Cuban Surprises

Hola, amigos… this is “your man in Cuba,” checking in about how the Minnesota Orchestra tour is going.

Well. I have to say that as I was getting ready to come down here, I spent a fair amount of time planning out what I was going to cover on my blog, and when things would get posted.

As you may have realized, that whole brilliant plan did a massive, sunburned belly-flop into the Straits of Florida. “Surprise!” has become the byword of the trip. Continue reading

The Glory of Cuban Music

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. Continue reading

Havana 1929: The Minnesota Orchestra’s First Historic Tour to Cuba

Cuba week!

This week the Minnesota Orchestra is embarking on a historic musical tour of Cuba— they will be the first performances by a major American orchestra in Cuba since President Obama announced his intentions to normalize relations between the countries. The community is shimmering with excitement.

But this isn’t the first historic tour the orchestra has made to Cuba. In 1929, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (as it was called at the time), made its way to Cuba under the direction of then-Music Director Henri Verbrugghen; it was the first oversees tour the orchestra had ever embarked on. The tour was a smashing success that did wonders to raise both the orchestra’s artistic standards and its reputation. Plus, the wonderful publicity the tour generated was a public relations bonanza for the city of Minneapolis, which had been struggling to present itself as a cosmopolitan metropolis.

In preparation for this week’s departure, I’ve been rummaging through the archives to learn more about this previous tour. It’s fascinating to see that even though nearly a century separates the orchestra’s last tour to Cuba and this one, the two tours share many points of similarly. I’m sure that in reading the goings-on from back then, many musicians, administrators, and supporters will see a bit of themselves reflected back.

Allow me to share that story.

Continue reading

Alejo Carpentier—Cuba’s Unlikely Musical Hero

Cuba is not a particularly large country, but its influence on the world’s music is immense; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a world without the habanera, mambo or salsa. Over the past hundred years, Cuba’s greatest musical heroes have tended to be performers—charismatic musicians like Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval or even Ricky Ricardo, who shot to fame and became pop culture icons.

But perhaps the greatest figure in all of Cuban music isn’t a performer at all—he is musicologist-turned-novelist Alejo Carpentier.

In case he is unfamiliar, allow me to introduce him. Continue reading

A Cuban Reading List

The Minnesota Orchestra’s tour to Cuba is fast approaching, and I couldn’t be more excited. A while back, I had quipped that given the fact that I used to teach Cuban history, I was ruthlessly suppressing an urge to assign everyone a reading list.

I’m surprised by the number of people who approached me and said, in effect, “bring it!”

So before it gets any later, I thought I share a few ideas for those who are going along on the tour, following along at home, or are just curious about our Caribbean neighbor.  I’m happy to do so—Cuba is a fascinating place filled with fascinating people, and there are so many fascinating stories to share. I’ve linked the titles to… not as an endorsement, but only as a reference.

Enjoy! Continue reading

¡Vamos a Cuba!

There is good news, and there is good news.

And then there is fantastic news.

Today the Minnesota Orchestra announced that it was going to perform in Cuba later this spring. The performances will take place on May 15 and 16 as part of the CubaDisco Festival, the country’s biggest music festival. Bravo! Continue reading