Cuban singer and songwriter Carlos Varela looks much as he did when he came to Miami in 1998, the first musician from the island to visit during an 18-month cultural thaw. He still dresses his short, stocky frame in black, and, at 47, still sports a goatee and dark sunglasses.
However, Varela’s trademark black cap now covers a mostly bald head. His songs, which in the ’90s spoke powerfully to a younger generation of Cubans longing for change, have become more ambivalent. Whether they retain the same resonance will be apparent Saturday in his first concert at a major South Florida venue, Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, where he had to cancel a 2004 show for lack of a visa.
“It’s been 12 years that I’ve been waiting for this opportunity,” a red-eyed Varela said during a stopover last week at Miami International Airport. “A lot of young Cubans . . . asked `How is it possible that I come searching for the land of liberty, and now they don’t let me hear my artist?’ These songs also come from these contradictions.”
Varela’s return coincides with the Obama administration’s resumption of cultural exchange with the island. This spring, famed Cuban dance-music group Los Van Van played in Miami, and Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 performed in Havana. Varela visited Washington in December, playing for members of Congress, whom he lobbied to end the embargo and allow Americans to travel to Cuba.
Varela says he still has faith in the power of music to change people, if not politics.
Once a marginalized, underground rocker whose songs often seemed to acknowledge and criticize problems in Cuba, Varela has become one of the island’s best-known musical figures.
In the 1990s, his songs — Guillermo Tell, in which William Tell’s son insists it’s his turn to shoot the apple off his father’s head (usually interpreted as a younger generation’s talking to Fidel Castro and Cuba’s aging leadership); Foto de Familia (Family Photo), which describes the painful separation of families; Como Los Pesces (Like the Fishes), about a country that sheds tears of betrayal and loss for sons drowned at sea — embodied the frustration of a younger generation that longed for change and connection to the outside world.
Varela is eloquent but ambiguous about his hopes for Cuba and how they might be realized.
“There is a feeling of things that have been lost; that’s for sure,” he says of the dark mood on No Es El Fin. “But at the end, the philosophy of the title . . . is that it’s just the beginning. The old dream ends because a new dream begins.”