With a Cuban song in the heart

With a Cuban Song in my Heart

Close your eyes for a moment and think back to a time when your parents were so upset about events you didn’t understand that they started to panic. Remember how terrified you felt as their voices and faces filled with fear?

Now imagine your parents are grabbing you and telling you that you have to get ready fast because everyone is leaving the house, that they don’t know how long you’ll be away, that you might not see your home, friends or neighborhood again, and to stop asking so many questions. Imagine that all of the things you once considered permanent and safe were about to disappear forever.

Because to understand the origins of Ivan’s poetic love for Cuba, Cuban music, Cuban culture and the passion and nostalgia he depicts so richly and lovingly in this book, you must imagine the shock he experienced as a teenager and the yearning he continues to feel today for the homeland of his youth.

Ivan left Cuba with his family on a hot afternoon in August 1961 when he was 16 years old. Twenty-one people jammed onto a 92-foot boat, fully aware that they could be shot or spend 20 years in prison if caught. Or they could drown if their boat drifted into the raging tropical storm sweeping across the Caribbean at the very moment of their departure.

Ivan reached for two 12-inch long-playing records, one by Luis Bravo and the other by Ramon Veloz. To take records is both an amazing and fabulous choice. It’s a simultaneous act of remembrance and revenge. “You forced me to leave, so I’m taking a part of you, dear Cuba, that you will miss, songs that are yours, rhythms you invented, sounds you created– and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. How dare you make me leave you?”

Miraculously, Ivan’s family reached Jamaica safely and spent three months there before receiving political asylum in the United States. Exposed to all that America had to offer, Ivan absorbed it all, and grew to love and appreciate his new home. His curiosity today remains as strong as it was on that first day he stepped onto American soil.

Most of all, Ivan never forgot the astonishing music he heard as a child—the excitement, the prowess, the lust for life and the spectacular and often unheralded performances. Ivan’s deep knowledge of Latin musicians, instruments and artists is extraordinary. For me, just listening to Ivan talk about music is an education. Within seconds he can tell you who is playing; which one of the hundreds of Latin rhythms is being performed; and the contribution both have made to the history of the art form.

Ivan is also a gifted playwright, a director, a documentarian, a novelist, a film director, a concert promoter and producer, the writer of hundreds of songs, the author of one of my favorite movies (“El Super”) and a wonderful human being. Everything Ivan touches turns to art.

Ivan also is a lover of vinyl. As anyone who has treasured his or her collection of long-playing records, caring for the seal-black discs, listening intently to the music while lovingly studying the record jacket’s cover, reading and re-reading the liner notes on the back and organizing and re-organizing shelves of disks, it’s easy to understand Ivan’s passion for his 5,000 LP records. Many of his record jackets appear in these pages.[…]

This book began in Santiago de Cuba many years ago, and Ivan’s journey for the truth continues to this day. Savor his words and re-discover all that is beautiful about life. — By Marc Myers, from the preface to With a Cuban song in the heart.


With a Cuban song in the heart | Harvard Review Online