Cuba Explained in One Song

Singer-songwriter Boris Larramaendi

The recent buzz surrounding U.S.-Cuban relations have brought about a deluge of so-called Cuba experts on the news: two-dimensional talking heads pushing one-dimensional viewpoints, typically driven by the speaker’s own political inclinations. But ask yourself why we’re always hearing from “analysts” and almost never from those who’ve lived through what is being discussed?

Perhaps it’s because a true understanding of Cuba’s nuances, shades of gray and outright contradictions go beyond a pithy soundbite or anything a news program can deliver in a three-minute segment.

It’s best to understand Cuba through its people and its culture. In Cuba, music is the most revered and relevant art form, which is why I’ve chosen two songs that can help explain today’s Cuba in ways that no book or news report ever could. I wrote about the first, “Sí, pero no,” to describe the shades of gray and contradictions rife in the Cuban reality.

The second is what I believe to be the most important song to come out of Cuba in the last decade. And if you take the time to listen not only to the seamless incorporation of Afro-Cuban traditional music with rock, funk and pop, but also to the depth of its deeply personal and socially resonant lyrics, you’ll come away with an authentic understanding of what Cuban life is like. Told from the perspective of a recent émigré, “¿Asere que vola? “chronicles the culture shock of an authentic, homegrown Cuban now living in Madrid and connecting with the wider world.

This song became immensely popular in Cuba, due not only to its rich musical texture and upbeat chorus, but also because it captures truths and dilemmas that are instantly relatable to any Cuban. Even more of a testament to its popularity is how it spread: not through the official media but through word-of-mouth, bootleg copies and viral sharing. “That song ruled in Havana for six straight years… and still does really,” says Edgar Gonzalez, a Cuban hip-hop producer who has opened in Havana for the Roots, along with Kanye West.

To make sure I got things right, I brought in the big guns: I enlisted help from my friend Alexis Romay, a Cuban author, poet and intellectual, and I obtained a true copy of the lyrics from the songwriter himself.

Listen to the slow build of the song, give it time, and let it explode. You can follow along with the original lyrics in Spanish, translated to English, and comment in the table below. I know it’s long, but trust me, this is worth it:

A mi socio Alberto lo metieron cana por vender una yerbita que no estaba mala.My buddy Alberto was put in jail for selling a little weed that wasn’t so badThe songwriter immediately positions himself as a rebel, an outsider to establishment and the law. In Cuba this posture is of much more consequence than it is in the United States.
Le cayeron unos años, pero menos que a Raúl, que por decir lo que piensa ¡le metieron 20, tú!He was sentenced to a few years, but fewer than what Raul got, who was given 20 for speaking his mind.A reference to Raul Rivero, a well-known poet and independent journalist imprisoned for his work as an independent journalist and dissident.  
La cosa ta’en candela, en la Habana y en tos’ laos. Me acuerdo que yo fumaba y vivía arrebata’o pa’ aguantar el teque teque,

pero desde que me fui el estrés ya no me deja , ya eso no me hace feliz.

Hay que vivir apura’o,  y siempre estar conecta’o,

correr atrás del dinero pa’ terminar endeuda’o  pagándote una casita en Miami o en Madrid. Ya estaba todo inventa’o. ¡Nadie esperaba por ti!

Life is hard in Havana and everywhere.

I remember that I used to smoke and get high  to put up with all the same old talk,

But ever since I left, I can’t shake this stress

It doesn’t make me happy. You have to live in a rush, always being connected, chasing after money just to end up in debt paying off a little house.  In Miami or Madrid. we all just made it up as we went along.

Nobody waited for you!

A common culture shock that most Cubans feel once they begin living in more open societies. The non-stop buzz of modern life is an abrupt change from the humbler and simpler life in Cuba.
Yo me enteré por el chat que en Dinamarca hay un frío bestial.

Te lo conté en un e-mail, que aquí en España se come muy bien.

Me lo mandaste a decir, que ¡cómo gusta la salsa en París!

Me lo contó mi mamá, que cada vez que la llamo me dice:

-Mi hijito, quédate allá.

I heard through a chat

that in Denmark the cold is brutal.

I told you  in an email that here in Spain people eat really well.

You had someone tell me, how much people like Salsa music in Paris

And my mother told me, every time I call her she says: my dear son, stay over there.

The songwriter relates a rapid-fire series of one-line snippets of conversations he has using the internet. He’s saying “what’s up” and greeting people via the internet, now that he lives in Madrid and is able to use the internet freely. (Cuba remains among the most censored countries in the world, despite a high-speed undersea cable established in 2013.)  And he’s getting information from all over the world, taking advantage of this new resource: online chat.  

