The retired 78-year old guitarmaker Orlando Pirez says he repairs all kinds of "sick" stringed instruments in a cluttered workshop located in his apartment on the narrow Calle Acosta, near Old Havana's train station. After gaining fame in the 1970s and 1980s--due to his national tours and his weekly appearances on Cuban television as second voice, guitar accompanist and leader of the band called Los Montunos--the Matanzas native no longer performs música campesina (or Cuban rural music) professionally, but works hard to get by, as most other Cubans, scrapping for the basics needed for his craft. Most days he can be found in his front-room shop, strewn with homemade tools and guitars in various stages of repair and disrepair, whose general state is the same as that of his apartment: solid and full of character but much in need of reconditioning and renovation. It's a description that captures most of today's Havana.
On a work table situated in the middle of the room, one finds a double bass, devoid of strings, sanded down, ready for a finish. With two different pairs of glasses strung around his neck (to combat glaucoma and a cataract surgery gone bad), Orlando is wearing a frayed sailor's hat, T-shirt, baggy shorts and running shoes. He orbits the shop, taking an occasional glance from the small open-balcony down Calle Acosta, where three boys are shooting marbles on this hot afternoon, a few doors down from a noisy game of dominoes. Across a short alley, strung with drying laundry, someone is singing along with the radio, but one can still hear the domino blocks being banged and the players shouting over the music.
With the same resourcefulness and ingenuity that many Cubans have relied upon to keep their U.S.-made 1940s and '50s automobiles maintained and running, Orlando has continued to play an important role in Havana's music scene following his retirement in 1987, not just with repair work, but notably, with a table contraption to make guitar strings whose creation was necessitated by what he describes as the 1990's "Russian recession," following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unable to buy metal strings anywhere, he cobbled together the machine, using a small appliance motor and coils of copper wire, and now sells them daily to other Havana musicians who buzz his door from the street. To a younger Cuban generation that listens to "reggaetón," Orlando may be old news; but to the guitarists of countless groups...