Closeness and distance in the musical narrative of the Cuban “generation
of the moles”

by Jeffrey Manoel Pijpers


When approaching music as a narrative, one has to keep in mind that the song to be analyzed cannot be approached through its textual content alone, but that the sonic content of its rhyme, rhythm, melody and the voice of the singer play a decisive role in its “narration”. Whereas a song’s textual content can lead a completely separate life from the melody and the voice of the singer, its rhythm is an element that traverses both the textual and the sonic realm and creates their irrefutable interconnection. Thus, if a song is considered as a narration that is being read on various levels of sensation by its listener, the possible slowness and fastness of a ‘reading’ becomes heavily dependent on the pace dictated by the song’s performance. Nonetheless, pace is not an absolute value, as “slow” or “fast” can depend on the particular execution, adaptation or even “remix” of the song, on the mood of the performer, or on a particular way of interacting with the audience. Especially in the last case, the notion of closeness or distance, which is my focus in this paper, is crucial for determining the way in which performer and audience are connected. 

During a live performance, proximity —which is not necessarily a physical nearness ―can result in an active participation in a song by the audience, or can change the way in which a song is being performed. When listening to a recorded song, however, closeness can mean the physical proximity of the listener to the recording —think not only of bringing your ear closer to a loudspeaker to hear better but also of headphones through which the speaker can be inserted into the ear ―or the proximity between the microphone and the singer in the studio, resulting in recordings that capture sounds of the performer’s breathing and swallowing, bringing them (sometimes uncomfortably) close to the listener.

Because the notion of authorship is an important element in Cuban “trova” music tellingly, the name for its singer-songwriters is “cantautor”. I will focus this analysis of a song that marked a turning point in the post-Revolutionary1trova tradition on the relation between the author/singer and the reader/listener in the context of a live performance, exploring how the song plays with closeness and distance on three levels: its textual content; the way in which the narrative is being constructed; and its performance. Due to the particular moment in time and place of this recording of the performance late 1980s Cuba its socio-political context interferes with all three levels.

At the level of the performance this context plays a particularly important role, as it blurs the separation between performance, or the mere staging of the narration, and performativity, or the enactment of the content as a confirmation of the performer’s identity. The way in which the difference between performance and performativity can be explained in terms of closeness and distance is something that I will come back to later in this text. Before proceeding with the “close reading” of the song, however, a short introduction is necessary to the socio-political backdrop of the Cuban early 1980s in which the concert was given.

The Cuban trova music and its underground

In April 1989, the young Cuban artist Carlos Varela gave an official concert in a sold-out Carlos Marx, Havana’s biggest theatre, in order to present his first recorded CD. Having spent various years as a relatively invisible and marginalized singer-songwriter who made few appearances in the media due to censorship, the fact that he was able to organize a performance of such magnitude was nearly as surprising as the fact that the police blocked all connecting roads to the theatre and denied hundreds of people access to the concert. Inside the theatre, the audience mainly consisted of state officials and previously instructed high-school students who had been transported there shortly before the show started. The instructions given to the students left no room for doubt: to keep the ambience reasonably calm and to report any suspicious behaviour to the school staff or UJC presidents.2


Being part of a second generation of musicians since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that distinguished itself for its critical attitude towards the Revolutionary regime by proclaiming itself liberated from its commitment or even any indebtedness to “The Revolution”, Carlos Varela soon stood out as the most radical amongst the members of his generation and, inconveniently so, as the most popular as well.

Because Varela and the other musicians from his generation had completely liberated themselves from any implication or indebtedness with the Revolutionary ideal, it was no longer possible for the state authorities to exercise any indirect subtle control over these musicians. So in stead of incorporating them in their own machinery of ideological expression, as had been done with earlier genearions (see footnote 3), censorship now consisted in the almost complete absence of the young musicians from all existing forms of media, and in denying them any spaces to perform or to record their music. Nonetheless, the young musicians managed to continue their activities and gain popularity in an underground scene, performing for small groups in people’s homes or in deserted theatres and recording their CD’s with foreign labels. It was because of this that they were given the name ‘generation of the moles’, “la generación de los topos”, referring metaphorically to their underground activity.3

Taking into account the artistic marginality from which these artists operated, Varela’s concert in the Carlos Marx theatre was an unexpected event that seemed to confirm the fact that this artist’s popularity could no longer be denied. He served as a spokesperson who albeit in metaphors expressed what was on people’s minds during this period of extreme political tension and the threat of worse economical times to come, in which “the Cuban people” were expected to hold their heads up high in defence of a political system (the “Revolution”) which most of them did not identify themselves with anymore. The externalization of these tensions can be heard in the emotional responses of the audience to certain fragments of the lyrics of “Guillermo Tell” in the recording I am about to analyze. It is quite possible that the Cuban authorities were aware that an event like this concert could serve as a relief valve for these hidden emotions, and that this was the only reason they decided to allow it.

