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Jazz, Klezmer and son cubano? The performance of 'Hatuey: Memory of Fire'

Spanish Instructor Quiqui Lang Hilgartner in the World Languages and Cultures Department tries her hand at versifying opera.

By Quiqui Lang Hilgartner

What do Jazz, Klezmer, and son cubano have in common? This is the question I was asking myself when composer Frank London asked me to translate the songs and lyrics of "Hatuey: Memory of Fire," an opera co-written by librettist Elise Thoron. The work was originally a poem written in Yiddish by Oscar Pinis. Most recently, Ulises Aquino from Ópera de la Calle suggested that the opera be translated into Spanish for the March 3-5 performances on the streets of Havana.

The opera tells the story of Oscar, a Ukrainian Jew who moved to Cuba to escape the Nazis. While in Havana, he falls in love with a beautiful singer named Kasika who tells him the story of a Taíno chief, Hatuey, who was murdered by Spanish conquistadors. The story of Chief Hatuey’s murder has become famous become symbolic of resistance against injustice. As Oscar learns about the plight of the native Taínos, the narrative interweaves scenes from Hatuey’s life during the Spanish conquest and Oscar’s love story with Kasika.

While versifying the work to London’s phenomenal score, I tried my best to maintain the linguistic traits that came from both Yiddish and Spanish, while also paying homage to the Taíno influences. You will have to use your imagination … or wait for the next performance to hear these lyrics sung, but as you can see there are words of Yiddish, Taíno, and Spanish origin.

¡Ay, blancos! ¿Qué buscan?

¡Ay, vejsen! ¿Qué buscan?

Aquí hay cassava ¡Ay no!

No es qué querían.

Aquí hay guayaba ¡Ay no!

No es lo que buscan. 

¡Oh ney! ¡Ay no! Oh ney! ¡Ay no!

“Vejsen” is the transliteration of the Yiddish word that refers to the “hite” conquistadors. I combined the Spanish exclamation, “ay” with the Yiddish to show the hybridity of the two languages. The linguistic origin of the words, “cassava” is Taíno. Throughout the opera, the code-switching of languages is held together by London’s operatic jazzy-klezmery-cubano fusion. 

"Hatuey: Memory of Fire" is a melting pot of diverse cultures and linguistic traits — just like Cuba itself. One little known aspect of Cuban culture is the Jewish influence. The events of this past weekend’s performance also included a series of tours by Ruth Behar, who discussed the melding of Jewish and Cuban cultures in the region. Behar, born of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic heritage, is a well-known author and anthropologist who finds inspiration for her many novels and publications from her home country. Here is a link to an article about Behar's journey self-discoverey in terms of her Cuban Jewish identity. 

Perhaps now the U.S. embargo against Cuba has been lifted, we will see a resurgence in scholarship about Cuba, include Jewish Cuban history. For now, if you aren’t hopping a plane to Havana, you can read about the country’s transformation online. To start, here are two articles about the opera: "Hatuey: Memory of Fire" from Tablet, the New York Times, and Cuban Debate. To see the list of all contributors, check out the press release here



Judith K. Lang Hilgartner,
3/10/2017 9:15 AM