No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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I was out of sorts today. I had to get up uncharacteristically early (5:30 AM), and after a productive morning I got snagged by an infuriating series of delays that made me twenty minutes late for rehearsal. It seems to be my special gift to squander a luxury of time and end up in the usual mad scramble. Once I got to Juilliard I never quite recovered, but the good humor of the cast and directors pulled me through the weeds. 

I never cease to be amazed at how differently people can perceive the same thing. It’s like that famous trompe-l’oeil drawing that can look like either a young, fashionable woman or a crone, depending on how your brain makes sense of the ambiguous lines. Today I found that Mary and I had completely different reactions to a song called “Tú no sabe inglé.” It’s about a guy named Bito Manué (Cuban dialect for “Victor Manuel”). His friend—the narrator of the song—is mocking him because Bito never learned English, so he panics when a pretty American tourist tries to hook up with him. I’ve played this song many, many times in the past twenty years. It was a late addition to the program, and I threw it in for César who I thought (correctly) would have a field day with it. It has always brought down the house, and yesterday it got belly laughs from César’s mother and father.

But the song made Mary uncomfortable. “He’s making fun of someone because of something they don’t know. Only people who speak English get to fall in love in Cuba?” I felt as if I had just slammed on the brakes while speeding down the highway at 70 miles an hour. Whiplash.

Songs take on life deep in my mind and my spirit. For over two decades I had envisioned a Bito Manué who richly deserved the mockery: a bully, a goof-off, a player, someone who thought nothing of stealing other people’s girlfriends just to assert his machismo. The song was like “The Revenge of the Nerds”: “You made fun of me for not cutting English class with you, and now you’re paying for it.” 

Mary and I tend to see things in a similar way, so when we don’t it can be mind-bending. The truth is that Guillén’s multi-faceted poem is about many things, including the long shadow America cast in Cuba since 1898. It is about Afro-Cuban culture and oppression—no wonder Langston Hughes was friends with Guillén and even made a translation of this poem. Mary, who is new to the song, saw that side of the equation much more clearly than I today. 

And yet I have trouble having sympathy for the Bito Manué I invented twenty years ago. The exuberant music tells me a different story, one that I think equally valid. As someone who is studying Spanish, the song seems to strike a blow for the power of education, opening your mind to new worlds. Knowledge is power, something to promote. And “my” Bito Manué thought nothing of treating his friends like dirt. 

Everything got a bit muddled today because I also had a problem with a bit of staging Mary was planning on using. I was not at my most articulate, and I responded by making a noise like a cow having a gastric issue. I finally resorted to words when Mary stared me down and said, “Steve, explain why you don’t like it.” I do not think I gave an articulate answer. But she must have felt the alarm bells and cut the bit in question. 

I’ve been thinking all day about the line-drawing with the double image. When I first saw it in the book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” all I could see was the young woman’s profile and her bonnet. It took me a quarter of an hour to find the old woman, but I finally did. Mulling over today’s quiet altercation,  I am finally able to see that song through Mary’s eyes. I get it.

I spent my early years playing for the great cabaret singer Martha Schlamme, who always taught me, “Find the triumph in the song.” So I stand by my scenario, especially as propelled by Eliseo Grenet’s exuberant music (and César’s life-affirming performance). But my brain definitely exploded today due to the fascinating Mary Birnbaum.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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