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Building bridges with music

While he may be a household name in Cuba, singer-songwriter Carlos Varela may not be as familiar to Canadians. But when he takes to the stage at the Isabel on Oct. 30 that could change. Mr. Varela, who has shared stages with artists like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, has been described as “one of Cuba’s most talented and emblematic artists of his generation. He received an honorary degree from Queen’s University in June 2014.

Carlos Varela will be performing at the Isabel on Oct. 30. (Photo Supplied)

“He represents the generation who inherited – but didn’t build – the Cuban revolution,” explains Karen Dubinsky, a professor in the Departments of History and Global Development Studies, who helped organize the concert. “He has been able to express the sense of dissatisfaction and frustration of an entire generation, but he has done it with poetry and metaphor.”

Born in Havana in 1963, Varela taught himself to play guitar at age 15. After attending university, he joined the politically infused Nueva Trova music movement and began performing in theatres and small venues throughout Cuba. In 1989, he gave a legendary concert at the renowned Chaplin Theatre where he debuted his first album. Soon after, he became the first artist of his generation to sell out the 5,000-seat Karl Marx Theatre for three consecutive nights.He now has nine albums under his belt.

“Varela is a spokesperson for bridging conflict, both on and off the island (of Cuba), which is considerable,” says Dr. Dubinsky. “For a long time, Cubans living off the island were seen as cowards and traitors. Nobody thinks like that anymore. And Varela is in a remarkable position of being just as popular off the island as he is in his home country. He illustrates how you can bridge gaps with music in a way that you can’t by just giving speeches.”

Mr. Varela, who lives in Havana, is also the subject of a new book. The English edition of My Havana: The Musical City of Carlos Varela will launch in conjunction with Varela’s performances in Kingston and Toronto. The anthology was edited by Maria Caridad Cumana, Xenia Reloba and by Dr. Dubinsky, and is published by University of Toronto Press. It includes contributions from Cuban and U.S. music scholars, and musician Jackson Browne, among others.  

Carlos Varela performs at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Oct. 30. He will be accompanied by jazz pianist Aldo López Gavilán, and by bassist Julio Cesar El Checo. All songs will be performed in Spanish, but English translation will be provided.  Advanced tickets are $15 for general admission $10 for students.

More information is available on the Isabel’s website