The first time I heard Silvio Rodríguez was ten years ago when I was living in El Salvador. A neighbor gave me his CD and told me the legend that if the Army caught anyone playing Rodríguez during El Salvador’s civil war — which had ended just a few years earlier — they’d be killed. With songs about the revolutionary left’s cause and politics, the army considered Rodríguez’s music a threat.
And this wasn’t just in El Salvador. Over the past 50 years, Rodríguez’s music has become a lyrical symbol of resistance against Latin America’s right-wing governments, and the singer has become one of the most enduring and popular Latin American musicians in history.
Rodríguez is to Latin America as Bob Dylan is to the United States. He is a folk singer and guitarist who sometimes veers into jazz or other styles of music, but first and foremost his music is about the lyrics. It is said that he has written over 500 songs, many of which have never been put to music and stand alone as poems. Born and raised during the Cuban revolution, and having served in Fidel Castro’s military, many of Rodríguez’s songs pay tribute to the revolution and political figures such as Che Guevara.
On Saturday, Rodríguez headlined Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. It was one of five tour stops in the United States and the first time he has been able to play in this country since 1980. President Carter was the last U.S. president to allow Rodríguez a visa; after being denied a visa by the Obama administration last year, Rodríguez has finally been allowed to enter the U.S.
Now 63-years-old, Rodríguez is slightly balding and wears glasses. As he walked across the stage at the Paramount Theatre, the packed house of fans went crazy—cheering, whooping, clapping and giving him a standing ovation. Draping Cuban flags and images of Che Guevara from the balcony’s crossbars, people shouted in Spanish and English, “I love you Silvio.” Some people overtly showed off their politics, wearing Che Guevara berets and t-shirts that said “Viva la Revolución.” Others, dressed more conservatively, were wearing dresses and shawls. Even though tickets ranged between $65 and $165, the show was still sold out.
On the stage, sitting in a row, were a drummer, a flautist, three acoustic guitarists. Rodríguez sat in the middle and played an acoustic guitar. He was a humble performer, wearing just a black t-shirt and jeans and applauding the other performers and the audience after most songs. As he played his hits, which are mostly slow musing songs reminiscent of 1960’s and 70’s American folk music, including “Mariposas,” “Cita con Ángeles” and “Oleo de una Mujer con Sombrero,” the crowd sang along with every word.
Although Rodríguez is most known for his political songs, his poetic songs about love, dreams and death are also popular. Perhaps his most famous song, “Ojalá,” is a love song he supposedly wrote about being unable to forget his first love.
“Ojalá se te acabó la mirada constante, la palabra precisa, la sonrisa perfecta. Ojalá pase algo que te borre de pronto: una luz cegadora, un disparo de nieve.”
(If only there was an end to your constant stare. The exact word, the perfect smile. If only something: a blinding light, a shot of snow—would suddenly wipe you out of my mind.)
For Rodríguez’s fans, this song has now become an anthem about fallen dictators and seems filled with metaphors about politics and war, making it the person they want to forget seem more like a former leader rather than a lost love.
Rodríguez played “Ojalá” for one of his several encores at the Paramount Theatre. For this song he came onto the stage alone and stood at the microphone. Within the first three notes, as he rapid finger-picked the beginning of the song, people started screaming wildly. Men and women shouted out “Silvio!” The crowd sang along so loudly that Rodríguez was completely drowned out. On the last line of the song, he stopped and let his fans finish:
“Ojalá por lo menos que me lleve la muerte, para no verte tanto, para no verte siempre en todos los segundos, en todas las visiones: ojalá que no pueda tocarte ni en canciones.”
(If only death at least would deliver me, from seeing you every moment, in every vision. If only I couldn’t sing about you too.)
Rodríguez’ songs are not just about leftist ideology and love, but about people — often people who don’t have their own voice. “Adónde va lo común lo de todos los días,” (Where do the commoners go every day?) he sings in the song “¿A dónde van?,” which is about how life can be fleeting. During this song, at the Paramount concert, the crowd initially cheered loudly then shushed each other to a complete silence in order to hear each and every one of Rodríguez’s words.
After five encores and over two hours of playing, the curtains at the Paramount finally dropped. The crowd refused to budge and chanted “Silvio, Silvio, Silvio!” and “otra, otra, otra!” (another) as they stomped and clapped and cheered some more. It seemed that if it weren’t for theatre rules, Rodríguez would have come back and played all night long to this adoring crowd.
Outside of the theatre as the fans reluctantly exited, Rosa Contreras, an older woman wearing a long dress, excitedly talking about the show with her friends. She said that she had seen Rodríguez play once before in Cuba, but that she was originally from El Salvador. “I feel like when I see Silvio, I am in El Salvador. I remember those who died and those who disappeared,” she said. “Silvio is a symbol that unites all of us with music and poetry.”
Read an interview with Rodríguez’s lawyer at Mission Loc@l: Bill Martínez: The Man Who Slips Silvio (and other Cubans) Through the U.S. Embargo
Top photo taken from Fernando Lugo APC’s Flickr photostream.
Want to get updates on the latest news from Oakland North? Join us on Facebook!