Electo Silva Gaínza (1928-2017). Source: EcuRed
I once talked about something I like quite a lot: the Cuban cartoon Elpidio Valdés. I basically presented it as a way to say that not everything coming out of Cuba is bad. It can actually be really cool. Last Thursday, checking my social media, I ran into a post from a former choral colleague of mine from way back when about the passing last month of Electo Silva, a Cuban choir director, composer, and arranger. It is certainly sad news, to say the least.
Latin America is not merely the land of Hugo Chávez, the Mexican drug cartels, and flawed democracies. It is also the land of world-renowned culture workers that include poets like Rubén Darío and Nobel-laureate Gabriela Mistral, graphic artists like Frida Kahlo and Fernando Botero, and writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar – just to mention a mere few. It is also the land of great musical talent of the magnitude of Alberto Ginastera, Ariel Ramírez, and Leo Brouwer. Electo Silva happens to have acquired the same greatness as the aforementioned individuals, as well as being one of the towering figures of Cuban music.
Back in 1994, when I was a much younger lad and a tenor in my college choir, I had the chance to represent my country at an international choir festival in Guayaquil, Ecuador. We spent most of that summer rehearsing not only what we were going to sing on the evening of our concert, but a few other songs we would sing around the city and its surrounding area. One of those had Silva’s name on it, En días así. I cannot remember if he composed it or if he arranged it. It is also hard for me to describe the lyrics; I guess you could say that it is about someone – maybe a man, maybe a woman – lovingly opening himself (or herself) to somebody else. All I know is that what I remember the most about that song, and what I love the most, are its suave and meandering vocal harmonies. I think it is pure musicality.
None of the many obituaries published inside Cuba, including that from the official mouthpiece Granma, mentions anything about Silva having any revolutionary credentials. Yet there are indications that he was game. When both sides of the Florida Straits played tug of war between 1999 and 2000 over who had custody of Elián González, the 6-year-old found drifting at sea and sheltered by his Miami ex-pat relatives, Silva was one out of several leading Cuban artists and intellectuals who signed an open letter to President Bill Clinton urging him to send the child back to Cuba, as the Cuban government demanded. (Now aged 22 and studying to become an engineer, Elián made a public appearance two days after Fidel Castro’s passing to eulogize him.) Silva was also member emeritus of the Cuban Artists and Writers Guild, one of the objectives of which is “to reject and combat all activity contrary to the principles of the Revolution”. (Ironically, another of its objectives is “to recognize the most ample creative freedom”.) And in 2015, when Silva received a letter from Raúl Castro congratulating him on the 55th anniversary of his Orfeón Santiago and describing his commitment with the Cuban Revolution as exemplary, he was reportedly overcome with emotion (happy emotion, we can assume).
It is certainly disappointing that Silva, like many other talented Cubans living on the island, seems to have had taken sides with a regime that, despite all the book fairs, art biennales, and film festivals it organizes through its Ministry of Culture and affiliated institutes, contradicts in reality what the arts stand for: unfettered self-expression. (As far as that goes, if you oppose any plan from the Trump administration to reduce federal funding for or altogether eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts because they are tantamount to GOP censorship on artistic expression, you should also raise your voice against the Cuban government as well.) But the ideological Silva is not the person I bid farewell to. The Silva I wish to evoke is the musician, the choir director, the man who made one song a part of my fondest college memories. To that Silva I wish bon voyage on his way to the infinite, where I am sure he will encounter other departed music icons from his country – Miguel Matamoros (who composed songs Silva made choral arrangements to), Celia Cruz, Ernesto Lecuona, Beny Moré, and many others.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Youth Symphonies are gearing up for their tour of Cuba later this month, in which they will offer concerts and participate in a series of workshops and exchanges. Just because I have my disagreements with revolutionary Cuba does not mean I should oppose something like this as well, especially if it involves the young. It serves to show us the way for the US and Cuba to go about their lives once their differences are settled for good: in the words of Abraham Lincoln, charity for all and malice toward none.
PS: Speaking of great Cuban musical talent, here is a piece I also love: Leo Brouwer’s Danza caracteristica.