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"I studied psychology to deal with drunks," says Barrios. We are in between sets, sitting in a sparsely lit side room, decorated with vintage framed Cuban beer-and-rum advertisements. The singer claims to be only a couple of semesters shy of her master's degree in the discipline.
It has helped her keep her sense of humor or, at the very least, her composure, in trying situations. She recalls, for example, an incident in San Juan in which an overly saturated patron accidentally spilled his drink on her sequencer, canceling the remainder of the show. Barrios took it in stride, but has since cut down on the chances of a replay by eschewing canned accompaniment. On another occasion she was interrupted by a dispute between the island's first family. "In the middle of a number," she recounts, "I look up and see a woman leading an elderly man out of the club by his ear." She was later told the couple was Gov. Muñoz Marin and his wife. Barrios's response? "I asked what political party he belonged to, because if I ever voted, it would have to be for them."
Barrios refers to such episodes -- unexpected reversals of status, fortune, or love -- as the "vicissitudes of the piano bar." The trick, she says, is to get to know your audience -- to impart the illusion of intimacy, the illusion that you share in their misery, their elation, their troubles, and their triumphs. "Singing in a piano bar," she observes, with a tone of hard-won expertise, "cannot be a mechanical exercise. You have to sing like you mean it. You have to climb into people's lives. Your listeners ask you for a song, and you instantly know what's going on in their lives or what they're looking for."
And, she adds, listeners could be looking for almost anything. "A piano-bar musician is like a Victrola," she says, using the old catchall Cuban expression for record players and jukeboxes. "You put a nickel in, and a song comes out." And if she doesn't know the words, or remembers the words but has forgotten the tune? "I tell people: “Come back next week and I'll sing it for you.' And I will."
But sitting here at the National, sipping one last mojito and listening to Barrios sing her final set, I'm not thinking of requests. No, I'm thinking of all the ladies who nurse fellas who nurse drinks and heartaches in small clubs and hotel bars around the world. Of all the gin joints, I hope they keep walking into mine.