A Week in Havana

Most concerts of the Festival de Música Contemporánea de la Habana featured Cuban musicians and were heavily populated with music by Cuban composers, but there were visiting performers from Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Korea, Italy, and Spain performing music by composers from their home countries as well as from Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Poland, Taiwan, Turkey, and Venezuela. And, for the first time in its 28-year history, a delegation of musicians and composers from the United States was invited to participate.

Written By

Jeremy Gill

A group of old American cars driving along a major thoroughfare with some old, monumental buildings in the background.

Along Havana’s Parque Central in 2015. (Photo by Amadeus Regucera.)

When we finally exited the José Martí International Airport shortly before noon, there were literally hundreds of Cubans lining the path we followed that angled through them, connecting the airport exit to the parking lot. It was as if we were rock stars—this first-time group of composers, musicians, and their supporters arriving from the United States to take part in the 28th annual Festival de Música Contemporánea de la Habana. Only the masses weren’t there for us—planes arrive in Cuba when they get there, and those awaiting loved ones crowd around the exit, likely for hours on end. During the hour or so we waited for our bus into Havana (Cuba runs on perpetual delays) I witnessed several of the most passionate and tearful reunions of my life, there at the airport exit and out in the parking lot, which was full of tailgaters. None were surprised by the waits they endured—they had counted on them, clearly—and they made the most of them.

The Festival de Música Contemporánea de la Habana took place this November, and for the first time in its history a delegation of musicians and composers from the United States was invited to participate. The American Composers Forum and Third Sound selected the composers, which included myself, Kati Agócs, Ingrid Arauco, Kai-Young Chan, Cindy Cox, Michael Harrison, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Jones, Amadeus Regucera, and Spencer Topel. Third Sound musicians—Patrick Castillo (Third Sound’s managing director), Romie de Guise-Langlois, Karen Kim, Sooyun Kim, Michael Nicolas, and Orion Weiss—came to perform, and ACF also assembled a 30-member strong group of U.S. observers/patrons, which included former and current ACF board members, UC Berkeley administrators and faculty, new music bloggers, a representative of the Mellon Foundation, NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas, and a two-man documentary crew. It was a huge endeavor.

Patrick Castillo, Jeremy Gill, Imogene Tondre (our guide), Christopher Jones, Cindy Cox, Michael Harrison, Spencer Topel, Ingrid Arauco, Amadeus Regucera, Jennifer Higdon, Kai-Young Chan, Romie de Guise-Langlois (clarinet), and Kati Agocs standing on a streetcorner in Havana, Cuba

The first-ever contingent of U.S. composers on the ground in Havana. Pictured are (left to right): Patrick Castillo, Jeremy Gill, Imogene Tondre (our guide), Christopher Jones, Cindy Cox, Michael Harrison, Spencer Topel, Ingrid Arauco, Amadeus Regucera, Jennifer Higdon, Kai-Young Chan, Romie de Guise-Langlois (clarinet), Kati Agocs. (Photo by Karen Kim.)

The composers and musicians stayed in casas particulares, rented rooms in residents’ flats (think Airbnb) which were mostly in the same seven-story condo in Vedado, a neighborhood that bordered Centro Habana where many of the festival concerts took place. Our casas were right across the street from the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba, but the neighborhood itself was quite residential—an ideal vantage point for getting to know the people and the city. (Composer Amadeus Regucera and I formed a quick bond with the madre of our casa—a chain-smoking, middle-aged dear to whom we were both mi amor.) We were responsible for getting ourselves around town, by foot or by taxi—available everywhere, unregulated but safe and very convenient.

This was my first visit to Cuba (none of us, except Patrick, had been there before), and I prepared for the trip with daily Spanish practice for about three months prior. It helped immensely—few locals spoke much English, and the shop owners, taxi drivers, craftspeople, and artists—eager to sell their wares—were more than willing to engage my extremely rudimentary Spanish. I also read two (happily) complementary books about Cuban music: Alejo Carpentier’s Music in Cuba, written in the early 1940s, and Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music from 2004. Carpentier trained as a musician and composer but is one of the best-known Cuban novelists; his book is mostly concerned with the history of Cuban art music as developed from Western models during the 16th century through the 1930s. Sublette’s interests lay with popular music, and he tries a bit too hard to provide the political and social context for the music that he clearly loves. Though I found his book practically unreadable—it seemed supersaturated with pointless facts and anecdotes—I appreciated it much more after spending a week in Cuba: its haphazard arrangement mirrors the country as I experienced it.

