About Refugees, By Refugees
Miguel Ángel Estrella
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“Before I left my country, my dream was, well, very close to the Peronism in that work for all, education for all, and culture for all,” says Miguel Ángel Estrella (83), a celebrated pianist who was kidnapped and tortured in Uruguay after fleeing Argentina to escape political persecution. Told he’d have his hands cut off and then be killed, he says “prayer provided company and certainty,” through the terror of losing his life and livelihood. Petitioned to provide him with a piano, his captors gave Miguel a mock keyboard. Even though there was no music, it became “a way to remain alive and curious.” Once free, he went to France as a refugee. Now a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, he dreams that leaders “are aware that every human being has a sensitivity, an analytical power,” and that “leading a political approach requires respect for the other.” Instead of “primitive individualism” he dreams of “communities of men and women who think about doing what is needed for everyone’s happiness.”
Hello Miguel Ángel, can you introduce yourself?
Yes. My name is Miguel Ángel Estrella, I was born in the north of Argentina in a city called Tucumán, to a mother who came from a…, no, not a shanty town but a small hamlet, in a province near to Tucumán. The small hamlet is called Vinerà, v-i-n-e-r-à. The population is of Quechuan origin. So this is where my mother was born to my grandmother who was a very important person in my life. She was a religious woman, unsuitably married to someone who gave her 15 children, no less than that. And my mother was very interested in social things in this little Quechuan hamlet. And in our family, there were what we call “curanderos”. They’re not doctors, but they’re people who use persuasive language to remedy sickness. They are very common in Latin America, the “curanderos”. Their name comes from ‘curar’ which means “to heal”. So my grandmother, when I was five years old, I loved singing and dancing folk dances. So my grandmother told me, “My grandson, he has something “shepherd” about him” and for me being a “shepherd” meant taking care of the goats. So I say, “Yes, grandmother, but that’s not what I like most. “No, no, I know that what you love the most is to dance and sing and when I see you climb up a tree, right up to the top, you sing with fervor, with love.” I said, “Yes”. “So my little one, I know you’ll be a musician.” How, in a small Quechua hamlet, could a grandmother know that her grandson would be a musician? But she understood that. And so, she made us pray an entire rosary, every day. That was quite a lot, you know, ’cause that’s at least 45 minutes of prayer. But, before she told me that she knew I’d be a musician, she said, “When I say “shepherd,” I’m not talking about the one who keeps goats. No. A shepherd is someone who has the ability to guide a community.” I say, “So that’s called a “shepherd”, grandma?” “No, it’s called “sacerdote” [priest].” And I didn’t know what a “priest” was, because in the small hamlet there were no churches, it was a very isolated place. And I said, “But what do they do, what does the priest do?” So she tells me about confession, mass. But I tell her, “no I won’t be that.” Because before, I had asked her if sacerdotes danced and if they sang. And she said, “No, no, they’re very serious people.” So I said, “Well, I won’t be that, grandma.” But she dreamed of having a grandson who was a parish priest, but it wasn’t my thing. I am a believer and I pray every day, but the life of a priest doesn’t interest me at all. In Latin America, there is a phenomenon called the “enforced disappearance of people”. And in Argentina, and in Argentina alone, there are 30,000 people missing. And if it had not been for the fact that I was known internationally as a pianist and for a family of Jewish origin, who were French and crazy about music. So I was the student of Nadia Boulanger, who is the lady, who was a well-known music teacher. And I arrived in her home without announcing myself, giving no warning whatsoever and the man who handled the house security – she lived in Place Clichy – he was a bull of a man, huge, and… What was his name…? An Italian name… Giuseppe, Giuseppe. So when I ring the bell, it’s Giuseppe who opens the door and he says, “Miss Boulanger is not receiving any visitors.” I say, “No, why are you telling me that? Did you ask her? You don’t even know who I am.” Well, to cut it short, I went straight to the piano, started playing Bach, and Giuseppe wanted to kill me, and… “It’s forbidden, sir! You can’t just play the piano like that!” Then Nadia said to him, “Silence, Giuseppe, please, leave us. Leave me with this young pianist.” Well, so when I finished the Bach score and she took my hands, she said, “You play like Lipatti,” who was the pianist I loved most in the world. He was a Romanian pianist. “There is Lipatti, in everything, in your sound, in the phrasing, in… Here, this is now your home. You come whenever you want, even without warning. But I will always be with you.” Well, it was… At that time, the musical pride of France was not yet Messiaen. The great composers, they were also present, of course, but Nadia’s name had a striking effect, worldwide. She was well-known, this woman who taught music in a very, very subtle way. So at the time, I was with my wife, the mother of my children, Marta, who was a singer. She had a mezzo voice, and she was the greatest love of my life. I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved that woman. But sadly, she left this world too young because of a vile cancer. So Nadia, who took care of my wife’s health, Marta’s health, called Villejuif everyday where there was a cancer care centre. And every day, she asked for news from the doctors who took care of Marta. She was like a mother to us, Nadia Boulanger.
In what year did you meet Nadia Boulanger?
It was in the early 1960s, the mid-60s, around 63-64. We just arrived in this house in fact, but there were no rooms for couples, so we had to rent a small apartment for cheap here in the neighborhood. But we came to work here, in the basements.
Of the Maison de l’Argentine [student residence]?
That’s it. And so, as I had come thanks to a national award provided by an official organisation – that was quite important – called “Fond National des Arts”. And so, I had a good scholarship and I could afford to stay here in the residence, but not with my wife because there was no… There was only enough room for three couples and all three rooms were occupied. So the director at the time told me, “Well, you’ll have the basement here to do whatever you want – work, practice, etc. But we don’t have any place for you to sleep. There are no more rooms for couples, besides you also have a child.” So, during my first Parisian period, I lived in this house which was the rehearsal space, we worked very different repertoires with my wife who had a beautiful mezzo voice, which my daughter inherited. She’s a singer too. And here she found an Italian teacher, a singing teacher who worked with the great male and female singers at the Paris Opera. So Marta was mezzo, mezzo-soprano. But quite unexpectedly, this Italian added almost ten notes from the most high-pitched range, so I was, there… At that time, when he said to me, “Your wife, she has a mezzo timbre that is absolutely captivating. But with the almost ten new sounds I have found in her voice, I wonder if she is not a dramatic soprano. She can sing anything with that beautiful voice, etc.” Anyways. Sadly, Marta’s life was not long, in her thirties. And so all these projects of a singer-pianist couple disappeared. Disappeared. For me, that was the most unbearable suffering of my life. I’ve never again experienced something as frustrating as losing the love of my life. Because after, of course, there were other women, obviously, but I never again loved in that way. It was a love like no other.
And then you went back to Argentina?
Yes, that’s right. Because well, Marta didn’t want to die here. She knew she was terminally ill. So, we came home, we had these two little children. And the lecture she gave me before passing away was to take my hands saying, “You are not a man made to live alone. And when you must choose, think about the children.” Well, since I’ve been with a lot of women, obviously, but I never wanted to live with them, everyday. I had gotten used to having a family of three: Javier, my eldest son, Paula and me. There was no room for a mistress in the house. No. No, I was… Actually there was a sister-in-law who occupied a large place. She’s the only woman that I would have remarried. But she was my sister-in-law. And she had a very jealous husband who understood quite clearly my powers of seduction, etc. So… But she was a woman who spent a lot of time with me, and who was, well my daughter called her “maman” [mom]. Javier, no. He said when very little, five years old, “Maman, there is only one: irreplaceable.” Well, so where do you want me to take this?
Yes, actually, the events in Argentina. What happened next? Why did you have to leave your country?
Yes. So, I told you about that director who ran the interrogations. His name was Gavazzo, g-a-v-a-z(twice)-o. And he was a bit of a fool. So I realized that my kidnapping, which was in front of my children – I had rented a small, simple house and it was where I held a class for young Uruguayan pianists, a class on musical analysis and interpretation that was, that I liked very much. And I practiced myself also on the piano. So the neighbors were extraordinarily nice, because they were delighted to have a pianist like me in the neighborhood. Anyway, we were pretty happy. But one fine day, one of my friends in the neighborhood said to me, “There’s something strange going on. There are guys asking about you and you should know about it. We don’t know who they are but I think they are detectives and they ask a lot of questions about you: if you hold meetings at the house where you live, if there are parties there from time to time, and what are we celebrating.” Because all this happened in Uruguay, it wasn’t in Argentina, but if you cross the river, on the other side, is Argentina. So, there was an alert in my neighborhood, so they were not surprised the day they forcibly entered the house I rented, in front of my children who were screaming, “Don’t touch my papa!” The guys were much stronger. So I kissed my children, I told them, “Papa will come back! Don’t worry. Now, you need to go to a couple’s” who were friends, very good friends of mine, “and they will take you back to Argentina and you will come to see me later, here in Uruguay. I’m going to be locked up in prison.” But they were five and seven years old. Those poor kids assimilated, they assimilated it well, but it could have been a tragedy, a disaster for the family. So, thank God, my sister-in-law who adored them like her own children, and her husband who wasn’t jealous of me. But I was very careful, that’s the truth because I was very