Jan 16, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Prior to a cut off of diplomatic relations between the two in 1961, the musical relationship between Cuba and the United States provided a wealth of cross-cultural exchange and inspiration for composers, jazz musicians and artists.

Havana — a city roughly as far from Miami as Washington D.C. is from New York City — was a popular destination for American composers, and Cuban composers like Ernesto Lecuona or band leaders like Desi Arnaz had great success in the United States. 

George Gershwin was inspired and enthralled by Cuban dance music during what he called “two hysterical weeks in Havana where no sleep was had.” On his first visit to the island in 1941, Aaron Copland wrote an exuberant letter to Leonard Bernstein telling him about spending his evenings in Havana dance halls, listening and wishing Bernstein was there to discuss the music he heard.

With the July 2015 announcement that diplomatic relations will start to normalize between the two governments, artists in both countries are hoping that the door might once again be open for meaningful musical sharing and collaboration. Speaking at the New Music Gathering conference held at the Peabody Institute last weekend, a panel of participants in the 2015 Havana Festival of Contemporary Music talked about their experience and what possibilities they saw in the new political climate.

“This is a very special moment in the relationship between Cuba and the US,” said Guido López-Gavilán, who is a composer and director of the contemporary music festival. “Historically, there has been a big relationship between the US and Cuba - especially in the early 20th century with Gershwin, Copland and New Orleans style jazz, which developed into Latin jazz. There's already precedent for that exchange.”

Patrick Castillo — who is a composer and vice-chair of the American Composers Forum — presented a selection of contemporary American music with his ensemble Third Sound as part of the Havana festival.

“My overall experience of having participated in this festival is inextricably tied to being in Havana, which is an utterly enchanting and confounding place,” Castillo said. “Everything you think you know and everything you learn in one moment is up-ended the next moment.”

For example Castillo said on his first visit to the island two years ago, he was told by a colleague who had traveled to Cuba frequently that many Cuban composers hadn’t heard modern American music since Copland.

“I had like this Prometheus fantasy that I was going to set this island on fire with all of these modern and contemporary music styles from minimalism to post-serialism, etc,” he said. “But then one of the first pieces I heard was by this 17- or 18-year-old Cuban composition student [that referenced Philip Glass in its title.] It was an incredible piece of music.”

That, in essence, sums up where the relationship between Cuba and the United States is today. The flow of music and culture did not freeze entirely since 1961, but what did cross over is often incomplete. As diplomatic relations thaw, there will be a lot of relearning as artists on each side get a broader view of what their peers have been working on.

“This kid had heard Philip Glass, but he probably had not heard all of Philip Glass,” Castillo said. “So there is kind of a patchwork awareness of the contemporary American music landscape in Cuba.”

Ingrid Arauco is a professor of music at Haverford College and was part of the American Composers Forum delegation at the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music. For Arauco, just spending time with her Cuban counterparts felt like the start of something bigger.

“Given our tortured political history, I thought it was just so important, so rewarding to be sitting in the same room next to a Cuban artist and musician, and just sharing that experience,” she said. “It sounds so mundane on one level, but I felt it had a profound significance when I was there. And we can do a lot of that together and build on that one relationship at a time. That is what’s going to bring things forward in a deep way.”

Undoubtedly, members of the panel said, it’s easier now than it has been in more than 60 years for composers or musicians to travel between the United States and Cuba, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The airline Jet Blue might offer a direct flight between JFK airport in New York and Havana, but booking a ticket requires a visa and a fair amount of logistical planning.

“In some ways, the flood gates are opening and lots of American musicians are going to Cuba,” said Larry Dunn, a contributing editor to the new music website I Care If You Listen who traveled to Havana as part of the festival. “It’s much more complicated still for Cubans to come here.”

Resources are a large problem, Dunn said, and he asked anyone in the audience who might be involved in American festivals to look for ways to invite Cuban composers or ensembles, as often a written invitation is a large piece in getting a required travel visa.

López-Gavilán said he is seeing the impact in Cuba of the changing diplomatic status between his country and the United States. He said he’s seen a surge of visiting youth ensembles, performers and faculty from American universities teaching masterclasses in Cuba. A day before the panel discussion, he had a meeting with the Dean Fred Bronstein of the Peabody Institute where he said both parties expressed interest in developing ways to exchange musicians, students and teachers between the conservatory and Havana.

“These relationships are continuing to grow each day,” said López-Gavilán.