Pedro Luis Ferrer: Cuban cocktail

A leading light of the Sixties protest scene, Pedro Luis Ferrer is still shaking things up with his new album.
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Such has been the international success story of Buena Vista Social Club that most people can't see past these octogenarian superstars when it comes to Cuban music. However, for most of Cuba's population there is a very different musical landscape that includes hip-hop, reggaeton and heavy metal, not to mention contemporary folk troubadours such as Pedro Luis Ferrer, a singer-songwriter who paints surreal snapshots of Cuban life.

The latter has just released Natural, the follow-up to last year's impressive Rustico, which received rave reviews for its playful approach to the Cuban folk sound. Both releases are part of a four-album concept based on music with a rustico flavour - a sound that Ferrer recently described as "music without make-up".

"The intention was to create tradition, using the small-group format," he explains. "It was also a project to bring together all the songs from my personal files, and unite my interests and explorations. Hopefully each record reaffirms the last and expresses something new."

Ferrer was born into a family of poets and musicians in the region now known as Sancti Spiritus. He first came to prominence as part of the Nueva Trova protest movement in the Sixties, which incorporated traditional Cuban music alongside Western pop, rock, jazz and classical. Since then, Ferrer has created his own style, changüisa, which draws its influences from various parts of rural Cuba.

On the new album he mixes traditional and contemporary pop styles, aided by his daughter Lena, a drummer and vocalist/guitarist Lerlys Morales. He calls his group a bunga, which he describes as "an informal jam session without defined structure".

Lyrically, Ferrer is influenced by Cuban poetry, "from the most complex to the most elaborate. My songs address contemporary issues and life, not just dance songs". At their most surreal, they involve marijuana and scantily-clad aliens ("A Ladies Party"), and a mutant moustache hair ("That little hair in my moustache").

The poetic influence is clear on "Que le den con qué" ("Give Her With What?"), which is about a one-armed man with a manipulative wife. "The one-armed man represents the defenceless. People ask, 'Why does he seem so happy with a wife that shits on him?' He hides his pain because what else can he do?"

His favoured instrument is the tres, a guitar-like three double-stringed instrument, which Ferrer describes as "the basis of Cuban music. [It] is derived from the laud, an instrument of Arabic origin that arrived in Cuba from Spain. For me the tres and the Bata drums (brought to Cuba by African slaves) synthesise all the history of our music."

Although his parents were fervent supporters of Castro's revolution, Ferrer isn't afraid to speak his mind on thorny social problems. "In Cuba we live with many contradictions. There is a conflict between the many good intentions to make society better and the impossibility of achieving it. The government and the administration haven't got it right, but I believe that this difficult situation is created by the constant interference of those who call themselves enemies of the Cuban revolution.

"My parents fought against and suffered under the dictatorship of Batista. They saw in the revolution the victory of their dreams. But I also believe that one man doesn't need to govern a country for that many years, because men get older. Even if they were the best man in the world, to govern more than five years can damage any country."

'Natural' is out now on Escondida; Pedro Luis Ferrer tours the UK 19-27 October (