“The fact that I’m here isn’t because things are already changing,” said Cuban singer/songwriter Carlos Varela through an interpreter at the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival’s premiere of The Poet of Havana—Director Ron Chapman’s doc about the musician. “I’m here because for many, many years, there’s a lot of people have been pushing for me to be here and for you all to be there. It’s incredible that we have been working on this documentary for two and a half years and we never ever imagined what would be happening this week.” Varela was referring to the reparation of relations between the U.S. and Cuba (announced last year on December 17) and the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba last week. U.S. diplomat Conrad Tribble was in the front row at the screening (held at the Grammy Museum). Film participants Benicio del Toro and Jackson Browne also popped by to chat with everyone, and Verela and Browne performed in the Grammy museum’s intimate theatre after the film’s premiere.
“He’s an important voice from Cuba,” del Toro told me before the lights went down. “I’ve known him for awhile. He comes from a long line of musicians, folk/Latin American who write their lyrics and their lyrics tell stories.” Browne recalled the disappointment he felt when, at his induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the seats he held for Varela at his table went empty due to the singer’s visa being denied.
After the film Varela kept it light. “On December 17, when the news came, out I received 200 phone calls,” he said. “Half of them were international calls. I was asleep. And one guy says, ‘Hey, turn on the T.V.’ I saw the President of my country speaking about relations starting today. I went to another channel and I see the President of the United States saying the exact same thing as the president of my country. I rubbed my eyes and said, I have to stop drinking.’”