attracted to my sister-in-law, her skin, she resembled my wife. The eyes, the gaze… But I thought, “No, that’s no.” So, some time later, “pschitt”, they remove me from the house and I am thrown into places of interrogation. I heard often, voices of girls crying out, “Basta, basta! [Enough, enough!] This is the sixth time!” Because they were being fucked by all the torturers and… So, quite unexpectedly, there was a woman who would take care of me in a very particular way. We were naked – the “disappeared” – we were kept naked. It was summer, so it was okay and we had our hands chained behind our backs and the feet, too, chained. So this woman, I heard this woman’s voice during the torture, I would hear her voice. And she opens just slightly the balaclava, lifts the blindfold, and starts caressing my hands, saying, “Look what they did to your hands which were so beautiful a few days ago.” So I told her, “But it was you?” “Yes, me too, but the more brutal I am, the better they pay me. But I felt bad hurting your hands, I don’t know why, but that’s how it is. I’m telling you honestly.” Well, that was significant. That woman who I’d never seen, but I had the hope that after my release, as I did many interviews and spoke a lot about the events with this women torturer who caressed my hands saying, “Look at what they did with your hands, which were so beautiful a few days ago”. It was… The hands completely swollen with the volume of electricity they ran under the nails. So Colonel Gabazzo, who ran this miserable place, after six days he said to me, “We have been beating you for six days without rest and you have not given me any name, place or situation X related to a political plan. Never. So we’ll have to kill you. And we’re going to do to you what we did in Chile with Victor Jara” (who was a guitarist). “We’ll cut off your hands and then we’ll kill you.” So I began praying this comrade, I said, “My father, no. No. My hands no, my hands are my life.” He said to me – actually, it’s not that he spoke to me, but I heard a voice inside me saying, “I’m not your brother. No. I’m not your father, I’m your brother!'” And even today, when I pray to him, I joke with him, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, etc. Even if one day, you whispered to me that you were my brother and not my father.” I don’t know if that makes him smile, but I tell that joke, because actually I feel like he’s a brother, a brother-father (laughs).
Did religion help you a lot?
A lot, a lot. Because when I was told that they would do to me what they did to Victor Jara, who was a very good guitarist and singer, they tortured and killed him. And no-one talks about Victor Jara anymore,and, “We’re gonna do the same thing to you and soon, no-one will talk about you anymore. You will no longer exist.” So I screamed, not… Because if I had started screaming what I felt really in my balls they would have killed me, I think. And the thought of my children was so strong, you know, my responsibilities as a father in a family with no mother. So I said to him, “My father, not my hands, if they are able to cut my hands off, I will not be able to live. My hands are my life. They are my life, my Father, my life.” And I think he saved me from that because three days later I was freed. Because there was here, in France, a remarkable man, who was a Frenchman of Jewish origin, Yves Haguenauer (it starts with an H). And Yves was crazy about music. He didn’t have any special gifts for music, and how did I know him? Because his son Jean-Louis Haguenauer, who was at the time 17 years old, loved how I played and also my warm, Latin temperament. And this young man also trained with Nadia Boulanger and he practiced piano with me. So Yves, his father, had been detained by the Germans beacuse he was Jewish and was subjected to torture, and all the treatment the Nazis did to their detainees. So, Yves, I don’t know how, in this concentration camp, managed to set up a small orchestra. Because, well, the detainees had families who helped them, who sent a guitar, a cello, a flute. And so he has this imaginary, which was the imaginary of a sensitive man, but he was the big head of a company. He had a brilliant financial situation. In the suburbs of Paris he had a factory, I can’t remember of what anymore, but it was a business that provided him with enormous opportunities. For example, he had built a house in Neuilly, in a very elegant neighborhood, and in this house he installed a floor upstairs for me, completely independent, with two grand pianos. So he could afford to do all this. And because he had obviously contacted Nadia Boulanger about his son, but also about me, and Nadia had told him, “This is today’s Lipatti, Miguel Angel”. And so, Yves, what a man! Because he made sure I had a piano in prison. So he had, one way or another, got in contact with the Queen of England. Because there was another of my students, Christopher Beckett, who was English, from London. And his wife belonged to the high society and she could easily get into the realm of the Queen. And so, the Queen knew Nadia Boulanger and also knew Yehudi Menuhin. I don’t know if you know the name.
Yes, I am familiar with it.
