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Danny Rivera: Singer from Another Era

The great Latin American singer celebrates fifty years of singing about love and the world he strives to transform with his voice. We took advantage of Danny’s presence as guest of honor at the recent Panama Jazz Festival to relive a few of the milestones from his long musical journey.

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos Gómez

Danny Rivera is, sadly, one of the last of a dying breed of artists. Born in Puerto Rico in 1945, in the heat of the nationalist fervor of a people dreaming of a free and sovereign state, in a neighborhood where music was everyone’s daily bread. There he realized he wanted to be a musician and, twenty years later, he became a professional singer. He always dreamed of being more than just a crooner and decided to use his voice as an instrument for social change. Today, after recently celebrating his 71st birthday and a career that has spanned fifty years, the great singer/songwriter shares with us stories of the days when artists dreamed of a better world and built it through art.

You’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of your artistic career. How does it feel to have dedicated so many years of your life to music?

It’s been a wonderful rehearsal, a long rehearsal of fifty years, leading up to my being here, being here right now. And the experiences that make up that rehearsal —everything learned during the process, if indeed you learn anything— must be used to serve the present, the moment, to keep evolving as long as God likes. You must realize that this is a continuous learning process.

And in your case, what have you learned?

I’ve learned to learn and to recognize the right time to allow yourself to be led, and that we’re all teachers and we’re all students.

You’ve had such a long career; I’d like to get your views on how the musician’s job has changed in fifty years.

That depends on how you look at it. If you’re referring only to the music’s commercial dimension, it has changed enormously. We used to use imagination only, to look for a story and a language. Now kids need a screen, which also dictates the language. We’d look for it under a tree or on a beach, with a pretty girl. Contact was direct, real. Nowadays there are so many gadgets, which create a new personality for the individual. And this brings about changes in the way a song is composed and its purpose. Before, a song might be written because someone felt a need to bring out that art of sound they had inside, to write a story. Now, you write a song thinking about how, if you write a hit, you might become a millionaire. Business gets mixed up with art and art becomes a hybrid, not so much art as a vehicle for getting rich, whereas it used to be that art was what made humans rich.

So how have you dealt with that, as an artist with an established voice and something to say?

I’ve tried to not let it affect me too much, to not be a chauvinist or believe everything they say. And I try to keep fame in its place, not take myself too seriously. Because one day you’re famous and the next you’re not.

But have you felt obligated to keep up to date and create a new sound?

I have felt obliged to update my principles and see how I can use these modern methods. I come from another sound; suddenly, I realized that I’m living in the 21st century and have to adapt to that new world, the cyber world. And I’ve learned to adjust.

It was amazing to watch you live, singing with such energy and commitment. How do you manage to keep that flame alive after fifty years in the profession and at age 71?

Every day is a new day. When fatigue overwhelms me, I say: “Welcome fatigue,” and I just enjoy it. But I won’t let it drain me, not as long as I’m alive. Because as long as you’re alive, there is time and space to enjoy life, to work on it. But of course, we’re also made of feelings. I try to create my own form of healing. You learn, from books, from the people you meet, that humans have a remarkable ability to regenerate everything, constantly, your state of time and space.

You’re perhaps best known as a crooner. But your voice has always been one of protest, a voice for change. Where did your political commitment come from?

I was born in a country where everything is right there on the surface due to the political problems that come from being a colony. In the neighborhood where I grew up, people talked to me about the patriots, so I became interested from the time I was a child and I wanted to know more. After becoming a professional singer and traveling, I discovered musical currents that expressed the people’s dissatisfaction, and I felt and expressed this through song. And I liked that. I don’t like just singing about love and passionate encounters between men and women, which are wonderful, but there are other feelings to express such as social unrest, injustice… I also liked reading, which helps you to develop and realize that art has other dimensions. But yes, I was always labeled a balladeer. I prefer to say, humbly, that I am a vocal artist, because you can get involved in many musical genres and many forms of singing.

Do you feel that artists have lost their commitment?

Everyone has followed his or her own path, in keeping with this era, which offers individualistic comfort to new artists. The idea of thinking philosophically about the collective through your art is kind of dying out. However, there are artists still doing it in Latin America. There’s a core that is beginning. Very similar to what happened in the 60s and 70s, but with other characteristics. Because kids nowadays have cell phones, which we didn’t have back then. Just a pencil or pen and paper, and whatever we wanted to say. However, kids who are conscious of the collective and want to make their art collectively now have some powerful tools that can be used to distribute the message more directly. We didn’t have those tools.

The need to defend your ideas led you to be imprisoned for expressing your nationalism in Puerto Rico. I’d like to hear about that experience.

That was a moment in Puerto Rico when, as they say, the day had come for us to become a people once again. The day of a collective idea, which led the people to denounce something that was unfair: the island of Vieques had been invaded and occupied over a period of fifty or sixty years and used for war exercises. The people of Vieques were suffering. We spent many years denouncing this until a very unfortunate event occurred —there had already been many, but they never came out into the open because the press never wanted to report them— and a Puerto Rican was killed by a shot fired in one of those military exercises. Puerto Rico took to the streets, all the civil and human rights organizations sought international support, and this led to the formation of what became known as the people’s struggle to liberate Vieques. And this required certain activities that were somewhat risky, which meant practicing peaceful civil disobedience. It meant going out to interrupt the maneuvers. That went on for a long time, for many years. And on one such occasion, one of the many times I went, I was arrested. I wrote a book about it.

Enamorado de la paz… Was it a diary written while you were in jail?

Yes, it was a diary, to keep me writing everything down. It was part of the method I used to cope, because I’d never had that experience. The experience of being a prisoner is terrible. So a friend of mine, a nationalist who was imprisoned for eight years in the United States, said to me: “Danny, start writing as soon as you get there.” I did it as a part of my exercises, because they try all the time to damage your mind, to make you leave there damaged.

Were you afraid?

I was terrified. The good thing was that I was able to overcome my fear by writing and meditating. Fortunately, I’d been practicing meditation for many years and that helped me a lot. And I sang every morning. From the time I left my cell, I’d sing everyone a song. It was part of the joy that had to be dug up wherever you could find it, because being locked up was a very powerful experience.

You were also part of the landmark Peace Without Borders concert that took place in Plaza de la Revolución in Cuba. What was that experience like?

It was unique. That was a moment in the history of the song movement —and in the development of what is happening with regard to Cuba now— where everyone ended up saying: “Gee, this isn’t as bad as I’ve been told. They told me people here ate children alive!” (laughs). And we found ourselves among a disciplined people, a million people welcoming the artists with great affection. Like what happened in Woodstock —life was a joy to live and enjoy. That was a sign that Cuba was beginning to open up to the world, and the world to Cuba, like the Pope said. It was a very important point in the history of Latin America, for me. A milestone. And from then on, look at all the things that have happened. Each episode was part of a process that brought about what Cuba is experiencing now.