An American family’s musical journey through Cuba
As the iron door into Cuba slowly creaks open, Americans have been eager to learn more about life in this decades-long isolated country. Once a tropical vacation destination for a quarter of a million tourists each year, the country became plagued by political, social, and technological barbed wire for more than five decades. After a 2014 initiative by President Obama, the frozen diplomatic relationship between our countries seems to be thawing.
In 2012, my family was invited to join a group of Americans traveling to Cuba as part of an educational initiative. Each member of the tour was a recognized expert in his or her field who would meet with their Cuban counterparts. These were the earliest days of the new regulations, and our mission was strictly defined by a special permit received from the U.S. Treasury Department. We had a carefully curated itinerary and were accompanied by a guide, meeting with students and faculty of the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA), and then performing at the Havana Cathedral, public schools, and community centers. We shared the suggested gifts of school and medical supplies, marveled at the colorful antique cars, and enjoyed learning a few basic movements of the rumba. Our guide made sure we saw and experienced only the positive side of life in Cuba; the only hint that all was not as it seemed was when we offered students from ISA an extra coaching session on our own time. When they arrived at our hotel, they were promptly surrounded by security and we were informed that we could not meet with them.
When we were invited to return to Cuba for three weeks in January 2016, we agreed without hesitation. We were curious to see what developments had taken place and to experience an uncensored version of the country.
Leaving our comfort zone
This second trip was specifically formulated to get us into the homes and hearts of the Cuban people. The official tour slogan was borrowed from our recent diplomatic tour of the Baltics: "Music: The Best Bridge for All People."
The itinerary featured performances and master classes in concert halls, museums, town squares, schools, libraries, churches, and a synagogue. Our home base would be divided between Cumanayagua (a small town outside of Cienfuegos) and Havana, with day trips to other cities. We would meet with regional representatives of the Ministry of Culture and diplomats from the American Embassy.
Given the complicated history of the United States and Cuba-—and our presenting a mostly classical program—I wondered how effective our outreach would really be. What could we accomplish through music? Would we be welcomed in small-town Cuba? Would we influence anyone's views on America? Or, would we be the ones to change?
Our journey successfully led us out of our comfort zones and onto the back of a converted flatbed truck, which careened through the countryside, taking us from one performance destination to the next. We walked a mile each way for lunch and dinner, shared beds (my sister, my brother, and I), and experienced two weeks of cold showers and occasional power outages. We had no access to cell phone service or internet, effectively cutting us off from our version of reality and fully immersing us into our surroundings.
A real experience
The result of veering from the well-paved path we had previously traveled was the opportunity to experience Cuba in a way that rock stars and politicians might never enjoy. For example, an after-concert celebration consisted of ice cream scooped out of a large plastic bag into plastic cups and consumed with plastic forks. We were asked to perform in the home of a teenage girl with cerebral palsy, serve as special guests at a fashion show in a tiny rural town, and join in the celebration of a young woman's twenty-first birthday party. The party took place at her parents' home, a two-room apartment. Although it was her birthday, we were the guests of honor. She invited us to sit down at the small dining room table, and we were served dinner. When we were finished eating, we retired to the chairs in the living room while she and her family ate. We spent our down time as English tutors for Cubans (both children and adults) eager to learn.
We had a peculiar sense of experiencing what it might have been like to live decades ago, and it wasn't just because of the brilliantly-colored vintage cars, which were sometimes patched up to continue running. Each morning, we saw women mopping their tiled patios. The trucks rumbling down the dusty streets left behind a thick fume of exhaust long after they disappeared from view. As we walked down the main street, we saw makeshift stands selling used kitchenware and pipe fittings. The streets were crowded with people walking, and with the occasional rhythmic clip-clop of horses pulling carts filled with produce. After school, the roads filled with children kicking soccer balls or playing hoop and stick. Parents and grandparents sat in rocking chairs on their front porches watching over the street scene. Groups of older men gathered together at the park in the center of town, huddled around a concrete table with intense looks on their faces as they played dominoes. In the evenings, we saw into the apartments through the screenless, curtainless window shutters or wide-open front doors, and observed families watching shows from one of the handful of available television stations. On weekends, we heard loud Latin pop music playing, and discovered crowds of young people partying in homes turned into private clubs.