Yehudi Menuhin was my idol when I was seven years old and I went to his concert in my hometown and saw this man playing in such a pervasive way. It was as if the violins were talking. Well, so he called Nadia, he said, “I want to hear Miguel Ángel [play], so tell him I can host him here, no problem, he’ll have a piano. So ask if he wants to stay with us for three days. I’d like to get to know him.” And so, it happened. When Yves addresses the Queen of England, saying, “Miguel is in prison, he can’t play the piano,” well the Queen acted immediately. She phoned Uruguay, to say, “I am aware that, tell me if I can get him a grand piano, is there room in the prison?” They answered, “Absolutely impossible.” “And what about the cells?” She was told, “The cell was a rectangle, nothing to add really, there’s no room for a piano.” So she contacted people in Uruguay – the Queen – to make me a “silent keyboard” in Uruguay. And I still have that, it’s been with me ever since. Wherever I go, I travel with a keyboard because it’s a type of gymnastics, very demanding. In fact I invented these intense finger exercises. So I feel like I progress all the time and that nothing is impossible for my fingers. So that, I owe it to the Queen of England. If she had known my socialist, Peronist-type thinking, she would have given up on me. But the fact that Nadia said, “This is today’s Lipatti, this “Michelangelo”.” When I walked into her house, she would say “Michelangelo Strella! It sounds so good!” (a woman speaks in Spanish)
What year was that, the prison in Uruguay?
And I was released in ’80. Beginning of 80.
So for three years, you were in prison?
Almost three years.
You talked about religion and the silent piano too. Is that what really helped you to survive this ordeal?
No, no. Of course prayer provided company and certainty too. I felt that when I said, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”, and he said, “I’m your brother” – it’s not that I heard that voice, but I heard it inside me. But I understood that this was the message he sent me, that he was not my father but that he was my brother. So much closer to me. And I think he… When the electric shock was passed through my nails, I screamed my prayer. And I felt I wasn’t alone. I never felt alone in prison. And yet, there was physical suffering because when someone shocks you with electricity, well, it made my hands swell a lot, I had, it was like two mmm…
And the music?
No, I was saying, my hands, when I first saw them, when the blindfold was taken off, it was like two balloons. And the girl who – I told you she had been caressing my hands while telling me, etc. – made me realize I was in a sadistic prison where there were psychologists. I think I mentioned at some point in our conversation, there was a psychologist who was quite intrigued by the fact that I didn’t declare my political convictions. And what did I use? Well I used music and prayer. So I began to imagine, concerto in F minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and what were the violins doing, what were the cellos doing, each and every instrument? So it was an intense training, it was like speaking in four languages. And it showed that I had worked my repertoire well. It was Nadia, for example – she had an unparalleled ear – so when I played a concerto, “What does the flute do there? There, when you play that phrase, what does the flute do? Sing me the flute.” Ah! So we had to train like crazy. It was not just learning two lines for the piano, it was an entire page, for each instrument. And so she taught us how to sing very different voices to what we were playing. You had to take the orchestral score and know that when you were singing, there was a flute accompanying you, or a cello accompanying you. Well, that was huge, opening up to discover how the oeuvre was constructed. Well, that’s something tremendous because Nadia was very shaken by the fact that my wife had cancer and might die. And what will I become with two children? Without this extraordinary love we experienced? And my piano, where was I going to end up? So she thought of all this, and she wrote often to Marta, and also to me, very moving things, saying, “My dear Marta, I’m imagining your arrival in Buenos Aires, seeing your little Javier and Paula again. Kiss them tenderly for me, I hope to meet them someday”. It was something familial – united through the beauty of music and the complexity of musical construction, which is what makes a composer. So Nadia pushed us to become composers too and taught us technique and everything else, but I’ve never been tempted, for example I love piano, it’s the most cherished and comforting way I have to express myself – music, it’s like love for me. Bueno. So do you have another question?
Of course. So Nadia Boulanger and her exercises remained with you in prison? When you were in prison, did you think about them a lot? And you continued to practice, you said?
