By Bill Hirschman
Music “from the old country” has always been a source of joy and sadness, comfort and pride for a dozen displaced nationalities and ethnicities forced into exile, at worst, or a seeking a new beginning, at best, be they Italian, Irish, Jewish, Cuban, whatever.
Yet rarely has the immigrants’ connection to their past and future been so fully realized in a passionate embrace as in this world premiere of Papá Cuatro at Miami New Drama. It is, by turns, alternately rousing, soulful, humorous, thrilling; but it is always a moving celebration of Venezuelan music refracted through the prism of the backstories of five world-class musicians now living here and abroad.
It is far, far more than simply a concert executed by a quintet of phenomenal multi-talented musicians. They share with the audience their real-life stories of leaving a homeland due to extreme political strife, crushing poverty, collapsing economics or the need to create a new life. The musical performances are infused into the stories, not the other way around.
The focal point is the cuatro, a four-string guitar used throughout the country’s economic and social classes, primarily in folk music, but whose “voice” has been expanded to accommodate more modern genres. That ubiquitousness makes it a touchstone for generations trying to simultaneously assimilate in a new country yet keep their Venezuelan identity vibrantly at the core of the new life.
“The cuatro isn’t the kind of immigrant that wants to transform the places it visits into the places it left behind,” songstress Mariaca Semprun tell us. “He listens before he speaks, absorbs the sounds of each place he’s in, and when he feels at peace, he sings and sings as though he was born there.
While the evening is certain to land solidly with a Venezuelan-American audience (and reportedly they have been attending the show in force), the tales will resonate with anyone allowing themselves to be open to the parallels.
The stories are told totally in Spanish with English supertitles, but truthfully, the underlying passion and array of emotions is clearly communicated by the emotional sound of each musician telling their story, and, of course, the ability of pure music to connect even when you don’t know the words.
Indeed, this critic is a Jewish Anglo from New York and my Spanish is limited to very few words that sound similar to the 13 years of French I was taught. But that is an indirect blessing. The undeciphered lyrics delivered in the Spanish language sound even more like music than if the words were actually attached. The music transcends any words.
The notes can be seductive, festive and six or seven diverse adjectives. But even in the most upbeat numbers in which some audience members are encouraged to join in, even then there is a subterranean vein of yearning for a time and place that no longer exists in part because as Thomas Wolfe warned, you can’t go home again.
Stories about the hardships and horrors in Venezuela are nothing new. But Papa Cuatro challenges our tuning out the overload by presenting us with corporeal human beings where previously the horrors were just words on page 7A.
The production was conceived and directed by Juan Souki who you have to assume took his cast’s stories and adapted their dialogue. Souki also did the same for Miami New Drama’s 2019 Viva La Parranda, another Venezuelan-based mix of storytelling about the country, music and in that case, food. This is a far stronger work in all facets.
The performers’ stories cover a wide range. For instance, Semprun is a celebrated songstress-actress and political activist who thought she would never leave her country, even after armed kidnappers trapped her and her mother in their own home, after another actress and her husband died trying to protect their child from gun-wielding bandits. Finally, while performing in Miami, an anonymous airline worker warned her that the political police would pose a danger if she returned home.
“We’ve never gone back. The computer was left on at our apartment in Caracas…. There are few things from Venezuela that I have with me. But one that I always have is the cuatro. I use it to compose, as a guide when I’m learning songs, and to kill those immense urges that I sometimes get to be in Caracas….I am an artist in exile.”
It also reflects the challenges of the immigrant’s life. Percussionist Adolfo Herrera famed in his country tells of trying to find a job when he first comes to Miami. A friend tells him of a construction job, which actually tuns out to be cleaning up debris. But when he arrives at the apartment complex near the Venetian Causeway, he must cope with the embarrassment of “taking out the trash” in front of a Venezuelan radio host who had interviewed the famed musician back home.
“I didn’t know I was a drop in the ocean, I thought I was the ocean because I played in the Poliedro of Caracas. And over here, nobody is waiting for you or your talent,” he says.
The production pushes even further the vision of Miami New Drama’s artistic director and native Venezuelan Michel Hausmann to produce work that speaks directly to Miami-Dade’s ultra-diverse community.
Each of the internationally-honored quintet can play multiple instruments. All play the cuatro in the penultimate number. But their virtuosity on their primary instruments is breath-taking. They are not coaxing music out of instruments, but telling stories through the instruments.
The music pours out over the audience with sparkling rain-like notes from Eduardo Betancourt’s harp. There’s the blinding assault of Miguel Siso’s cuatro with a unique take on “Besame Mucho” in which his impossible flurry of his right hand honestly turns into a blur as it attacks the body of a guitar whose upper third appears to have been worn down to the original wood. Herrera who elicits subtly different sounds from maracas that you’ve likely never heard before.
Maria Fernanda, with the stage name Mafer Bandola, takes a cousin of the cuatro (providing her a new last name) and turns it from an ancient country instrument often used for traditional music and molds it into fare for a new wave band in New York City. Semprun seemingly glows as she issues forth a gorgeous array of vocal soothing or pulsing pyrotechnics. She transfixes the audience sharing her unbridled glee or soulful dives.
The production values equal any major theater production from the set made to resemble a recording studio designed by Frank J. Oliva, illuminated with flexible lighting by Ernesto Pinto, simple costumes by Angelina Esposito, scores and scores of projections and videos by Fernando Mendoza showing the musicians in earlier parts of their lives and portraits of their mentors. At one point, Bandola performs a number in front of film of her playing it at age 17 in a local festival.
Special credit must go to Javier Casas for some of the finest pristine acoustic and sound design this region has heard.
Note: The program also is totally in Spanish but a QR code attached translates it all.
Papá Cuatro from Miami New Drama, playing through July 31 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Shows 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays. Running time 2 hours, no intermission. Tickets $51.50-$71.50. Visit miaminewdrama.org or https://www.colonymb.org or call (305) 674-1040.
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