The day Cocoy sang for Fidel Castro

FUNFARE - Ricky Lo (The Philippine Star) - March 15, 2017 - 12:00am

The picture on this page is 43 years old. Perhaps millennials will (vaguely?) recognize the handsome guy in bright yellow shirt and, of course, the late Cuba President Fidel Castro with his bushy beard and mustache, who died at 90 last year.

There’s a little story how Funfare got hold of this vintage photo.

During a working visit to L.A. early this year (to interview The Space Between Us stars Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson), I managed to squeeze out a few hours from the busy schedule for a lunch treat by old friend Omen Ortiz (who works at a high-end store in Beverly Hills) and Tim Evans (of the US Custom and Immigration) at the Amici Italian restaurant in Americana in Glendale (the equivalent of Beverly Hills’ The Groove, built by the same person).

While we were shooting the breeze, Omen (one of the top models in the ’70s) casually showed Tim and me his prized collection of photos in his celfone, one of them Cocoy’s photo in Cuba. In a kind of “guess who” game, Omen challenged Tim and me to identify those in the photo. Sorry, but we lost since we could identify only Cocoy and, of course, Fidel Castro.

Finally last week, I was able to get Cocoy on the phone and ask him what the story is behind that collectors’ item.

“I think that was taken in 1974,” recalled Cocoy. “The First Lady, Mrs. Imelda Marcos, asked me to join the Bayanihan and The Madrigal Singers in a goodwill visit to Cuba. We performed in a show for Fidel Castro who was about 43 years old at the time.”

Cocoy said that he sang Spanish songs which must have sounded like beautiful music to the ears of Castro who spoke only Spanish.

“Initially,” noted Cocoy, “Castro was quiet. I was very nervous and I didn’t know what to expect. He started smiling as soon as I started singing those Spanish songs, so I felt more relaxed.”

The event turned into some kind of a “competition” when Castro asked his own cultural group to also perform.

“And then, we were made to sort of compete with each other, our group against the Cuban group. Parang sagutan at pasikatan. It was fun; everybody was in high spirit. Ang saya-saya.”
During the last banquet, Cocoy remembered Castro speaking very gently (in Spanish siempre!).

“If I remember right,” Cocoy looked back, “I think he was talking about being agreeable to a sugar deal. He was very amiable already and very warm with us.”

No wonder Cocoy felt a certain sadness when he learned from a TV newscast that Fidel Castro had died.

“I looked back to 43 years ago when we visited Cuba,” said Cocoy. “It was a very nice, very friendly meeting of two cultures. Our group showed Cubans our culture and they showed us their own culture.”

The visit lasted for three hectic days.

“It was a working visit, so we didn’t really have much free time to go around the city on our own. But we were able to get a glimpse of the city riding a bus that looked like our buses plying the metropolis. We visited factories but not much of the mansions that I had read so much about. Our schedule was really very tight.”

A pity that Cocoy’s group didn’t get a chance to check out Ernest Hemingway’s café in Havana and vicariously experience how the Great Hemingway must have felt seated on his favorite chair and surveying the surroundings that have since become been associated with him, making those places iconic.

Asked when, if ever, he planned to visit Cuba again, Cocoy said that he didn’t know.

“But I hope to go there one of these days,” he said.

Meanwhile, not so busy with concerts and recordings, Cocoy is preoccupied with fund-raising shows for the benefit of several projects including building a church. The last time he appeared in public was at the recent PeopleAsia magazine’s People of the Year awards night to escort his wheelchair-bound mom, Celia Diaz-Laurel, who was one of the 10 awardees. 

(E-mail reactions at entphilstar@yahoo.com. You may also send your questions to askrickylo@gmail.com. For more updates, photos and videos visit www.philstar.com/funfare or follow me on www.twitter/therealrickylo.)

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