Although in this text the sonic elements of the song will have to depend on my descriptions, the poetic construction of the lyrics in the original Spanish version does give an idea of the song’s rhythm. The translation into English is mine.

William Tell did not understand his son
who one day got bored with the apple
on his head.
He ran off, and the father cursed him
because, how was he going to show
his mastery?

William Tell, your son grew up
he wants to shoot the arrow
now it’s his time to show what he is worth
using your crossbow.

William Tell did not understand the plan
because, who was going to risk himself for this shot?
And it scared him when the little boy said:
That now it’s the father’s turn to put the apple
on his head.

William Tell, your son grew up
he wants to shoot the arrow
now it’s his time to show what he is worth
using your crossbow.

William Tell did not like the idea
and refused to put the apple on his head,
saying that it was not his lack of belief,
but, what was going to happen if the arrow goes wrong?

William Tell, your son grew up
he wants to shoot the arrow
now it’s his time to show what he is worth
using your crossbow.

William Tell did not understand his son
who one day got bored with the apple on his head.


Of the father and the son

If we take a “closer” look at the different narrative entities in the song, precisely by distancing ourselves from it, four of these entities can be distinguished. The most visible of the three, the only one whose name is constantly mentioned, is William Tell. Then there is the son, the object of the narrative argument aspiring to become its subject, which already gives him a more prominent role in the way narrative develops: the boy “ran off,” he disturbs the normal pattern of succession because he “grew up” and now aspires to “shoot the arrow,” saying that “now it’s the father’s turn to put the apple on his head.” The third entity is the “Sonic I,” conceptualized by Cornelia Gräbner as the narrative subject in music that is being performed and, in turn, performs the lyrics in their corresponding melodic and rhythmic embedding (198-200). This is the voice that narrates the couplets but is also the voice speaking to William Tell in the refrain. The fourth entity, the narration’s addressee, is only present on the outside the extradiegesis of the ‘song-as-a-narration’ to whom the Sonic I speaks in the couplets and among whom the Sonic I stands when he directs his words to William Tell in the refrain. In the (recorded) performance, however, this addressee does have a voice that can be heard, and therefore takes an active role in the ‘song-as-a-performance’.

A telling detail related to the lyric’s content is that the facts of the story are presented in a language full of expressions and images that are closely related to the key values of Cuban Revolutionary ideology. The fact that, in addition to this notion, the song tells a story that inverts a well-known tale, already raises the suspicion that the song’s author, or the Sonic I who sings through/for him, does not identify with the ideological interpretative framework within which he places the narration. The main theme in the tale of William Tell, that of the father and his son, draws upon the paternalistic imagery of the Cuban Revolution in which “the youth”, los jóvenes submit to the will of a state headed up by a paternalistic central figure in the construction of a (utopian) “new” society. The slogan that young Cuban scouts use until the present day, seremos como el Che, ‘we will be like Che’ makes reference to the young militant idol who was willing to sacrifice himself for the Revolution and who eventually died fighting for the communist cause. This reference to Che Guevara, whose martyrdom has granted him eternal youth in Cuban Revolutionary discourse, links the image of “the son” to the willingness of (possibly) being sacrificed in defence of the father’s name, and explains how William Tell’s son is being used in this song as a metaphorical reference to the Revolutionary ideal of ‘the youth’. The function of the son as a mere support for his father, who has to “show his mastery,” returns in the last stanza of the song as proof of “belief” in the one who shoots the arrow: “It was not his lack of belief […]”, insinuating that the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the father has to be almost religiously unquestionable.

At the time Carlos Varela wrote and performed his song, however, the younger generations of Cubans did not experience the same unconditional dedication to the Revolution as their parents might have felt, and were starting to question the way things were instead of simply sacrificing their own desires to lead a ‘normal’ life for a struggle “against the imperialist enemy” that was no longer theirs. The arising conflict between the father and his son, particularly caused by the inversion of roles in the narrative argument, reflects the way in which the generations of Cubans who were born after the installation of the Revolutionary state and who did not live the struggle against the terrors of the preceding dictatorship still live in a situation of mutual “misunderstanding” with the older generations who actively participated in the construction of a new society. This image of “newness,” by which the Revolutionary discourse up until the present day emphasizes its eternal youth, is contested with the words “William Tell, your son grew up”. In this way, the song’s Sonic I confronts the father figure with the new reality he is unwilling to accept, that his offspring is no longer the sacrificial son.

