Noel Nicola, music attached to the soul

Noel Nicola, music attached to the soul
Fecha de publicación: 
6 December 2022
Imagen principal: 

Beyond his passing away, Noel Nicola’s work is always remembered. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Nueva Trova Movement, of which he was one of the founding fathers, we revisit this interview.

Noel Nicola sang to secret loves, to those filled with guilt and pardons and even those dealing with a definitive goodbye. Words flourished with his guitar, to then become songs. He also addressed other subjects: society and the homeland. His spiritual world was marked by a turbulent period, time of definitions, actually. The truth is that his poetry transcended time.

He cited the greatest: José Martí, Cesar Vallejo, and sometimes, other poets such as Drumond de Andrade or Paul Eluard. Colloquialism is present in his work, which flirts with antipoetry. Musically, the classical repertoire of the guitar that he learned from his father, Professor Isaac Nicola. Noel equally performed traditional song, milonga and other Latin American genres, rock and reggae.

He studied theoretically at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, headed by Argeliers León, of whom he was a disciple.

An interview with this unforgettable singer-songwriter allowed me to delve into aspects of Nueva Trova (NT) and the Nueva Trova Movement that he led for seven years.

Is there any date that can be given as the birth date of the NT?

-I do not believe that there is a date, but a series of events gave rise to the emergence of NT. First, there is the disputed version that the song Mis 22 años, by Pablo (Milanés), is the one that gives rise to Nueva Trova. Said like this, it is not accurate, and I am telling you this because I remember that this is a misrepresentation of an opinion uttered by the musicologist Urfé, or of something that I myself said in an interview. What I said was that elements of what NT would be are present in that song. It is an antecedent, but it alone did not influence other colleagues to take that creative path. It cannot be said, based on it, that the NT already existed. In 1966-67, some young people with certain concerns gathered and got to know each other.

And what brought you together?

-Of course, the social reality of the moment, still of acute class struggle, of great definitions: years 1969 and 1970...External elements, in addition to the song itself. We felt “different” from what was going on in the song universe and we therefore identified with each other. This almost necessarily leads to cohesion. Identity in artistic, formal approaches to the goal of art. We were a group of young revolutionaries who chose the song as a way of working, of having an impact on society. That’s cohesion by itself!

Do you think that the Movement has definable stages?

-Well, a stage while we weren't organized, until December 1972. Then, there would be "microstages," perhaps... but I think that's not the case. The stages of the NT should be better analyzed from the artistic approach, in the blossoming artists who emerge with new projections, new nuances. A difference is noticeable between the first troubadours and musical groups of the NT and those that emerged a few years later. There are no difference regarding the essence, but in nuances, not that big, nonetheless…, and today, I believe that a new breed is coming. That is, another stage is coming upon us.

The singer-songwriter refers to the background of the MNT, its origins...

- (…) Well, let us see where we started. We better start by delving into the origins of the Cuban troubadour song, the Spanish romance, the first things of the time of Céspedes and Fornaris, and see how that time was linked to the first sounds from the eastern hills, until trova emerged as such, at least those who began to be called troubadours: Pepe Sánchez, Sindo, in Santiago de Cuba.


The golden age of that trova, later the so-called “trova del son.” Guyún's harmonic work and the influence of jazz that gives rise to "filin" and if we then go through Marta Valdés and Teresita Fernández, well you already have the whole core thread of the story that gave birth to our movement. In general terms, of course, ignoring all of the other things that had an influence on that story and ourselves.

He added:

-Broadly speaking, the characteristics of trova have always been similar. The guitar has always been there as an accompanying instrument or as the musical instrument from which trova is composed. The poetic intention, or the poetry itself in the text. I say intention because you cannot ask the lyrics of songs to be poems (although there are cases) but the intention that the final result looks like that, a bit elusive that can be called poetry, even if the text by itself, with no music, cannot be said to be a poem. There has always been poetry in trova, from this point of view; what can't be seen only from the literary angle, from the formal approach of the poems as such, because I don't think they have ever tried to replace or supplant poetry as a literary genre.

I start from the fact that trova, from its beginnings, features those characteristics. We have always said that the Cuban trova has had three defining moments so far, qualitatively different from each other, from the trova that we today call traditional, later the “filin” and afterwards, what we have called Nueva Trova. Some may have believed that when we say this we are unaware of an evolutionary concatenation between one moment and another. This is not the case. The truth is that in order to analyze or describe a story, the milestones are always taken, the relevant and easily distinguishable moments from each other that, therefore, represent the moments of leaps to new qualities. Between one and the others there was always an evolutionary continuity until there was a break with the above.

For example, from the traditional trova to the filin, it was paramount the work of Guyún, a deep connoisseur of guitar harmonization who improved what was done in the traditional trova; and between the stage of “filin” and Nueva Trova we need to highlight the works of Marta Valdés, and Teresita Fernández, the latter more detached from filin, and the works of Cesar Portillo de la Luz, who somehow transcended that stage. This is, more or less, what I believe is the common thread that link us to artists like Pepe Sánchez, Sindo Garay, Corona, Rosendo Ruíz, Villalón and many others. What cannot be denied are the real artistic and aesthetic differences between each of these moments, which characterizes them. It could never be said that "trova is only one" to deny the real, distinguishable existence of those moments, and thus the very existence of the NT. Something that happened a few years ago and luckily sank into oblivion. That was a mistake only comparable to say that NT was new and materialized out of nothing, without antecedents, with no past…

Tell me about the guitar, the different formats, the filin…

- When composing, major composers used the guitar most of the time. I think that this somehow influences the conception of the work, the instrument, because when it comes to interpreting, it is something else. Since the traditional trova, many diverse instrumental formats have been used to interpretatively highlight the songs, there have been no limits... Look, even at that stage, which Odilio Urfé has defined as the "trova del son," there are sonero groups with their different formats, and since the stage of the traditional trova the quartet, the trio, the estudiantina already existed... But what do I know! I believe that the problem of how the song is orchestrated is another issue, and the filin”, well, it reached the big orchestra and we have used various orchestral formats to work on our stuff... In other words, the important thing is that we always find a person with his guitar trying to write poetry... isn't that filin?

Noel Nicola canta a César Vallejo —a poet he always revered— is among the most important works of the singer-songwriter. It is about nineteen poems performed at different rhythms.

Son Oscuro —one of Nicola’s greatest hits—, as well as Comienzo el día, De cierto modo, Ámame como soy, Laura milonga y lejanía, Se fue a bolina, Elvia que te suene verde, Por la vida juntos, Con las letras, la luz, Esa mujer es un dolor, Santiago desde lejos, Cuatro cosas bien, Cueca con tu nombre escondido, Detrás de una guitarra are his most outstanding songs among over 300 musical works. He boasted other hits, which reflect his personal aesthetics: Para una imaginaria María del Carmen, and Es más, te perdono, masterfully performed by Miriam Ramos.

The singer-songwriter passed away in Havana, July 7, 2005. In his tribute, the double album 37 canciones de Noel Nicola was released, featuring Cuban and foreign performers.

Translated by Sergio A. Paneque Díaz / CubaSí Translation Staff

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.