Of course. Musical practice meant revisiting scores that I did not have in prison, like Beethoven’s sixth sonata, or Beethoven’s 32nd sonata or Chopin. And it was a way to remain alive and curious. And also to see if my memory remained accurate. It required concentration on all levels. And from that point of view, it did not diminish my interpretative ability, because I imagined the sounds and Nadia’s teaching who, in a phrase by Mozart would say, “Because you have a flute, how would you play the phrase with the flute?” So this was pure gold. So when you played a Bach fugue, you had to sing the tenor, the alto and the soprano at the same time as you played the different four-part, but singing giving a particular intensity to the second voice. And there, you discovered the counterpoint and everything that is part of the organization used by the composer to produce a compact result, with vast musical depth and perfect construction too. I had the chance to learn composition with a Russian who had been disciple of a great Russian composer, but who had settled in Argentina. He was my professor for harmony, counterpoint, fugue. And there was another man, also Jewish, there behind [in the photograph], who was Austrian, who had worked with Arnold Schönberg. So it was sort of powerful, all this training in Argentina, that was a country chosen by remarkable people who thought, one day, in the middle of the war in Europe, to leave for a country like Argentina, knowing that there had been a cultural revolution in that country. And that, at the time, there was an individual like Perón, for example, who was hated by aristocracies and the cruel followers of monetarism, but was respected by many, many intellectuals and philosophers, people who were introduced to Perón’s truth. One day, when I was here in Paris, in close connection with this woman, Danielle Mitterrand, and also her husband. And they had organized, once I was freed, a party at the Élysée, because both he and his wife participated in the whole movement for my release. The slogan was “Free the pianist. Free the pianist. Free the pianist.” And, so François Mitterrand invited the greatest pianists to the Élysée, to introduce me to them and it is… I don’t know… Such an intense life, this freedom we have to live.
Tell me coincidentally – sorry.
So, Miguel Ángel, how were you released and how did you experience your arrival in France?
So well, Yves Haguenauer was following everything. You know what he did when he found out I was kidnapped? He knew my ideas and he didn’t understand why I was a Peronist, but that’s how it is. In France, they had a totally wrong idea of Peronism. But he’s the pianist and he said to me, “When I first heard you play Beethoven at the Fontainebleau Festival organized by Nadia, who presented your concert, I thought, I never heard the piano being played like that.” It was an orchestra. Well, anyway. And Nadia, when she saw Yves Haguenauer’s fever for my Beethoven sonatas, she said to him, “Miguel Ángel doesn’t have a car. It’s too late, so drive him home, he lives in the City of Arts.” Facing the Seine, in front of Notre-Dame, I don’t know if you know the place?
And so, I had a studio in the Cité des Arts. And Yves, and his wife, Martine, took me back to the Cité and from there, in the small castle they had in Neuilly, they built a floor for me with a grand piano, a kitchen, everything, but at their home. And that’s where I learned that during the prison… Well, all that was before prison. They had connections – my wife no longer existed – with my sister-in-law. They had built a telephone friendship. And Nadia Boulanger once told me, “After the concert in Fontainebleau, I will organise a dinner and I will invite people who don’t have your political ideas, who are not Christians either, they are Jews, very intelligent people and who love music.” It’s a constant need for music. But he is an impresario and – a detail to show who Yves Haguenauer was – when he learned that I had been abducted in Uruguay, he said to his wife, “Listen, my life will be to free Miguel. So I brought my brothers together and told them, “These are the keys to the factory – it was a painting factory – manage the factory, I must free Miguel.” Doing the impossible, that is huge in a man’s life! So for Yves, I have an almost religious thought, that is, because he was a big brother to me and a father too, for everything, all that he has spread and up to the end, telling the Queen of England, “Miguel needs to move his fingers”. And the Queen, you know... Uruguay was invented by the English. And because the English Empire needed a land between two South American giants, Brazil and Argentina, and let it be an independent English land. And well, the crazy things of the… But speaking of that, I have to say two words about Mitterrand who was a man who fascinated me. So here, in this house there was at the time Julio Cortázar. Julio Cortázar – I don’t know if you have read him – a huge Argentine writer and this Argentine man, Julio Cortázar, was often invited by leaders like, well, socialist leaders especially. He was pretty close to the PC [the communiste party] as well at the time. And there was a moment when I experienced something powerful. I was in Argentina and Danielle Mitterrand called me to say, “Look, I see you’re in Argentina, but you have to take the first plane and come to France.” I said, “Why? A concert?” “No. Mitterrand is going to make his first trip to South America and he wants to be accompanied by you.” Because at the time, the fact of my prison, being a pianist and well, all that publicity around me, had laid for me a… I don’t know, a very interesting universe for me. So it was Mitterrand’s first trip to South America. And so Danielle said to me, “Take the first plane to Paris because we board in Paris and on the presidential plane, etc. Well, you’ll be one of the travelers.” We arrived in Uruguay, and the Uruguayan Embassy is hosting a reception to welcome the president guests. So one of the people I was speaking with at one point was the French ambassador to Uruguay, who asks me several questions about my, the fact that I was in prison, the torture, all that which was very well known here in France. And then this ambassador who tells me, “But why were you in jail?” “Because I’m a Peronist.” “No! A guy like you, Peronist, I can’t believe it!” Mitterrand, who was two meters away talking to other people, but he heard that, so he comes quickly and tells him, “Sir, you are my ambassador here in Uruguay, you know who Perón was?” “Yes, yes, a dictator.” “No. Would you say of Charles de Gaulle that he was a dictator? No. Neither was Perón. He changed Argentinian society to suit the poorest. It was the guarantee that the poorest could have dignified wages and a home and a normal life. That’s Peronism, but you didn’t understand it. So, Miguel, I congratulate you. I always knew you were a Peronist and I was not surprised at all.” For that, he’s a leader.