In terms of closeness and distance, the youth’s alienation from the older generation is literally being presented in the image of the son who “runs off,” away from his father, the authoritative parent. The author’s choice for this particular expression of the son “running off”, followed by the father who “cursed him”, also evokes the event of the Mariel boatlift in the early eighties, when thousands of Cubans took off for the United States in order to escape the economical difficulties in Cuba. This exodus was accompanied by speeches of Fidel Castro in which he referred to these people as “escoria” (‘outcast’) and “gusanos” (‘worms’). The distance between father and son is thus translated into an act of geographical separation from the homeland, perhaps the most powerful and traumatic way in which distance can be experienced. The fact that this exodus aroused the anger of Fidel Castro is reflected in the resentment of William Tell, who is wondering how to “show his mastery” without his son to support him or, in other words, how to defend the cause of “the people’s Revolution” when the very people are taking off to the enemy’s land?

The expression “your son grew up” also indicates a conflict between different temporal experiences. The father is confronted with the fact that ‘time has passed him by’ and that the sudden distance from his son also brings him the awareness of the speed at which time is actually moving. This awareness is followed by the introduction of the inverted action, in which the son now wants to be the one shooting the arrow whilst the father holds the apple on his head. The fast moving time causes the son to be distanced from his father who “does not understand [him]” and who is “scared” by the idea of the inversion of the roles. Funnily enough, the son, who transgresses this authoritative separation, actually moves closer to the father by aspiring to take over his role. He even wants to use his crossbow. So maybe the conflict between different temporal experiences is not as bad a William Tell himself thinks it to be. The reason why the son is rebelling is just because he got “bored” and no longer wants to adjust himself to his father’s rhythm and repetition of action, which he outgrew. He wants to have an active part in the narration, instead of being a prop.

Similar to the rebellious act of the son towards his father, which disappears the distance between them, the borders between “traditionally” separated realms are also transgressed at other narrative and performative levels of the song. At the level of the narration, the song starts by evoking a (less approachable) third person protagonist of a classic tale. Then, the almost sacred distance that is to be kept from the authoritative father figure is transgressed when the Sonic I suddenly switches to a second-person discourse, and addresses the protagonist of the story in a direct way, at the same diegetic level. The Sonic I, who is the invisible narrator of a third-person story in the couplets, in the refrain actually explains to William Tell the new situation which he “does not understand,” admonishing him to accept the fact that it is now his son’s time “to show what he is worth.” The voice of the Sonic I therefore assumes the role of the father every time the refrain sets in, switching to a register in which the protagonist can be told to hand over his crossbow to his son.

Rhythm against Territory

What I think is the most interesting element in this recording, however, is the role of the audience throughout the performance of the song. When the song is performed, the narration comes closest to us, the listeners, and in this particular narration, the move that the Sonic I makes towards a second-person discourse in the refrain, is a way of coming even closer to us. At first, the third-person narration is something that is being told to us, as if the Sonic I was watching into our direction and we are listening, passively receiving the narration. What happens when he directs himself towards the protagonist, William Tell, is that he gives us the possibility of ‘watching over his shoulder’ as he speaks, or even to join him in his discourse as he directly addresses the authoritative father figure. At the level of the narration, the Sonic I thus changes into a collective “Sonic We”, which can be heard in the recording where the audience sings along with the performer for almost the entire song. More than just singing along, they respond to the lyrics by clapping, screaming, whistling and cheering, to the extent that sometimes the voice of the performer almost entirely disappears or, in other words, completely blends with the collective voice; the Sonic We.

An element of the performance that draws attention is the fact that the performer’s voice is relatively soft and remains so throughout the song, even at the passages where the audience screams so loud that he can hardly be heard anymore. This kind of performance4 is especially telling in a political climate where all discourses are delivered in a highly exited register of voice; loud (mostly masculine) voices that allow no interruption or disavowal. In contrast to the public speeches by Fidel Castro, where the audience was not even allowed to interrupt him by clapping but had to show its silent approval by waving thousands of small paper Cuban flags, this performance by Carlos Varela gives a dominant voice to the audience and thus gives them an active role in the process of narration, thus effecting a similar reversal of roles to the one advocated in the lyrics between William Tell and his son. In this double move of transgression – of the distance between audience and performer but also between the youth and the authoritative father figure – the performer even allows the audience to address the father directly, through the second-person discourse of the refrain. What can be heard when listening to the performance is not a Sonic I telling William Tell that the tale has changed, but actually the collective voice of the Cuban youth, the Sonic We, telling the authorities of the Revolution that they have outgrown their role of martyrs for the cause of a struggle that is no longer theirs.

