For the last five days of our tour, we made history. Our arrival at José Martí International Airport marked the first time the Stanford Symphony Orchestra had ever toured in Cuba, and one of the few times any Stanford-affiliated group has visited.
Here are some great memories from my time in Cuba:
Performing with Ballet Lizst Alfonso and the Chamber Orchestra of Havana in Teatro Nacional
The culmination of our trip in Havana was a huge collaboration with two Cuban artistic groups, all coming together for a performance of old European classics (Elgar and Beethoven), as well as new and exciting artists (Stanford’s Mark Applebaum and Cuba’s own Gavlian). Lizst Alfonso herself choreographed the dance to Guaguancó, whose composer (Gavlian) is Chamber Orchestra of Havana Conductor Diana’s father-in-law: small world! You can watch a rehearsal of the performance we recorded below:
Wandering Old Havana
We spent a lot of time in Old Havana, which sits at the fault line of several contrasts: historical sites next to new hipster-ish private restaurants, beautifully-colored buildings obscuring crumbling architecture, a city untouched by time, but with gift shops on every corner. From eating at the paladare Rum Rum to admiring the chocolate factory, looking at the drinks from La Bodeguita del Medio that were made famous by Hemingway (they claim to have invented the mojito), and checking out the mix of colonial and revolutionary statues adorning every street, there was a lot to explore. The one thing that hampered more enthusiastic exploration, however, was the combination of hot weather and humidity – Cuba is quite tropical, which meant that the heat was quite oppressive.
Speaking of oppression, it was very interesting to observe Havana with the lens of a United States citizen. The residents of Cuba seemed happy, but all the smiles did seem clouded by a veneer of totalitarianism from the Castro government. Although everyone gets a ration card in Cuba to buy sugar, flour, cooking oil, a certain number of eggs per person, and daily bread, there were more than a few beggars on the streets, and the market that our guides took us to so that we could see daily life for the average Cuban was quite dingy and unkempt. Even the local grocery store demonstrated an odd dichotomy of some empty selves, other shelves dedicated towards stocking a single brand of hot sauce, and a huge Samsung Gear VR demonstration right next to these signs of food scarcity.
As for U.S./Cuba tensions, one guide’s response perhaps best sums up the thoughts that many Cubans mentioned to me: “that fight is between our government and your government. We have no ill will against Americans, especially since many of us have family there.” Many Cubans certainly seem to authentically be more patriotic and proud of their revolution than what you’ll see in American media, but that patriotism is more directed towards independence from American imperial policies, not from Americans as a people as diverse as the people in Cuba.
Late night Pool Party
Hotel Panorama came with a huge swimming pool, which we made extensive use of to beat the constant heat and humidity. What happens in the Hotel Panorama pool stays in the Hotel Panorama pool, as they say, but we certainly did get to know each other very well through these midnight pool parties.obini
One important part of our cultural exchange in Cuba was learning about the different cultures that coexist, including strong African influences on religion and dance. Obini Bata is the first all-female group to sing and perform on religious drums, sacred artifacts that only men were allowed the honor of performing on them until recently. This group of women broke the taboo and eventually convinced religious elders to recognize their performance; during our lesson, they taught us some “simple” rhythms and chants that they use when performing. In reality, the rhythms that they so effortlessly perform were very difficult for us to keep track of, which highlights why exposure to different cultures’ musical histories is very important for a classically trained musician to expand his worldview and musical ability.
We ventured away from the bustling Old Havana and towards one of the poorest barrios on the outskirts of Havana to visit a testament to the flourishing arts community in Cuba. Muraleando is a project that has brought together engineers, architects, and artists who donate their time and energy to fixing up and beautifying neighborhood spaces, including the one we visited. With recycled-material murals and mosaics with patterns the likes of which co-ops at Stanford wish they could create, the vibrant space is designed to be free for the community to host special events, such as a birthday party or wedding. We danced on the dance floor at the top of Muraleando (which used to be a water tank), bought art from the artists on the floor below, and watched a group of volunteers start painting a new section of the extended murals.
Ballet Lizst Alfonso
Before our performance on stage, we had the opportunity to learn many styles of dance at Ballet Lizst Alfonso. In a very rare appearance, Lizst Alfonso personally came to teach us alongside her best students, which involved jumping straight into a crash course on salsa, cha-cha, danzón, mambo, and conga (we made a huge conga line!); we attempted (with various success) to mirror the dancer’s movements. Unfortunately, this was the one day when Ballet Lizst Alfonso’s air conditioning happened to break, so we were all extremely exhausted and sweaty by the end of the dance lesson.
The second part of our visit was a peer-to-peer exchange, where we could ask each other questions (either directly, or though a translator). We told the dance students about our lives at Stanford, and they shared with us how the life of a dancer-in-training works in Cuba: 9am-4pm dance rehearsal, 4pm-9pm school, every weekday. Since the professional members of Ballet Lizst Alfonso have started to tour the United States more often, the older dancers knew quite a bit about the United States as well, which was exciting.
Earnest Hemingway spent a good deal of time in Cuba, and used his book prize winnings to buy a nice estate on the outskirts of Havana. That house has now been turned into a museum by Cuba’s government, preserving many of the original objects in the house. I found it extremely interesting to see just how autobiographical Hemingway’s novels were: the large bell in front of the house tolls for thee (and, originally, Hemingway’s guests); taxidermy hunting prizes Hemingway brought back from expeditions to Africa and his love of fishing mirror the dreams of the Old Man and the Sea; even his uniform from World War I hangs in a window, memories of which inspired references in multiple novels.
Cuban Cigar Factory
What’s more iconic to Cuba than a Cuban cigar? Our final stop on tour before an evening performance at the Teatro Nacional was to explore the Corona Cigar Factory, where hundreds of people hand-roll varieties of Cuban cigars widely lauded to be the best in the world. I don’t particularly like smoke, and the smell in the factory was quite strong, but I was fascinated by Cuba’s centuries-long history of cigars. It turns out that the native Cubans invented cigars long before Columbus set foot on the island, and over time these proto-cigars were refined into today’s products. The factory floor once again provided evidence of the the unique contrasts that seem endemic to a Cuba at a historical crossroads: I saw a couple workers reach out to prepare the dried tobacco leaf with one hand, and adjust the volume on their iPhones with another.
There were so many other incredible things that went on in Cuba: mingling with the musicians from the Chamber Orchestra of Havana and Ballet Lizst Alfonso in a joint meet-and-greet at Teatro Nacional, taking Maestro Anna out to a salsa club for her SSO bachelorette party, walking along the Malecón in the late evening, or a very eventful taxi ride at 1AM in one of those timeless American cars. I think that, by the end of this tour, I gained a new understanding of the variety of lives people lead in Cuba; I also feel like I now possess a more unbiased perspective on the world that allows me to cherish things I’ve taken for granted in the United States, and step away from other assumptions I’ve grown up with about these far-flung locales that are closer than you think.
Cuba was an incredible country to get the chance to visit, but I had a lot of fun during our journey through Mexico as well. To learn about the other places I visited, check out the links below: