DANCING & MOJITOS We were a surprisingly boisterous community brought together by classical music, celebrating with mojitos and dancing. I was surrounded by family: blood family, family by marriage, chosen friends family, colleague family and near strangers turned instant friends family. I could barely contain my urge to dance as the five man Cuban band feet from our table pulsed with polyrhythms and melodies. The vibrant, urgency of the Cuban resilience distilled, like sugar cane into rum, a perfected balance of African, Spanish and European elements electrified every cell in my body. This music was at once ancient and incredibly contemporary in our global society. On most street corners, cafes and almost everywhere music was a daily soundtrack. But this group was especially good.
Earlier in the evening Jose and I performed in the cultural center next to the Cathedral, an ancient monastery repurposed, with a garden courtyard, arches and vast white hallways. We played a program as eclectic as Habana with music by Brazilian composers Gnatali and Bandolim, Lezcano’s own sonata infused with tango and Cuban dance rhythms, Spanish songs by Da Falla, Bach, Villa Lobos and others. What was a unique and possibly exotic set of pieces in the states felt perfectly resonant in Cuba with the mixed culture all around. I had moments of insecurity when I recalled the powerful, rhythmic playing of the cellists at the festival from a rehearsal I had attended the day before. These cellists had been raised with these Afro-Cuban rhythms baked into their everyday life. As a white American, I also wondered what was the line between embracing this music and appropriating something that wasn’t mine. Beneath my fears, however, I know this music was exactly where I belonged and that various threads from my life had been pulled together into a beautiful integration at the concert: the trips as a child to Mexico to visit my grandparents; the African dance in diaspora classes at Oberlin; the Spanish pieces my mom played on guitar while I grew in her belly and through my early years; practicing Bach as a teenager, my sanctuary from the noise of a loud family.
In the restaurant, as if she read my mind, Mayte, Alejandro’s wife, offered her husband as a dance partner as proof that I was welcome in their world. We two cellists hit the floor with the one-two-three syncopated step of Cuban dance. There wasn’t much room between the singer and a long table in the small upper floor of a two story restaurant, but we tore up what floor there was and they reassured me that I was a really quick study. Next I pulled Carina up, the adorably sweet Afro Cuban caretaker of our air bnb, and we did some extra hip shaking to whoops and applause from our table.
Carina was dressed to the nines. After sitting and listening to me practice back at the house for most of an hour, the day after my arrival, she had proudly attended Jose and my concert that night fully decked out with her boyfriend Jasmany, and listened rapt with attention and throwing me reassuring glances from the audience. Five days later when I pressed my cd into her hands, we kissed goodbye on each cheek, tears in our eyes. “I will listen every day”, she said. “It is so peaceful”, said her boyfriend, “it is my first concert”.
VEDADO & OLD HAVANA
Our Casa Particular with a large fenced garden courtyard, tile and canopy covered bench, arbor, tables and a trickling fountain, provided an oasis of air conditioning and warm showers after the tragic comedy of the daily confoundingly beautiful and painful paradoxical experience of the Havana streets.
To say that Havana is gritty is a laughable understatement, yet the profound and colorful vibrancy of humanity also dances and sings on every corner. Having my mom and husband around me, as well as friend and terrific artist Gayle Kabaker, her husband Peter and brother David offered a cultural buffer that was wonderfully soothing amidst wild Havana and helped me take it in within a community setting. I was also pleasantly surprised when my student Charlotte and her partner and partners mom sailed into Cuba to meet up with us! We traveled in our entourage with folks helping with logistics and organization. We shared stories around breakfast from our previous days adventures, and shared a wonderful mutually supportive atmosphere.
Walking down 15th street through our neighborhood, called the Vedado, took an act of courage and care, as we dodged headless chicken carcasses; human sized holes on the sidewalk; garbage; begging, emaciated dogs; wild cats fighting in every alley (these same cats made the most wretched yowling sounds at night and we had to keep our barred windows closed to avoid unintended visitors).
There was a seemingly endless parade of antique cars of every shape and color (pink and turquoise and yellow) belching exhaust with a small taxi sign on their dash boards; horse carriages; a couple wheeling an old couch on a dolly, or a singer machine my grandma might have used; someone selling something starchy and fried. Colorful houses lined the street some pristine and abundant, the next dilapidated with piles of rubble and garbage with architecture here Soviet inspired, next Spanish, with fragrant blossoms in the yard, dog poop at the next. Children laughed and played baseball with a tennis ball, a man, pawning broken guitars, large mural of Castro and Che and other colorful propaganda messages and images covered cement walls, smells of cigars lingered in the damp air and the heart beat of drums pulsed tirelessly. In one of the old Havana squares with a massive, Spanish colonial cathedral towering over cobbled streets, archways and expansive courtyards we sipped our overpriced, bitter
cortaditos, probably made with canned milk, while a man power washed from a balcony in a narrow street while school children squealed in glee trying to get him to spray them from the sky.
Days were filled with desperate attempts to cmmunicate. No cell service for Americans meant plans and back up plans and places to me that reminded me of a bygone era before texting. Internet was a magical and mysterious possibility that required a card, and a hot spot and still somehow didn’t work. Cuban, guttural Spanish spoken at a break neck pace with half the consonants missing often defeated the possibility of my weak skills getting me very far. I learned to use hand signals and very simple sentences.