And it’s here where we come across one of the most poignant elements of the song: in one line, he captures the heartbreak of so many Latin American emigrants, though it resonates particularly with Cubans. His own mother tells him not to visit her: Don’t come back to Cuba. You’re better off where you are. In particular, there’s risk in coming back to Cuba as an outspoken artist who has tasted open discourse.

For one’s own mother to say that, during every phone conversation, speaks volumes to the desires of Cubans for change on the island. Look at the fact that countless Cubans have thrown themselves into the sea, risking their lives and their children’s lives to escape the conditions in Cuba. I couldn’t imagine my mother telling me to never visit her, but knowing what she experienced living in Cuba during the 1960’s, I am certain this is what she would have said if she were in Cuba and I were abroad.

Regardless of ideology, patriotism runs deep for all Cubans. Despite dissatisfaction of many with the Cuban government, the pull of family, culture, friendships, music, etc., is sometimes overwhelmingly strong — which makes this comment from the mother an emotional powder keg.

¿Qué volá?  Asere,  ¿qué volá? Mi hermano, ¿cómo te va?

¿Qué volá? Asere,  ¿qué volá?-¿De dónde tú me llamas?¿Dónde tú estás?

¿Qué volá?  Asere, ¿qué volá? -¡En la luchita, que no hay más ná!



What’s up?  Dude, what’s up?

Brother, how’s it going?

What’s up, dude, what’s up?  Where are you calling me from, where you at?

What’s up, dude, what’s up?

Working hard, that’s all!

But of course, all Cubans mix sadness and joy in equal measures: therefore the upbeat guitar strokes and cheerful incantation, “Dude, what’s up?” said in Cuban slang. (Footnote: “asere que vola” derives from African languages spoken in Cuba and is an exclusively Cuban expression.)  And there’s real joy in these snippets of conversation, coming from someone who just discovered how to connect with his fellow Cuban emigres after so many years of division… and is chatting up a storm.
Porque mi gente se sigue yendo.

O se fabrican una balsa o jinetean un viejo.

Mi gente sigue sufriendo

la miseria y el capricho del gobernante perpetuo y vigilante,

—siempre adelante—,

manichando tó el dinero que mandan los emigrantes a sus familias,

que, por deber, ¡tienen que llenar la Plaza cuando quiere él!

Because my people keep leaving.

They either make a raft, or they hustle some old guy.

My people keep suffering

The stinginess and capriciousness of the perverse and ever vigilant government leaders,

stealing the money that emigrants send back to their families

who are forced to fill up the plaza when he says so!

But everyone keeps leaving Cuba, a fact that remains true to this very day.  And even in the face of thawing political relations with the United States, the Cuban government continues its repressive practices and private enterprise is still highly restricted. So people do whatever they can to survive, whether it’s prostitution, hustling or taking that 90-mile raft journey that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.  

Ironically, Cuban exiles, historical enemies to the communist government, are one of the principal sources of foreign aid to Cuba. This is one of the many heartbreaks of these exiles: love for your family and wanting to support them economically, but as you do so, you are funding the very government you escaped — as all that money, sooner or later, will end up in the state’s coffers.  

The ties of family in Cuba are just as strong as in any other Latin American country, and returning to your family is completely understandable from a human perspective. (And not a tacit endorsement of the current regime, either.)  

But this situation does give you a glimpse into how tangled and mind-bendingly complex Cuban politics are.

We hear another reference to how Cubans are forced to demonstrate in the Plaza de la Revolucion, when “he” wants us to.  And we all know who “he” is.

Pero, mi hermano, tú no te asombres, que en el país de enfrente,

donde tumbaron las torres, el Presidente tiene negocios

con todita la familia del fan del número 11.

Y los misiles cayeron en otro lugar,aquellos niños no pudieron ni decir ¡Alá!

Así tú tienes gasolina pa tu carro man.

Menos mal que en Cuba,

petróleo es lo que NO HAY!

But, my brother, don’t be surprised.  In the country across from us, where they toppled the towers, the president has ties to all the family who are fans of the number 11.

The missiles fell in a different place, and those kids coudln’t even say “Allah!”

So you have gas for your car, man.  Thank goodness that in Cuba petroleum is what we DON’T HAVE.