We were constantly reminded of how much we have and take for granted. In small towns, bicycles are still considered a luxury, and they often feature a handmade wooden seat attached to the crossbar for an additional passenger. Second-story balconies (and the staircases leading up to them) lacked railings, and the concrete of many apartment buildings was crumbling. Simple things often caught us by surprise, like our difficulty obtaining a rubber band to fasten a foam chin rest for a young violinist We found one in our luggage. As we witnessed everyday items (that we would throw away without hesitation) being cleverly reused and recycled, it seemed that the expression "necessity is the mother of invention" could have originated in Cuba. We gave away what we had brought to give, and when we ran out, we emptied our suitcases to share our personal belongings as well. Anything we gave them, they could and would use.
During our correspondence in the months preceding our visit, we learned that Cuban musicians have numerous professional needs. With the support of friends who attended our pre-trip benefit concert, and companies such as IUStrings, D'Addario, and Légère, we were able to respond effectively. We took instruments and supplies including
- professional quality congas and stands
- more than 150 carbon fiber and natural reeds
- an assortment of sheet music for wind and brass instruments, band, and string ensembles
- an electric guitar and two violins with cases
- several sets of violin, viola, and cello strings
- carbon fiber bows, rosin, and music stands
The Cumanayagua Band performed a special concert in celebration of the supplies they received. Afterwards, the director told us, "We have been rehearsing for two years and never could perform properly because we don't have congas. The only piece written without congas is the Cuban anthem! Now, in your presence, we had our first performances. We are so very happy!"
The best gift of all
The most personal gifts we brought with of us were weightless, shapeless, colorless, and could not be held—music and goodwill.
I was asked to write a short song that we could teach the audience at the beginning of each concert. My simplistic song became more meaningful when entire crowds swayed from side to side, singing "Hola Amigo… Hello My Friends." This opening number opened the door to connecting with our audience, but from there we had to work a little harder.
We had arrived with a program of music that included works by Bach, Chopin, Gershwin, and our original compositions. From the onset of the tour, we encountered a few logistical challenges to sharing our intended program. An hour before our first performance in Cumanayagua, we walked into the outdoor courtyard and were told that the performance would take place there. Benches were set up for the audience and five chairs at the front faced them. But there was no piano. When asked, our host responded that they will have one for the performance the next day. My family scrambled to revise the program, and I was appointed to be the photographer. My father, who is the only non-professional musician in the family, quickly became the star performer. His instruments are harmonica and voice.
The next day, I was presented with a 61-key, pedal-less electric keyboard. After politely explaining that I needed a bigger (and better) instrument, I learned that this was the only available piano in town. Again, we revamped the program. I rearranged the piano parts, and asked my siblings to simulate dynamics by spinning the volume button as I played.
At some point we started to see that our role was not to impress with virtuosity, but to demonstrate understanding and unity with our audience. For one outdoor performance, we added "Yankee Doodle," "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna," and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the program. The audience was thrilled, and we were encouraged to include these in further performances.
A week later, in Havana, I was excited to see a Steinway B for a performance in a church, until I opened up the lid and discovered the little piles of wood granules made by termites. The piano held up for our classical program. At the end of the concert, my father announced "Guantanamera" as the encore. I was mortified—"Guantanamera" in a church? But the congregation erupted in excitement. A man dashed up to us and asked us to wait. He ducked into the sacristy, pulled out a conga, and gestured that he would join us. The entire church participated with singing and dancing. Two nuns marched up to the microphone to share the solos.
Although conditions were some-times challenging, the solidarity we felt with our hosts encouraged us to make the most of every opportunity. They had invested their enthusiasm and energy in presenting us to their communities as ambassadors of goodwill. We noticed that at some performances the American flag was displayed alongside the Cuban flag. And, when the Cumanayagua band opened a public performance in the town square with the American national anthem, we were genuinely moved.
During this international visit, we felt the beginnings of true friendships. Perhaps it was just a single brick in a massive economic, political, and social building project, but we experienced the power of music bridging cultures. We will always cherish this highly personal opportunity to help rebuild the relationship between the United States and Cuba.