With Cuban people I noticed an incredible capacity for warmth and community, with an undercurrent of hopelessness and maybe deeper still, a bubbling feeling of desperation. Most folks showed a resilience and perseverance and this sometimes burst into rage. For example, our experience with a cab driver one of the first nights in Havana. We set our rate at $8 CUCs, roughly $10 to go 10 minute across town. The old black car was a gas chamber of fumes, the windows cracked, the door handle fell off in my hand and the two men in the front seemed sketchy at best. When we arrived and gave the $8 CUCs the man said we owed him $10 CUCs. When we disagreed he flew into a rage with all sorts of threats in a thick dialect that I am grateful I didn’t understand. We gave him the remaining two CUCs and rather than feel swindled I felt such sorrow for him. This was the rage of a man who had spent his entire life fighting to survive. For sure, an entire cash and trade economy has developed in Cuba to avoid the government stealing their meager income. We saw people waiting in lines for rationed potatoes, and menus at restaurants constantly changing to adapt to shortages of various food items, and with tourism picking up, some of the best food is diverted to them rather than the Cuban people. I saw first hand example of what colleagues who grew up in soviet occupied Poland or Ukraine had related to me: stories of waiting in line for hours for rare food items or goods.
Another cab driver chain smoked and deftly avoided pot holes while sipping out of a paper bag. I tried to forget that we had neither seat belts or air bags as we hurled down the highway. His blood shot eyes and slumped back told of a rough life. We had agreed on a set price and he drove to the south side of the island. He sat in the shade and watched as everyone played in the gemstone blue waves of the Caribbean. He was afraid of sharks. Later, around a shared meal of plantains, rice, and beans, fruit and fresh fish that we offered to pay half of, he seemed to soften. When we gave him his cash and said goodbye, he kissed me on both cheeks and urged me to return. His tenderness was sincere, and quite unexpected.
A tremendous line up of talent was presented at the concert of students. I could barely believe the skill and musical passion and yet the instruments were some of the poorest quality and worst cared for I have ever seen. I felt sadness and at the same time such joy to see these students over come these odds and play so beautifully. I was grateful for the privilege to be in a position to offer small support. In the over air conditioned university building right near the main square of Old Havana students from all over Cuba showcased their talent, and I, with my offline google translator app and help from Jose, cobbled together a speech in Spanish. The audience of cellists and family of cellists beamed with gratitude and appreciation as I stumbled through my pronunciation and shared these thoughts: “This cello is a token of gratitude for being welcomed here and a symbol that music knows no borders and we are all human. Cuban musicians have a gift to offer the world of music and I am honored to be able to assist in my small way, thank you to the many sponsors who made this possible”.
Three days later I coached the most talented students from the group. At first it was six but they kept coming and pretty soon I had been going for almost three hours and had worked with ten students ranging ages 15-21. It was pure joy! The thirst for outside input and knowledge was palpable and after an electrifying, humorous, fun and intense set of sessions, photos and kisses and celebration followed. Maestra Hartka had hopefully made a positive impact.
The style of cello playing in Cuba reflected the machismo and the tender loyalty of the Cuban spirit. It was gritty, passionate, rhythmically intense, romantic, virtuosic, but could improve on delicacy, nuance, musical pacing and shades of darker colors. I worked with the students to build intensity over a longer line, to explore softer dynamics and not always rush the tempo. With my fellow musicians theirs wasn’t just a poverty financially but one of isolation and frustration with lack of opportunity to be exposed to other musicians, or the global musical conversation.
As someone educated and performing with colleagues in such rich centers as Boston and NY I was aware of a certain privilege and power that I had to carry with care. I had to walk the fine line between acknowledging their talent, but pushing them to grow, supporting them with gifts, but not to the point of being humiliating. I had to consider what conditions I might have attached to my gifts to fellow musicians or what expectations I might set up with these, and work to mitigate any negative effects. I never felt resentment or hatred from any of my a Cuban friends, but instead, a wonderful sense of gratitude and welcoming. Perhaps they sense the possibility of a future as more active members of a global community, and are eager to discover how to get there. My hope is that in the process they hang on to the beautiful spirit of their culture.
I have no idea how my music fell on their ears or what it said about me. Elegance and fluidity were words I heard. Maybe I sounded like royalty. Maybe I sounded washed out, pastel, compared to their vivid playing. While I was technically in the position of maestra, I know that their voices and sounds will impact my playing for years to come.
As I continue to integrate my adventure, my own rainbow of sounds will expand to include the vibrant pinks, reds and fuchsias, the rhythmic intensity of Habana. I have a sense that this is only the beginning of my Cuban adventure. I never brought up politics, but it did find its way into our conversations. Alejandro related to me how he saw American friends weeping after our election. “The people”, he said, “are not the same as their government”.
THANKS I would like to thank so many people, I hope I don’t forget anyone. Jose Lezcano for opening the door to this beautiful world through his music and musical partnership; Alejandro Martinez and wife Mayte for organizing the festival; my husband Wes for his incredible moral and logistical support on the trip; my mom for helping me process my experience, for being a witness to the beauty and tragedy and speaking better Spanish than I when it was crucial; Gayle, Peter and David for enriching the experience with visual reflection and stories; all the amazing student musicians who shared their playing with me; Jasmany, Carina and Iris for the beautiful air bnb experience; the many sponsors who financially supported this adventure with donations large and small; the institute for the musical arts; UNEAC (the Cuban National Union of Writers, Artists, & Composers; Achello; Boston cello Society and Robert Mayes; Johnson String Instrument; anyone else I have neglected to mention
Artwork: Gayle Kabaker http://gkabaker.com/cuba/5039twu1j1sr6g3yi2w9xxfb7ddm8n
Photos: Wesley Fleming and Peter Kitchell