Okay. And so, if I understood correctly, after prison in Uruguay, you went back to Argentina? And then you went to France?
No, no, when I was released, I came to France first.
That was first, okay.
Yes. And, well all the political analyses of the time when, for two years, I had never read newspapers or nothing at all, and they considered that I take a place in France and even acquire the French nationality – so dual citizenship – which I did. My children did not want this and today, they regret it a lot, because at the time when Mitterrand had told me, “You can perfectly well be French, so for you and your children, we are available to give you a French nationality.” So, I took the step, but my children, who were small, they were seven and nine years old when I was released, they said no, they felt very Argentinian. Well, I was telling them, “Me too, I’m the most Argentine of all, too, and yet I also feel French.” It’s richer, well, it’s… But I understood my children, and I didn’t do anything to deter them, no. Because at the same time, I loved this argentinity in my children, which is an essential factor in the personality of a human being, feeling patriotic of a land. So yeah.
And what did you feel when you were released? When you got out of jail?
Well, the emotion was fierce. To be completely honest with you, you know, the prison was two huge blocks and the two blocks had windows on the camp – on the field – where we played football, where we practiced running. So the moment of my release was immediately known by my comrades. But it was unexpected. I knew that one day, the day of my release would come, but not so fast. So, in the morning, I was in my cell with a Trotskyist who was my cellmate and he often said to me, “When I was told one day that I would be in the same cell with a Christian and Peronist at once, I would have said ‘never, never.” He confessed that to me, he said, “I’m a Trotskyist, what can I tell you.” But you saw that there are psychologists, here in prison, who check on all of us, all of the 2.000 inmates, and who worry about how a Christian Peronist can get along well with a Trotskyist or with another political, communist, socialist idea. So for me, prison, I’ve never been with a Christian, only with a Peronist. It was unthinkable in Uruguay. And well, it’s a totally anti-Peronist country that considers Peronism as the most despicable populism. But… Let’s go back to the situation of the French Embassy in Uruguay, where the Ambassador said to me, “I can’t believe it, you, a Peronist? It’s not possible!” And Mitterrand, who comes quickly, “Do you know who Perón was?” he asks his ambassador to Uruguay. “Yes, of course, a dictator.” “No, a dictator can’t be someone who built a society where the poorest have had access to education, culture, and work, with good wages and with a woman accompanying this man, Evita.” Well, he gave a… I almost kissed him, Mitterrand, because he said everything I felt, in the same way, with conviction and a… Because Mitterrand was often a seducer, a great seducer, but a guy who intellectually went very far, very far. So, I identified myself a lot with him and Danielle who… They were separated but they saw each other often and in a very… Well, as two activists would, you know, and Danielle was the feminine side of his government. So he wanted, he knew a lot about my story, so he wanted to go to that little place where I had spent my early childhood, where my mother came from, and it was fantastic. And I remember almost everything because I was his translator. So he asked the peasants of this place and said, “Why are you so attentive to the great lords of the region?” “Well, because they give us work.” “Yes, they pay you badly because you do not earn what corresponds to your work because you work like animals and they don’t pay you that. And so, I advise you – take it or leave it – I am moved to be there, in an Argentinian almost shanty town, to see your faces, your eyes, your way of walking and looking at others, and I have to tell you that I am very interested. So I’d like to have a dialogue.”
No, if you want, we do the interview another day. Well, it’s true that I have to go to the pharmacy tirelessly because I’m missing some medicine.
Okay. Maybe just to go a little faster on the question. Here, as a refugee in France, how did you experience your life as a refugee? Did you think a lot about Argentina, were you sad to leave your country?
