nor met any of its people. And yet, I have a strong sense that Castro enjoys a positive popular bias. His name has become synonymous with romantic notions about revolution, that what he has come to symbolize seems to have overshadowed what he has actually achieved. Castro may be a divisive figure, but also an inspirational one. Forget his influence on the current turn to the left in Latin American politics. While on one hand he has driven away some of the best musicians the island has produced, on the other his rule has led others to sing of his ideals in ways that are poignant and sublime. In Playa Girón, Silvio Rodríguez, a trovador and member of the Cuban parliament, pays tribute to the fishing boat where he worked in 1969, an experience that to him represented not just man's return to primitive form, constantly in battle with the forces of nature, but also the virtue of toiling not for mere individual survival but for the shared benefit of many. The song, he says, is "an intimate and human tribute to the nameless men who work in sometimes perilous circumstances for the Cuban population." But what makes the song really moving is that it is its own answer to the very question it asks: What words and rhythm do justice to a boat as vital as the Playa Girón? Here are the original lyrics below, followed by my very liberal, not literal, translation in English.

Playa Girón

Compañeros poetas,
tomando en cuenta
los últimos sucesos
en la poesía,
quisiera preguntar
—me urge—
¿qué tipo de adjetivos
se deben usar para hacer
el poema de un barco
sin que se haga sentimental,
fuera de la vanguardia
o evidente panfleto,
si debo usar palabras
como Flota Cubana de Pesca
y «Playa Girón»?

Compañeros de música,
tomando en cuenta
esas politonales
y audaces canciones,
quisiera preguntar
—me urge—
¿qué tipo de armonía
se debe usar para hacer
la canción de este barco
con hombres de poca niñez,
hombres y solamente
hombres sobre cubierta,
hombres negros y rojos
y azules los hombres que pueblan
el «Playa Girón»?

Compañeros de historia,
tomando en cuenta
lo implacable
que debe ser la verdad,
quisiera preguntar
—me urge tanto—
¿qué debiera decir,
qué fronteras debo respetar?
Si alguien roba comida
y después da la vida,
¿qué hacer?
¿Hasta dónde debemos
practicar las verdades?
¿Hasta dónde sabemos?
Que escriban, pues, la historia,
su historia los hombres
del «Playa Girón».

Playa Girón

My comrades in poetry,
considering the many ways in which
poems are written these days,
I would like to ask you,
I'm very keen to know,
what words must one use
to pen a poem about a boat
without making it sound sentimental,
without making it pretentious
or an obvious propaganda,
considering that I have to call it
the Cuban Fishing Fleet
and Playa Girón?

My comrades in music,
considering the wealth of tones
and the boldness one can employ
in the process of writing a song,
I have to know,
what harmonies one must use
to create a song about this boat,
this boat of men who knew little about childhood,
men and only men on deck,
black men, red men, blue men,
yet men who spent their lives in Playa Girón?

My comrades in history,
considering that truth is never a compromise,
I would like to ask,
I'm dying to know,
what do you say,
where do you draw the line
when someone steals food
then sacrifices his life for another?
What do you do?
To what extent do you uphold the truth?
How much do you really know?
Let them write, then, their own story,
their own history,
the men of Playa Girón.


  1. Well done well said .... & great song

    Curious where you found Silvio Rodríguez ?

    With Fidel Castro I can't help but come back to the fact that he has been one of the few if any political leaders , Presidents , heads of state or even revolutionary groups in the Americas who has not put personal gain above the people ...

    Naming an some what uncorrupt president from south of the 49th Parallel in the last century leaves one with a very short list but Fidel Castro would be on any such a list

  2. Chuck,

    Thanks, glad you liked the song. I learned about it from the Thorntree, actually. I had posted about Mercedes Sosa and one of the posters from South America said I should also check him out. Such a great singer. I really like his album from the early 90s I think, called Descartes.

    You're absolutely right. In most developing countries, authoritarian leadership and corruption almost always go hand in hand, but not in the case of Fidel, at least not that we know of. I mean to begin with, he doesn't really have that many sources of funds to draw funds from (such as foreign loans or aid, or kickbacks from business contracts, in the case of some Asian and African leaders). But more importantly, I think he's genuinely placed his principles beyond self-interest.

    I wish him and Cuba well.