This past September 25, 2013, Havana’s Mella Theater celebrated Luis Carbonell’s 90th birthday and his 75 years devoted to art. The gala included the performances of popular artists, such as Paulo FG, Beatriz Marquez, actor Alden Knight, the Sexteto Habanero and the Cuban Television Ballet.
Luis Carbonell has become an essential figure in Cuban culture. His greatest merit has been to make use of his histrionics to create a new style of reciting–a mixture of Spanish folk
ballads with popular song and a good dose of Cuban picaresque. He worked on radio, television and the theater garnering the admiration of the Cuban people and the world wherever he performed. At the height of 90 years, the “Watercolorist of Antillean Poetry” as he is called, still feels strong enough to continue working and sharing his knowledge and talent with the new generations. Long life to Luis Carbonell!
The first memory I have of Luis Carbonell is his intentionally high-pitched voice reciting: “Oh, Fuló” (Esa negra Fuló, by Brazilian poet Jorge de Lima), and me, a little girl, running over to see him on TV and enjoy his gestures, his wit and the expressiveness wisely contained on his face.
Years later, I learned that he had been a teacher of English, accompanist, artistic director… That Ernesto Lecuona had given him definitive public recognition in New York. That prior to being a success on the Cuban stage, he was a success at Carnegie Hall where he performed on March 11, 1948. That the following year, he was baptized on a radio show with the epithet that has identified him to this day: El Acuarelista de la Poesía Antillana–“The Watercolorist of Antillean Poetry.” I also learned, over time, to understand and enjoy his subtle irony, his gift as storyteller, his extraordinary ability to move from drama to comedy.
Carbonell, a true idol of radio, television and the Cuban stage, toured Spain, the United States and most of Latin America. He performed both in large playhouses and small intimate theaters, in cabarets, museums and countless institutions. His vast culture, perfect diction, precise sense of rhythm, natural grace, distinction and finesse, have allowed him to remain in the preference of several generations of Cubans many years after poem reciting went out of fashion. The Watercolorist has not been a man of fads, nor has he settled himself comfortably in the thundering success of his poems about local customs. He delved deep into Cuban and Latin American poetry and short-story telling, and understood how to “perform” those poems and short stories, which is much more than simply reproducing them.
Besides training numerous singers, he also selected the repertoire for famous vocalists, such as Esther Borja, one of Cuba’s most outstanding lyrical singers, and singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés. He also provided arrangements for many vocal quartets and trios. Many of his students were imbued with his incurable preference for the Baroque, his respect for popular genius, his craving for culture. Nowadays, with so many misused voices, so many banal songs, what we need is many Carbonells.
Luckily, for those who did not know him when he was at the peak of his career, his voice has been recorded in dozens of albums. Yet there are moments in his career that will only remain in the memories of those who experienced them, such as his recital at Casa de las Americas in 1972. In a veritable tour de force, Luis Carbonell played several danzas by Ignacio Cervantes and pieces by Ernesto Lecuona and Bach; he narrated stories about countries around the world; he recited poems and closed the evening with his famous scenes of local customs. Since then, “la negra Fuló” is superimposed in my mind with a Bach fugue, and perhaps, in this unbiased understanding of culture lies the secret of this universal man, who was born in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1923, “only” 90 years ago.