In spite of the positive message behind an emotional and emotive moment of Cuban musical history, a number of questions arise that I am not yet able to answer. I can only theorize where they come from and where possible answers can be found. These questions predominantly address the elements of the song that do not touch purely on its textual content, but rather on its performance as music, its rhythmic qualities, its temporality. What do these elements do to the interaction between performer and audience? In this particular case, does the audience really gain control over the performer, and if so, who speaks and to whom? In other words, can the narrative open up? And what role does the song’s musical content play in this process of opening up and what happens to the performer and his voice?

The fact that it is in the refrain of the song that certain divisions between traditionally separated authoritative roles are being destabilized invokes Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualization, in A Thousand Plateaus, of “the refrain” as the content of music which “is essentially territorial, territorializing or reterritorializing” (331). What they mean by this construction of a territory is that the directional force of music as a creative process is being encapsulated within a repetitive pattern a bird song that literally marks a territory, or the deteriorating move of turning “music into a ditty” (334) that moves in circles within its own closed realm of signification, of cause and effect:

The refrain is rhythm and melody that have been territorialized because they have become expressive – and have become expressive because they are territorializing. We are not going in circles. What we wish to say is that there is a self-movement of expressive qualities. (349)

The refrain, understood in this way, can thus also be seen as the circular movement within the repeating tale of William Tell, which, time and time again at the moment of its narration, confirms the father’s mastery. In other words, its repetitiveness is the self-movement that makes the father’s authority “expressive” by reconfirming its own content; the tale itself as refrain. The son’s rebellion, which causes a crack in the self-confirmative repetitiveness of the tale, is thus an act of “deterritorialization” of this refrain. The part of the song that represents its refrain, however, challenges William Tell’s authority, causing that in this inversion of the classic tale it is precisely the refrain which deterritorializes.

The same goes for the performance, where deterritorialization of the narration takes place at the part where the diegetic roles change and where the narrative seems to open up. Musically speaking, there is no big difference in melody, motive or rhythm when the refrain sets in, and the fact that the performance of the song is a repeatable formula that is being recognized, memorized, and duplicated by the audience at the moment of the performance, makes it possible to consider the entire song a refrain. Even though the voice of the audience at times drowns out the voice of the performer, this does not cause a crack in the so-called self-movement of the song but rather reaffirms its “expressive qualities,” as Deleuze and Guattari would call it. But if the ‘being performance’ of a song depends upon the fact that it is being memorized and gives it a citational quality (Bal 182), how can the emotional response of the audience in this recording of Guillermo Tell be understood as performative, or, in other words, as a liberating moment in which the musical content of the narrative opens up and makes that the young Cubans of the audience actually do become the rebellious son who steps up against his father?

Within Cuban politics, performance as citationality takes shape in the almost mechanical repetition of the Revolutionary (paternalist) discourse that not only defines the content of speeches, announcements and hymns, but that also resonates in all forms of speech that form part of the public space. Performance is thus what defines, to a certain extent, the public function of every Cuban; the role of ‘the good son’ one has to play ‘out there’, outside of the private sphere of the home. To give an example, referring to someone as a ‘humble person’, “una persona humilde as a way of expressing appreciation, is actually a way to value him or her according to the Revolutionary ideal of someone who is willing to sacrifice himself “for the good cause”, just like the son of William Tell. Yet this is actually not what all Cubans imply when they use the word humilde, and thus the word’s sonic content can become detached from its ideological function. According to Zizek, it is the “dumb repetition” of language that empties it of its ideological content (216). This sonic function of language can also be seen as music, returning to Deleuze and Guattari, who describe it as follows: “music is a deterritorialization of the voice, which becomes less and less tied to language” (333). If public speech, then, becomes a mere performance based upon the use of an empty language, the performative potentiality of bodily expression lies in its sonic or rhythmic qualities. The fact that this recording of “Guillermo Tell” and the response of the audience is thus not a mere performance but the acting out of a sincere wish for things to be different, somehow has to be related to its sonic content and not just it’s lyrics.