Cuba is a country of contradictions, an island that feels continental. (It is roughly the same size, in land and population, as Pennsylvania.) And Havana, where we spent the majority of our time, is a magnificent, European conception that is literally crumbling underfoot, a tropical paradise choking on the acrid smoke spewing from its vintage 1950s American cars. A walk of a few blocks in Centro Habana or Habana Vieja can take you through an astoundingly ornate Spanish-style courtyard (well-maintained, though its fountain is usually dry), past a string of partially collapsed, still inhabited homes, to the doors of an air-conditioned and tourist-themed bar. On the day of our concert, I walked the Malecón (the highway that runs along the northern edge of Havana, the splashing of the Atlantic on the rocks below often reaching the street itself) for about an hour, from my casa in Vedado to the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. Interspersed among the typical buildings, grandly executed but literally dissolving in the sea air, were sparkling new modern renovations—hotels and cafes filled with tourists tapping away on their laptops—at least three of them, that day, policed by machine-gun-wielding, uniformed guards.

Havana was bewildering, but certainly not without its charms: one striking and wonderfully refreshing aspect of life in Havana is its racial integration. At every level of society I saw as many dark-skinned authority figures (police, teachers, leaders of dance troupes) as light-skinned. It is true that the batá and rumba musicians we saw were more likely black and mulatto, and that the young women that constituted the Camerata Romeu and performed Western-derived art music were mostly white and mestizo, but this felt like a natural expression of their various heritages. The audiences for both were mixed, and the art forms that drew more equally on a mixing of these heritages, as with the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, were comparably mixed in terms of their personnel. Mixed-race groups of friends and couples—young and old—were the norm in restaurants and on the streets. The racial tension and segregation that persist in the United States, even in our most integrated cities, was as far as I could tell totally absent in Havana, despite our shared history of slavery (which endured a generation longer in Cuba than in the States) and post-slavery discrimination.

The Festival de la Habana included daily colloquia (mornings) and usually two concerts per day (at 4:00 and 6:00 p.m.). Events were spread throughout the city, making it tough to get from one concert to the next on time. Most of the concerts featured Cuban musicians and were heavily populated with music by Cuban composers, but there were visiting performers from Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Korea, Italy, Spain, and the United States performing music by composers from their home countries as well as from Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Poland, Taiwan, Turkey, and Venezuela. Juggling events organized by ACF, which for the patrons included only two festival concerts—one of Cuban composers by Cuban musicians and Third Sound, and ours—and the festival itself was tricky, as most of us wanted to see and experience as much of Havana as possible. Furthermore, our arriving after the festival began and leaving before it ended (unexpectedly—more on that below) precluded our attending the grandest concerts—one by the Orquesta Sinfónico Nacional de Cuba before we arrived, and two featuring musicians from Korea and the most internationally diverse program after we had left.

The concerts I managed to attend revealed an extremely high level of musical proficiency on the parts of younger Cuban players, in particular. Nearly all of the young composers performed their own works, solo or in groups, and while the music tended to be somewhat old-fashioned (think slightly spicier Albéniz, with all the requisite virtuosity, lots of rhythmic ostinati, some polytonality, mixed in with the wholesome counterpoint of later Hindemith), the performances were often very fine, particularly when one considered the state of the instruments the players were relegated to. (For our concert, we used the finest piano in the country that had only a partially-functioning sostenuto pedal, and the local Camerata Romeu—a wonderful, all-female string orchestra that performs full concerts memorized—was one cellist short for a concert because her bridge broke and there was no replacement.) One can imagine the state of the pads on flutes, the age of the reeds on clarinets—but the musicians played with effortless grace, and it was abundantly clear to me that they had acquired their technique through their ears and not their eyes (unlike what has become depressingly common with young musicians in the States). Even less developed players in Cuba consistently created a clear musical line, and I rarely heard rhythmic awkwardness or, even more astonishing given the instruments, pitch problems. They were listening, and it was wonderful.

The Cuban composers that impressed me the most were Wilma Alba Cal and Juan Piñera. Piñera is one of Cuba’s senior composers and was well represented at the festival: his music featured interesting, clear ideas (more imaginative than his colleagues). I only heard one work by Alba Cal, but it was lovely, unaffected, beautifully paced and refreshingly simple without being simplistic. She looked relatively young, so we can hope to hear much more from her. (Third Sound will present works by Cal and Piñera at St. Bart’s in NYC on January 12, 2016, along with several of the U.S. composers’ works.) Of the international crowd I was most impressed by Claudio Ambrosini’s Prelude à l’apres-midi d’un fauve from 1994 for flute (doubling alto), violin, and piano. I couldn’t hear how it related to its titular companion (or imagine what his title suggested—isn’t Debussy’s faune already a fauve?) but it was one of the more interesting pieces that I heard, with a compelling narrative structure that surprised yet satisfied.

