Teresita Fernández, violets in an old washbowl

An unclassifiable and indispensable artist.

When a few days ago I got the news of the demise of Teresita Fernández (Santa Clara 1930-Havana 2013) I tried to recall when I met her for the first time. A Sunday, in the very early 1970s, immediately came to my mind, when the singer-songwriter, dressed in her normal black sweatshirt, filled with her voice the naves of Camagüey’s Nuestra Señora de la Merced church, singing a prayer that moved the people there, despite the fact that the unskilled organ player seemed to be trying to die down that song with a sound similar to a lion’s roar. I still seem to see her coming out of the church through one of the side doors, with a rather serious air and carrying her guitar.

A series of very happy combinations took place in this artist’s career. The musical education she received in her native Santa Clara, while not extensive or particular, was able to develop at least two important aspects of her aesthetics: the close relationship with the guitar and the value she always gave to pedagogy as a happy conveyance of gifts to other persons.

That teacher who arrived in Havana at the age of 29 was very sure of what she wanted to do. It was enough for someone to foster her debut in the Sala Arlequín of the Retiro Médico for many – from the Martí sisters to Sindo Garay – to know that they were in the face of an unexpected discovery. She rapidly imposed herself in a city that at the time was living one of the most interesting cultural moments of the 20th century.

At that time, she was already the opposite of a TV star: not wearing sequin dresses, with no glamour, she retook the old tradition of the trovadores, enriched with the liberties of the filin and a good dose of poetic reading and creation. Moreover, though she knew about singing, she had no pretensions of a virtuoso. That must have won her the empathy of Bola de Nieve when he decided to take her to the Monseigneur Restaurant to alternate with him in the musical animation. For her, the definition of Ignacio Villa was also valid: “I sing with a person’s voice.”

In a frequently frugal means to encourage those who were beginning their public career, the young woman was able to impose herself with her candour and intuition. She was able to perform in the Lyceum as well as in the Copa Room Cabaret of the Riviera Hotel, in the Mella Theatre or in Casa de las Américas. However, her preferred place was El Coctel Nightclub on La Rampa. There she found her ambience: guitar, verses, confessions, and a select group of admirers that followed her night by night. The press would praise her, suffice it to recall “And did you already hear Teresita sing?” published in the newspaper Revolución of September 20, 1965 or the article by veteran journalist Mariblanca Sabás Alomá: “Teresita sings the beautiful poems of Gabriela Mistral” which appeared in the newspaper El Mundo the following year.

Some of her songs were remarkably fortunate. A ballad singer who we barely remember today, but who at the time was a big hit, Luisa María Güell, made a very personal version of one of her pieces, “Cuando el sol,” and it spread like wildflower. I can still remember when at school I learned it as a religious song in the children’s catechism lessons in the Camagüey parish church of La Soledad.

However, not everything was a bed of roses for her. Her frankness, almost brutal at times, bothered some officials because of her inability to repeat slogans, her wide-ranging concept of friendship that did not look at each person’s particular preferences, as well as her explicit adhesion to Christianity – even though it was like her, free and not too orthodox. During the “grey” years that came later, while she was not “parametered,” many times she was set aside without too much ceremony and certain options on TV were also closed to her as well as possible trips abroad. That usually placed her outside the official culture, like an underground figure followed by a group of faithful, rediscovered once and again, until at last the major and deserved tributes arrived in the last decades of her life.

If the majority of the people in Cuba were asked who Teresita was, they would answer without hesitating that she is the author of “Mi gatico Vinagrito.” Of her creative facets, her children’s songs are the most well-known. Sometimes to us that seems unfair if we think about the value of her compositions for adults, generally passed over: “Con inmensa ansiedad,” “No puede haber soledad” or “Si es mi destino.” However, it is necessary to take into account that she is one of the few figures that was able to continuously create for children, without being drippy and with no epidermal didactisms and that her pieces not only had unforgettable melodies but also were full of transcendental reflections: accepting others, preserving the fauna, the danger of trusting appearances, the praise of the authentic wisdom, were among her usual themes, and were frequently prophetic regarding some campaigns and vindications that came much later.

In my opinion there are only two creators in the Americas that could be compared to Teresita Fernández: Chilean Violeta Parra and Argentinean María Elena Walsh. She was joined to first by the vital self-assurance, that ability to live wandering and uninstalled, always open to the popular roots of her art, and to the second, the dignity she gave to creating for children, whom she never underestimated.

Though from now on it is inevitable to evaluate her only as the composer of a large group of songs, throughout her life she collaborated in very fruitful projects: suffice it to remember that TV programme Mis amigos in which she appeared together with Los Camejos puppet group, before going to Lenin Park with oral narrator Francisco Garzón Céspedes and puppeteer Pedro Valdés Piña to hold that gathering that was one of Havana’s most select Sunday cultural options for several years. Who remembers today that she composed and recorded the score of the ballet La Cucarachita Martina, choreographed by Norma García for the Ballet of Camagüey, which today is shelved away in some archive waiting to be recorded on CD?

Fernández was above all an unclassifiable artist, who found in certain moments travelling comrades in the founders of the New Song Movement – let us not forget that she welcomed the young Silvio Rodríguez in her space at El Coctel – and who had some disciple in the musicians of the following generation, for example Liuba María Hevia. However, she has taken with her her singular ecumenical sense of art, her particular being in tune with universal poetry – for example José Martí and Gabriela Mistral whose verses she put to music in such an original way – and a mistral sense that always saved her from the diva poses.

Another memory serves me to close this page. In one of the most painful years of the Special Period I attended a ceremony for the Day of National Culture in the Episcopal Cathedral of El Vedado. A power outage, which could not be called unexpected, threatened with ruining the ceremony, and she saved it with her guitar. I will never forget so many pastors, heads of diverse Christian churches, singing under the dark naves the catchy melody of “Mi gatico Vinagrito” and “Lo feo”, that song that seemed to announce better times:

In an old washbowl
I planted violets for you
And being close to the river
In an empty shell
A grabbed a star for you.

To the things that are ugly
Give them a bit of love
And you’ll see that the sadness
Starts changing colour.

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