Something in this recording that only started to draw my attention after thinking in terms of distance and closeness, speed or slowness, is what happens in the second half of the song. After numerous moments of cheering and applauding, suddenly there is a moment when clapping can be heard, a clapping that apparently is trying to mark the beat. At first, this clapping is hardly distinguishable, in the background, and seems to come from the back of the theatre. Also, because of the fact that it comes from the back of a big theatre in which the physical distance causes it to be out of sync with the momentum of the beat, the clapping at first is ‘behind’ the actual pace of the song, and seems to slow it down. Then, as the audience gradually takes up the clapping, the sound swells; it moves closer to the stage and to the microphones that catch the sound, and the beat actually accelerates. In a way, as the sound of the clapping grows louder and comes closer, it gives us listeners the impression that the audience takes over the rhythm of the song, and ends up accelerating the pace at which the performer has to sing, dictating to him a new rhythm.

In this way the audience, instead of merely finding a relatively legitimized way to address the Revolutionary authorities by appropriating the language of the Sonic I, actually succeeds in making of its collective expression a performative act by isolating language’s rhythmical content, and using that as their primary tool of expression. They deterritorialize the space that keeps them at a distance by preventing them from taking the word, or to return to the metaphor of the song, by preventing them from shooting the arrow themselves. Nonetheless, a lot of questions remain, pulling this analysis in a downward or upward spiral for which this paper does not offer me sufficient space. The question remains, for example, to what extent the opening up of the narrative really has a liberating function. Although the son aims to be the one to shoot the arrow, he does not seek to liberate himself from the obligation of having to show what he is worth; what is advocated is a reversal of positions, but not a changing of the structure of the event itself. The audience turns the voice of the Sonic I into a Sonic We in order to address William Tell, but they do not break free of the metaphor itself in order to shout the same message directly to the Revolutionary authorities or Fidel Castro. And in the end, the clapping does accelerate the pace of the song, but it still marks the beat in a way that is loyal to the song itself. Returning to Deleuze and Guattari, their answer to these quandaries could be the following: “Produce a deterritorialized refrain as the final end of music, release it in the Cosmos that is more important than building a new system” (386). Whether that is a satisfying conclusion or not, is open to discussion.

Bal, Mieke. Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. 1972. London: Continuum, 2004.

Gräbner, Cornelia. “Off the Page and Off the Stage: The Performance Poetry and its Public Function.” Diss. University of Amsterdam, 2007.

Pijpers, Jeffrey. “La Nueva Trova Cubana”. Revista de Estudos Poético-Musicais – Repom. Ed. Tereza V. de Almeida. No 4, June 2007. January 14, 2010. Online source.

Žižek, Slavoj. Mirando al sesgo. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2006. (Looking Awry. London: The Mit Press, 1991)

1 In accordance with most of the literature related to Cuban studies, I will use the word “Revolution” with a capital R in order to refer to the socialist state form and its ideology, which has marked Cuban politics, entertainment, arts, research and education since the overthrow of the Batista regime in January 1959. I do wish to emphasize that I am not using the capital R in the same way it is being employed in the Revolutionary discourse itself. Rather than capitalizing the grandeur of its achievement without denying the importance it had in its very beginning my capital R stresses the fact that now, almost 52 years later, the word Revolution actually signifies the opposite of all that the lower case term “revolution” implies.

2UJC: abbreviation of “Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas,” ‘Young Communist Union,’ whose ‘presidents’ consist of specially selected well performing students. Officially, the function of these unions is to maintain the “revolutionary” communist awareness within Cuba’s educational institutions, as it demands a certain dedication and visible presence at political reunions from its integrants. In practice, however, the UJC nowadays has turned into an inconvenient obligation for many students as it takes up a lot of time that cannot be dedicated to studying. Voluntary applications are scarce, and in many cases the students who do join the UJC voluntarily, do so in order to have less difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents to leave the country.

3 Joaquín Borges-Triana, “La generación de los topos.” Juventud Rebelde. Havana, 28th of August (1988). For a more detailed account on the origins of Nueva Trova, its main characteristics and its development, see my article “La Nueva Trova Cubana” in the online magazine Repom.

4I do wish to call it ‘performance’ because the soft singing is intentional. Varela’s voice does allow him other registers – in other songs he does scream – but in this case the “soft” performance serves to underscore the lyrics’ content.


2 Respuestas a “SONS of WILLIAM TELL

  1. Pingback:

  2. Wooow!! I lived that stage of cuba’s history


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