There are four musicians in Havana… these musicians are always engaged, an in order to gain preference it is necessary to rise their fee and on top of that, which is already exorbitant, provide mounts for them, give them rations of wine and give each one of them and their families (in excess of what they eat and drink at the function) a plate of what is placed on the table which they take home with them.
—Hernando de la Parra, secretary to the governor of Cuba, 1598
Let me confirm, if you ever doubted it, that Cuba is an intensely musical place. As Señor de la Parra’s 400-year old complaint confirms, local musicians have had an outsized position in Cuban society since way back.
The joyous ubiquity of music is one of my first, and most powerful impression of the place.
Part of it is the relentless presence of natural music that pervades the city. There is the endless crashing of waves against the Malecón… the famous seawall/boardwalk that runs along the north shore of city and serves as its “front porch.” Also, there is the cacophony of sea birds and song birds going about their daily lives.
But the bulk of Cuba’s music is lovingly made by its people. Well… made and shared. The real joy of Cuban music is in performance. There are musicians everywhere, tending to every style of music that I can conceive. And the Cubans have been ridiculously happy to share their music with us. And I mean ridiculously.
Right from our arrival, we were bussed over to a plaza in the old town, where we were met with a group of drummers and stilt-walkers carrying a huge banner welcoming us (and a crowd of bystanders). The rhythms were so joyous, Osmo Vänskä, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and a line of musicians and Orchestra board members joined in the dance. (As an aside… if our trumpeter extraordinaire Manny Laureano can’t get you to dance, I weep for your soul.)
And that was just the kickoff.
Shortly thereafter we gathered for a reception at the historic Hotel Nacional, where we were greeted by an incredible a cappella chorus, Coro Entrevoces. In their musicality and purity of sound they brought to mind the Dale Warland Singers, before they let loose with a series of stunning arrangements of popular Cuban music. It was spectacular—as Osmo remarked later, “Each singer sold that performance.”
As an aside, Coro Entrevoces is scheduled to come to the Twin Cities in early July as the flip-side to this exchange. You need to fit that concert into your schedule.
And so it continued. We had Camerata del Son perform for us at our welcome dinner; they perform popular music styles on classical instruments, including clarinet, violins and drums. They, too, were a hit, and inspired Manny to light up the dance floor with Marilyn again.
Last night we took in the incredible Septeto Habanero, playing in the style of the famous Buena Vista Social Club. They gave us an open-air concert in the plaza directly in front of the cathedral that completely rocked the plaza. Percussionist Fernando Meza joined the band, in dance-athon that lasted long past our appointed departure time… and again brought in bystanders from everywhere. One woman, Yaima, asked what was going on, and I explained who we were and told her about our upcoming concerts at the Teatro Nacional. She said she wanted to come, explaining, “You must be good musicians, you are all so happy!”
Of course, some of the best times we’ve had has been working with music students from the local schools. They are incredible.
More on that soon….