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Described as “a true pioneer” (Classic FM Magazine), award-winning Cuban guitarist, Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas, is one of today’s finest performers of the Cuban classical guitar school. Ten years ago he came to London from Havana to study at the Royal College of Music, and has made his home here ever since. Leila Segal met him, to talk music, Cuba—and navigating two cultures.
LS: It’s great to have this opportunity to see London through the eyes of a Cuban artist—can you start by telling us how easy or otherwise it’s been to make the transition to life in the UK?
AD: The most difficult element has been for me to express myself, because I have a huge vocabulary in Spanish—and I can be very eloquent when I express myself in Spanish but when I first arrived I couldn’t communicate with people the way I wanted to. I knew there were things missing when they were talking to me and I knew that there was a big desert. I really like to tap into people’s minds and see what can I learn, what can they learn from me—that’s what interaction is about. I hate small talk, so when I wanted to speak to people about anything, I felt I didn’t have the words.
How does your musical life here compare with that of Havana?
Here, it’s overwhelming because I feel that the opportunities are way more than what I could achieve in a lifetime—the people I meet, projects I can set up, the opportunity to travel further. I’ve played and taught all over Europe, and just launched my new album, The Bridge, in Spain. It’s incredible—you begin to see how big the world is. You also learn that there is space for everybody, creatively speaking.
You didn’t feel that when you lived in Cuba?
Not really, because it is a small island—it’s as big as Britain but the society is created in a very narrow-minded way. There are no spaces for grey colours. Here, there are spaces for everybody—you just need to realize what makes you different from the rest of the crowd and amplify it.
What makes you different?
My repertoire. I had a classical education, and that’s one part of who I am, but at the same time I am from Cuba, where you have salsa, rumba… everything else on the street. You don’t really have that here—it’s very difficult for people to navigate different cultures as fast, whereas for me, it’s in my blood. With my music, I can approach different styles and I just feel them, like different languages.
Different languages, but you move very freely between them.
Exactly. It’s just switching.
You have said that you are an ambassador for Cuban music in the world. Could you tell us more about that?
In my concerts I try to combine classical and Cuban composers. Although the guitar is a Spanish instrument, because it’s been also developing in the Americas in the last 100 years, it has taken on many other musical styles—pre-Columbus, African elements of the slaves, the Spanish and European traditions. In Europe, the guitar went into pop and jazz but in terms of specific traditions, country by country, it hasn’t experienced the same evolution as it has done in the Americas.
Will this diversity be reflected in your new album, The Bridge?
Yes. The music is written by Eduardo Martin, one of my teachers in Cuba—he is about mixing everything that falls into his lap, from classical, jazz, pop, rock, South American rhythms, Afro-Cuban rhythms, everything. His music is so vibrant, so alive. You feel that yes, it comes from somewhere, but it also lives in the present and moves forward.
How do you think you’ve changed during your time in London?
I have become more independent: I have become a man. But I’ve had to do it according to British standards. I didn’t pay rent in Cuba, I didn’t have to think about how to pay all my outgoings at the end of the month—everything was heavily subsidized by the state. I didn’t have to go out and find work: the company I worked with in Cuba would just give me my allocated performances for the month. I knew when I was going to play, and got paid no matter what.
When you get here, you say: Yes, I’m living in a capitalist country but let’s see how this pans out. Yes, there are things that need to be changed in this society but there are things that work really well. It’s the same in any other county in the world because they are societies run by humans. So we will always have elements in which we have to evolve.
Most of my friends at the Royal College of Music thought that I came from a rich family because a musical education is so expensive here, but in Cuba you receive your entire musical training free. At the same time, I had to leave Cuba because after I finished my studies there wasn’t much more I could do. So Cuba has its limitations. Britain also has its limitations—not everybody has access to the education that I had.
Yes, there are many obstacles here—not only money, but also believing that you’re entitled to it.
Exactly. I think the difference is that sometimes this society wants to put you in your place really early on: the way you speak, the accent you have, the school you went to, everything. People always try to see where you come from, which box they are going to put you in. In Cuba we’ve got other problems, but it’s not like that. I had to learn to navigate the different landscape… in both places.
How do you feel when you go back to Cuba?
I love Cuba, but because I usually go for two or three weeks, my hopes are still here—my plans for the future are still here. It’s not that I feel like a tourist when I go there, but that reality doesn’t belong to me any more. Every time I go to Cuba I have a project back here, or I go to further something I’m doing here—collaborating with Eduardo, for example. And even if I have the ideas, over there, I feel that it’s going to take a long time for me to put them into practice, because people in Cuba are not ready to do things fast, like you can here.
On the other hand, Cuba has an energy that’s missing here.
Yes, big time. It’s really edgy. But the reality of life in Cuba is that you have to look for food, for transport—basic things that don’t allow you to look beyond, and that’s the sad thing. People in Cuba have an enormous energy and will power, and sometimes I feel like they really can’t do much with it. Because… they have to live.
The Bridge is available at www.cubafilin.com