Cuban artists who lived in Madrid like Boris Larramendi, the songwriter, are also able to take a more detached perspective and aim criticisms against the George W. Bush presidency, and U.S. interventionism in oil-producing countries versus those that have no oil. (The number 11 refers to the terrorist attacks on New York and Madrid.) This isn’t the voice of the historical Republican-leaning Cuban-American lobby; this is the voice of a Cuban who grew up on the island.
Yo  me enteré por el chat que en Nueva York hay alarma total.

Te lo conté en un email: aquí en Madrid cogimos todos el tren.

Me lo mandaste a decir:  ¡hay quien extraña hasta el muro en Berlín!

Me lo contó mi papá que siempre que llamo me dice: ¿Tú cuándo viras, compay?

¿Y mi nieta? ¿mo tá mi nieta?

¡Acabando, papá!

I heard through a chat

That in New York there’s total panic.

I told you in an email that here in Spain we all took  that train.

You had someone tell me, that there are even people who miss the Berlin Wall!

And my father told me, every time that I call him, he says, “when are you coming back, dude?”

“And my granddaughter?  How’s she doing?”

“She’s doing great, dad.

Again, going back to discovering the world through the internet, this new and powerful communication tool. Most relevant to Cuba is the discussion that there are even people who miss the Berlin Wall. We hear echoes of the Cuban situation, because we all know that there are plenty of Cubans who are pro-revolución and buy into all the stated reasons justifying restrictions in Cuba. One of those people is the songwriter’s father (in real life), who is a supporter of the current regime. In sharp contrast to the songwriter’s mother, he always asks for his son to come back to Cuba.  

Another illustration of the tug of war that Cuban politics plays on the hearts of its people.

This diversity of political stances, within one’s immediate family (one’s own parents!) is a real-life example that rings painfully true to countless Cubans on and off the island. Cubans feel an unbreakable attachment to their island, even in exile or otherwise in the diaspora. The fact that there can be such stark political differences within a nuclear family gives us a sense of the tension occurring between cherished beliefs and cherished family members. It’s not as simple as being pro-embargo, anti-embargo, fidelista, Republican or anything in between. There are a thousand strings in the heart of every Cuban, each pulling in its own direction.

¿Qué volá?  Asere, ¿qué volá?

—Mi hermano, ¿cómo tú estás?

¿Qué volá?  Asere, ¿qué volá?

—¿Y la familia?

¿Y Los chamas? ¿Viene otro más?

¿Qué volá?  Asere, ¿qué volá?- ¡Coge una cervecita, echa pacá!

¿Qué volá?  Asere, ¿qué volá?

What’s up?  Dude, what’s up?  

Brother, how ya doing?  And the family?

What’s up?  Dude, what’s up?

The kids?  Another one on the way?

What’s up?  Dude, what’s up?

Grab a beer, come over here!

What’s up?  Dude, what’s up?

And upon this poignant and somewhat melancholy backdrop of divided families, we still hear that irrepressible Cuban joy and indomitable gregariousness whenever you put two Cubans in the same room. It’s an instant connection that all Cubans have, and of course there’s never more than two degrees of separation between anyone of Cuban background.
Y nadie sabe nunca lo que va a pasar en este mundo loco donde fuimos a parar.

A mí me duele el alma y quisiera  regresar a guarachar en La Habana,

con los de aquí y los de allá. Formar un carnaval para olvidar los disfraces

perdonarnos las mierdas y que no corra la sangre,

pero no me hagas caso, yo sólo soy un payaso, y si te he ofendido en algo,mira,

ya me lo puedes contar. ¡Dispara!

No one ever knows what’s going to happen in this crazy world where we all ended up.

It hurts my soul, and I want to go back to party in Havana

with the people from here, and the people from there.

Make a big carnival to forget our costumes/disguises

and to forget all the shit

without bloodshed.

But don’t listen to me.  I’m just a clown.

And if I offended you somehow,  then you can call me on it. Go ahead!

The songwriter offers a hopeful vision for Cuba, that builds and builds.  Naturally, a big celebration is the catalyst to reconciliation. The seduction of music, culture and celebration becomes irresistible in this fantastic scene where Cubans forgive past transgressions in a nonviolent setting.

And the speaker interrupts his own daydream, with an implied wink, saying not to listen to him, because he’s just a clown. Perhaps because he went out on a limb, too idealistic, too unrealistic, too naive?

Dímelo todo, suéltalo todo.

Que aquí to el mundo tiene que hablar.

Dímelo todo, suéltalo todo

Pero que nadie hable más alto, nadie tiene toda la verdad.