No. France gave me a lot, a lot. But my love for Argentina is unconditional. So I miss Argentina. But thank God, I found here that you can watch a remarkable TV show that shows Argentinian and Latin American news in full. It’s an approach managed by philosophers, scientists, politicians, great men and women politicians and workers’ organizations. So I can feel, uh, what Argentina is experiencing today and what the people are looking for and I am… How can I put this? I really like the figure Cristina Kirchner who is a woman, when she appeared on the political scene, we, the men, were absolutely in love with this woman, so sensual, ah… ! (laughs) And but one day, the one who is today the president, who was a colleague of Kirchner (Cristina’s husband) and who rang at my house in Buenos Aires, in a middle class neighborhood. So he said to me, “You don’t know me, I come for Néstor Kirchner who absolutely wants to see you.” That was before Kirchner was elected. So I said, “Yes, I’m interested in the character, and I like his wife” (laughs). While joking, obviously, I say that, and he says to me, “I’m with a car, I’m bringing you.” All right, fine, he brings me. And so I find Kirchner, who was not yet president, who then says to me, “Well, it’s a huge pleasure.” And I say to him, “I have two hours, if you want, two hours.” So we can talk about this and that in this interview which was rich because I saw myself in front of a man who knew exactly what he wanted to do in Argentina. And he was an essential Peronist. During our discussion which lasted two hours, no less, Cristina calls, so Nestor says to her, “You know who I am with, Miguel, etc.” “Oh, pass him to me!” So she says to me, “You have to do something for Nestor to be president.” I say, “Absolutely, absolutely”. “What can you do?” “Whatever you want.” So she says to me, “A concert at the Colón Theater.” I say, “All right, let’s do it.” I say, I added, “But priority will be given to residents of shanty towns from around Buenos Aires, who do not know the Colón Theatre.” Very good. All right, anyway. And that’s where hmm, well, two weeks later or three weeks later, he had been elected, Kirschner. And Cristina said, “Come south and we’re going to celebrate Nestor’s election.” Okay, great. And when I arrived, there was a car waiting for me, etc., at the station, at the airport because they lived in the south of the country. Rio Gallegos. And, then there was a car waiting for me and takes me to Cristina’s house, and when I enter the house, Cristina says, “I present you the ambassador of Nestor to Paris.” I say, “Listen, you’re going fast!” (laughs) Well, that’s how I preferred… Actually, I’ve been an ambassador of will since I was released. In the year 80, Unesco appointed me its first Goodwill Ambassador which was something interesting. I don’t know if you knew the director of UNESCO at the time when, a Spaniard…
I can find the name.
Federico Mayor, who was a pretty exceptional man. When I met him… To take the task of Ambassador of Argentina, he told me: “Always remember, that when you were already in prison, we appointed you Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO.” And I was able to do some amazing things, you know. So I told Federico Mayor, “Palestine, this is something I have in my blood, and I have to do something.” He said to me: “Ambassador of will is the following thing: UNESCO pays for a trip – where do you want to go? – and a four-day stay, not in a big five-star hotel, no, normal. And in five days, you have to present a project”. So, on what I did and the project was to say, “We’re going to create an orchestra with the three religions of this region where I am now.” And then it was unanimously voted at UNESCO. It’s called ‘the Peace Orchestra’. Two years later, an orchestra of the same genre was created by [Daniel] Barenboim. And, but in the orchestra I dreamed of, there had to be a strong integration between these musicians. So there was a violinist who was beautiful and a woman as sweet as candy (laughs), desirable to 84, 100%. Like, everyone wanted her. She was Jewish, yeah a Moroccan got her, black, Muslim (laughs). And to me, it was beautiful. Witnessing about a year later the birth of a child, a beautiful little girl like her mother, but she was brunette (laughs). And I mean, that’s the Peace Orchestra, these people who come from different religions, etc., who are primarily human beings. Love is for every human being. So there, uh, it’s hard to handle, isn’t it? Because here, we are not capitalists, so our values are in this child born of a mixed couple. And, but we must completely rebuild society, which I think in the depths of myself, right? When I see all the difficulties faced by the richest, most organized countries, etc., and yet, who are not accompanied by a population who is happy. Maybe it’s an impossible ambition – I don’t think so – but throughout this journey, I had very strong meetings with Arafat who helped me tremendously. So I gathered him, Arafat, with Christian bishops, with people who thought very differently, and there was cohesion in these three religions. That is, when you thoroughly analyze a situation, you come to love. Unless you’re a being that has been wrongly built (laughs), but I think that the Good Lord made us right, so the choices are necessary. And in the same way that Danielle Mitterrand could talk to peasants who had perhaps two years of school and they felt, these peasants, that this woman came to help them. They read it in Danielle’s eyes. And well, I believe in all this, I also believe in the unexpected because when you start discovering life, you realize that this grandmother who said to me, “I know you’ll be a musician”, she knew what she was talking about (laughs), but it wasn’t obvious at all. Bueno.
