Marta Valdés, without suspicion

I don’t remember when it was that I first found out who Marta Valdés was, but much before that, when I was just five or six, I heard on my father’s record player the natural, very old voice of Bola de Nieve singing.

You don’t suspect
when you are looking at me
the emotions
you unleash in me.

I remember that the end especially moved me, because the singer did a small pause before singing the final verse, which came out like a sob. Not being old enough for that, I suspected that that line of “that I already love you” was a desperate confession that because of the inevitable law of gravity would be followed by a rejection of the invisible interlocutor. Without knowing it, I sensed something more behind that song, perhaps a great deal of anguish, perhaps an entire drama. What at that time was forbidden for me was to know that that was simply the experience of the poem.

Mart Valdés is 80 years old and I am reviewing her career, I am revisiting her songs before writing these lines. The critics say that something called the “new song”, that something so difficult to define like the things that are essential in the world, begins with her and with Teresita Fernández. If it comes to it, it would be necessary to speak of alchemy: of the lively vigil marked by the half-light of the filin; of the song that is not satisfied with a run-of-the-mill lyrics and requires the truth of the usual verse, the one that never stops being current; of all those components, and also from the lessons she  got from Leopoldina Núñez, from Vicente González Rubiera, from Harold Gramatges, flourished such a personal way of creating that t cannot be labelled; it is not purely bolero, or filin, or protest song, or the new song movement, it is…Marta Valdés, with her unrepeatable experience of life and music, if you’ll excuse the repetition.

She offers us an insight into her relationship with the art of sound when she explains how during her childhood when she listened to songs interpreted by Pedro Vargas:

His music remained going round in my head when I hadn’t even become aware of the power of memory. The first physical contact with them, when I was a little girl and couldn’t even reach the balcony’s iron rail even though I lifted my arms as high as possible, was not by ear but rather that I felt a stab in the middle of my chest that was moving to the left.

It was more a question of vibrations than of memories and lessons. That is why her way of composing is neither too associated to the fact of building, but rather to the ritual that conjures all the fears: “A song was always, from now on, the best thing I could invent to get over the late afternoons and nights of fear of the unknown.”

Several decades ago she won a popular composition prize for her song “José Jacinto,” composed in 1974. Someone I knew, who was well informed and had a certain musical sensitivity, told me at the time: “Yes, Marta’s songs are very well composed, this one is nice, but it won’t stick, because it’s difficult and no one can sing it.” It’s true that I’ve never heard someone whistling her melody on the street, but, at least in my case, I cannot pass by the modest statue of Milanés in front of the Matanzas cathedral without remembering that very delicate piece that is a declaration of complicity with the bard gone mad:

José Jacinto,
I don’t know if you
recognise me among the living,
because I usually arrive at your park
when the moon is
behind those pine trees.

José Jacinto,
if one of those nights you
have mistook me
for a ghost,
when the mist is dense over the city
and I am walking by.

More than from a coherent academic trajectory, the artist has known how to learn from her vital career: listening to José Antonio Méndez she nurtured that “tonal concern” that is discovered in her songs, as well as her years in Teatro Estudio not only earned her the prizes for the music she composed for El becerro de oro by Joaquín Lorenzo Luaces, directed by Armando Suárez del Villar, and for the unforgettable production of La zapatera prodigiosa by García Lorca conducted by Berta  Martínez, but rather they increased in her the knowledge of the nuances and the gradations of the dramatic expression. In her, wisdom is above all a question of won trade together with a correct poetic intuition.

“Today I am thinking that perhaps you exist/ The imagination is having a party” she says in one of her works. That ability to imagine, proper of a tireless creator has kept her from much bitterness. Like the majority of the authentic artists, she has suffered periods of silence, apparent obscurities and that lack of delicateness with which society frequently marks the most sensitive, but her triumph has been the ability to remain, with obstinacy, in her place, not without chagrin but without a space for resentment.

What has Marta Valdés bequeathed us in these eight decades of disquieting existence? We could list records like Tú no sospechas, Nuestra canción and Doce boleros míos, the book Donde vive la música which collects her journalistic work since the years of the newspaper Revolución and the magazine Cuba internacional up to La Gaceta de Cuba, and many more, a great many songs, collected or disperse, favourites or gone with the wind that moves the night-time trees. This woman is a secret that composes though no one asks her to, because her only contract is with that imperative quivering that caught her by surprise during her childhood and is still with her.

I must confess that I have never approached Marta. Shyness and a singular respect have made me look at her from afar. The last time I saw her was a late afternoon in which she was strolling close to the Plaza de Armas. I felt that that was her ideal environment: the stone of the buildings sported their best golden colour, the cobblestones launched a discreet humid smell through the layer of leafs that covered them and the nostalgic siren from some boat approaching the dock was coming from the port. For a moment there I thought she would stop before the empty benches and would start singing:

Cry over what you have never done
for what you never were
and want to be now.
Cry, cry
over the love that returns
and for the love
you will never find.

She didn’t do it. She continued her stroll, perhaps dedicated not to a song from the past, but rather to the one she would give us tomorrow. That is probably her best secret: composing very sad boleros, but afterwards winking to life through her eyeglasses that see too many things, smile a bit and undertake a new work. Like the stones of the Plaza de Armas she resists because, as she has written: “keep a bit of emotion:/ at least there are still/ lyrics and melody/for another song.” (2014)

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