Dímelo todo, suéltalo todo

Que aunque no resuelva nada, ¡mira el gustico que da!

Dímelo todo, suéltalo todo

Y si lo dices con ritmo, igual compones un rap:

Tell me everything, let it all out.

Here, everyone has to speak

Tell me everything, let it all out.

But no one should speak louder, nobody has  the absolute truth.

Tell me everything, let it all out.

And even if it doesn’t solve anything, look how good it makes you feel!

Tell me everything, let it all out.

And if you say it with rhythm, then turn it into a rap:

The song keeps building as the songwriter calls for everyone to, cathartically, air their grievances, and to do so in a way where nobody speaks louder than anyone else  something which, if difficult for Latinos and Latin Americans, is virtually impossible in Cuban politics.  
¡Jode y mortifica! Cuando te dicen todo así en tu carita.

¡Jode y mortifica! Y si te rascas es porque te pica, ¿verdad?

¡Jode y mortifica! Así que búscate una pomadita

¡Jode y mortifica! Oye, o échale salsita, ¡¡échale salsita!!!

It pisses you off!

When they say everything to you, all up in your face

It pisses you off!

And if you’re scratching, it’s because it itches, right?

It pisses you off!

So put a little cream on it.

It pisses you off!

Or put a little salsa on it, put on some salsa!

The song approaches its climax, with the entire band singing in harmony, perhaps a melodic version of the aired grievances referred to above.

It’s also a call for open discourse in Cuba  yes, diverging viewpoints will upset or annoy the listener, perhaps because the statements hit close to home. But the solution?  Soothe it, relax, or perhaps put on some salsa (music) and transform discord into common ground through shared cultural experiences and celebration.

¿Qué volá, mi ecobio?

¿Qué  volá, camará?

¿Qué volá, mi ambia?

¿Qué volá, qué volá, qué volá?

Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crece la palma,

y antes de morirme quiero, mira,

¡formar la guarapachanga,

asere! ¿Nos vemos en la Habana?  ¿Todos juntos?…

What’s up, my brother? (Afro-Cuban word)

What’s up, my buddy?

What’s up, my friend

I’m a sincere man from where the palm tree grows

and before I die, I want to, check this out, , throw  a giant party! Dude!  We’ll see each other in Havana?  Everyone together?

After capturing so much of the Cuban reality, on and off the island, in a handful of one-liners and conversation fragments, Boris Larramendi hits the most weighty social note of all: he invokes the father of the Cuban nation, José Martí, in a form of musical-celebratory idealism. Quoting Martí’s Versos Sencillos, a poem known to every Cuban man, woman and child, he modifies the poet’s final wish, not to express the poetry of his soul, but to have all Cubans return to the island and experience cathartic, idyllic reconciliation, where past wrongs are forgiven and a new day in Cuba emerges. The music swirls beneath rapid fire lyrics calling to “formar [una] guarapachanga”, a Cuban expression for “giant party” if there ever was one.  

Then finally, an invitation for everyone to come to this great big celebration!  AND…

-Ay, mi hijito, ¡OJALÁ!Oh, sonny.  I hope so.This whole vision is interrupted by wonky music and the voice of what can only be una abuelita, that wise and revered archetype of all Latin culture, who appears to have patiently listened to this entire hyperactive diatribe.  In a world-weary tone of voice, she says ironically, “Ay, mijito” which is an expression not only of affection, but also a reference to the youth or naiveté of the singer. “I hope so.”  But it’s done dismissively, as if to say “that’s nice, dear.”  “That’s a nice vision, what a lovely daydream…” but knowing in the back of her mind that this is pure fantasy.  

And of course the final image we see in the video: the Cuban flag. Yes, folks, there you have it. Everything you need to know about Cuba.

Now you have a better understanding than any talking head or soundbite could give you. Listen to it again and discover more. Feel it. But even then, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, if there’s anything to learn here, it’s to be wary of commentators who aren’t quoting actual Cubans again, those who have lived through a changing Cuba and who will feel the weight of the changes yet to come.

Special thanks to the singer and songwriter Boris Larramendi for providing the official lyrics and writing this song in the first place. He will be performing at Subrosa in New York City on Thursday, October 15.

And huge thanks to Alexis Romay for assistance with translation and picking up on nuances in the commentary that I would have otherwise missed. Alexis Romay is the author of the novel La apertura cubana. He tweets about Cuba, literature and other tropical diseases.

Full disclosure: I have collaborated with the artist on some musical projects in the past.


Dave Sandoval is a Cuban-American musician.

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