Right. Thank you very much. And could you, Miguel Ángel for the project we always ask at the end a question about dreams, because the project is called “1000 Dreams”, and people are asked what were your dreams were before having to leave your country and what are your dreams today? Or what is your dream, if there is only one? And if you could answer with the quote, saying, “Before leaving my country, my dream was to…” So that’s it, please.
Bueno. Before I left my country, my dream was, well very close to the Peronism in that work for all, education for all, and culture for all. Because we forget that we human beings are made by many things where education has a huge place, sport has a huge place. Enjoying seeing a beautiful movie has a huge place, listening to beautiful music occupies a place, too. So when all these elements, desires, hmm things that have become… (Thinks). No, what I mean is that we said peasants, it isn’t at all made for listening to Mozart. I say, no, that’s not true! How do you know, if you have never tried that they listen to Mozart. And in my socio-artistico-activist experience, I have seen such huge things! For example, I had a friend who was a filmmaker, Gerardo Vallejo, we had attended the same high school that was the university college in Tucumán, created by Peronism. It was an idea that Perón had in Germany. A way to shape teenagers. So my greatest teachers in life, I had them in this college. And in the same college, this young filmmaker, Gerardo, very talented. So we were volunteers of the greatest hmm, the biggest union in Tucumán, my hometown. Tucumán is the land of sugar, so there are the factories of the sugar industry. So, these unions offer us consistent wages for us to be kind of cultural actors. So Gerardo and I, we answered the same thing: “Glad you thought we can do this, but we do it without pay, nothing at all. It’s just for the pleasure of working with the largest workers’ organization in our land, Tucumán.” That was so normal because borth Gerardo and I knew, I had concerts, he with his films, he managed to sell them in Spain or Colombia. We were managing well, so we didn’t need to receive wages from a workers’ organization, it wasn’t, it didn’t sit well with with us. Sadly hmm, Gerardo left this world too fast. I miss him a lot because he was a very good friend. So one day, we arrive in a small hamlet in the south of Tucumán and both felt that there was a sadness among the public waiting for us.
We saw a sadness, we didn’t know where it came from. Then Gerardo says to me, “Play some Bach.” And I start playing a wonderful tune by Johann Sebastian Bach. People begin to make the sign of the cross. So, there was no applause, but comments: “How beautiful, damn it! How could you write that?” I said, “No, it’s not me. It was a guy named Johann Sebastian Bach and who was one of yours, a worker.” And then they said, “You know, someone died yesterday, here, someone we loved very much, and the best offering was what you played.” And a year later, that same guy, said, “It’s been a year, since you were here. Come back, we miss you.” It’s beautiful, you know. So I came, and they say to me, and the same man said to me, “You told us that Johann Sebastian Bach was one of us and we found that too. I went to a bookstore and said, ‘I want a book on Johann Sebastian Bach’, and I read it. And he was a worker, Johann Sebastian Bach, he was a worker and his job was to create the piece for the next Sunday. So music is a universal language, but we’ve surrounded it, classical music, with such a barrier, like what ‘ah, to listen to Mozart, you have to know’, know what? People feel what is happening in music, so when the music is sad, when the music is joyful, when the music is funeral, they feel it in their skin. Well, it was impossible to make this pass while I was a Peronist youth activist at the age of 15. But afterwards, there was all my European experience and trips to countries very different from each other. And in essence, we are all the same. In essence, we are the same. So, it’s not because you were born in a castle that you’ll have more… Sensitivity, than a peasant who was born in something, in great poverty… Bueno.
And, can you just tell me in a short enough way for the end, what is your dream today? Saying, “Today, my dream is to…”
Today, my dream is that the men and women who have the task of leading a country or region of the planet are aware that every human being has a sensitivity, an analytical power, and that those people who want to lead a region, know that they can’t just do anything, because leading a political approach requires respect for the other, and not to settle for this primitive individualism that ‘I’m the boss’. No. Not the boss. Communities of men and women who think about doing what is needed for everyone’s happiness.
Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Miguel Ángel.
And yes so, Miguel Ángel, just to finish up, today you’re the director of… Well, what’s your profession?
I am the director of the Maison de l’Argentine of the Cité universitaire, which is a house that has a history. And it was my first accommodation, the first time I came to France, I lived in this house. And I was with my wife, and with a child already. And we had a studio in the basement, and that’s where we worked. And Marta and I were doing concerts, and she was working with a fabulous Italian singing master, Mr. Penchini, who discovered in my wife’s voice a huge register.
Okay. But that, you’ve already told it, so that’s great, thank you. And how old are you?
We were 30.
And now, today?
Okay, great. And you live in the Maison de l’Argentine?
Alright, thank you.
Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.