Overall, I was somewhat bemused by the music of the Cuban composers I heard. The anachronistic aura I perceived applied to most of the senior composers as well as the younger: it sounded as if the most recent music they had internalized was Milhaud’s (there was a penchant among the young for his crunchy but harmless bitonality, and among the young and old for his overt exoticism). One program on the festival listed a performance of Bartók’s Contrasts (written in 1938 at the behest of clarinet superstar Benny Goodman) as a Cuban premiere. If this is true, there must be many, many composers from the previous century as well as our own that Cuban composers have yet to hear.

Interestingly, I experienced a bit of a time warp with the popular music I heard in Cuba, as well. American pop was blessedly scarce during our trip, but when it did turn up, it was mostly from a generation or two prior (I went to sleep one night with “Material Girl” floating up to my fifth-floor casa from the streets below, and awoke the next morning to Stevie Wonder’s clarion call), and at least one jazz combo I heard was the spitting sonic image of the Spyro Gyra my father listened to in the late 1980s. (This latter was clearly aimed at tourists—the hosting bar’s cover charge was $10, a princely sum even considering the two mojitos it included). The most interesting popular music I heard in Cuba was by an Afro-Cuban band comprising a tres (a three-course guitar with the outer courses tuned in octaves, the inner in unisons), guitar, stand-up bass, congas, guiro, and maracas (which Alejo Carpentier claimed was the only pre-Columbian instrument still in use in Cuba). Fronted by two and sometimes three singers (who doubled on percussion), the group was young, dynamic and featured to my ears the most interesting mix of styles. They performed in a simple bar crammed with locals (two blocks from where we were staying) and didn’t sound “dated” in the slightest.

It was a fascinating trip, and I can only imagine how complicated it must have been to organize. (Kudos to ACF and Patrick Castillo for that.) The only problems we encountered stemmed from the very real challenge of acquiring good and current information. Cuba is still very much a closed society: none of us had reliable internet access during the trip, and the few that had working cell phones had acquired them in advance in Canada. Normally, this was fine—we adopted an older social model, meeting at previously determined locations and times around the city—but not always: when Havana Air bumped seven of the ten composers to an earlier flight out of Cuba (without informing anyone), it took us the better part of the week to figure out if our tickets, which we only received at the airport in Miami, contained a printing or a scheduling error. Only the day before our eventual departure did we learn that we would, in fact, be leaving a day earlier than planned.

This was an inconvenience for us, but certainly nothing compared to what the Cuban people experience on a daily basis. Couple a regular lack of information with the economic hardship still rampant in the country (I was told that a doctor on average earns $40 per month, equivalent to the composers’ and musicians’ per diem granted by ACF), and a bleak picture emerges. State-sponsored professional musicians typically earn $20–30 per month, and are not permitted to take extra gigs despite the ample free time that their roughly 9 a.m.–2 p.m. average daily rehearsal routine allows. Not surprisingly, a black market economy flourishes in Havana, as do semi-legal workarounds: private restaurants, for example, can exist only if they are located in people’s homes; those who are able to do so buy up consecutive flats to make reasonably-sized spaces to accommodate larger parties. (We visited quite a few.)

An old green car in front of the ruined facade of a building. (It is clear that there is no longer a room and the glass windows are all missing.)

A typical sight in Havana. An old American car in front of a partially-collapsed building. (Photo by Amadeus Regucera.)

To those of us on this trip, and for the American-born guides that showed us around, Havana was a enchanting place, but it’s tempting to see only the good when one has access to the best restaurants and hotels and can earn two years of an average Cuban’s salary in a week by showing tourists the town. We were able to bring many gifts for the Cubans we met (Music Espresso in Boston donated a stack of manuscript books that I passed on to an elementary school music theory teacher, the mother of our guide’s Cuban boyfriend, and many others came similarly laden), but these only go so far. One hopes that however U.S.-Cuban relations develop, the quality of life for the Cuban people—friendly, welcoming, tremendously hard-working—is our and their government’s first priority.

After returning to Miami, en route to our hotel, three of us early-returning composers shared a cab. The driver noticed a box of mini Cohibas I was carrying and started talking: he had fled the island 24 years prior, escaping by raft on his fourth attempt over about a decade. Back then, goods beyond rations were only sold in U.S. dollars, and it was illegal for Cubans to carry U.S. currency. Women would sell sex to tourists and have their johns pay by shopping for them at restricted stores. It went without saying, but one of us asked if he was better off in the States. “100%” he said. “There was no freedom there. No life.” He has never been back.

Fernando and others stand around a well.

Fernando and his well. (Photo by Jeremy Gill.)

That was a generation ago, and one hopes that a potential future Cuba is instead revealed in the person of Fernando, the owner and proprietor of a small, organic farm we visited in Artemisa (our only trip outside of Havana). After earning a Ph.D. in agricultural science (which he said prepared him “theoretically” for the work he now does “practically”), he began touring the world, advocating for small, sustainable farms in developing countries, while maintaining his own farm, staffed by six employees that he pays twice the average national salary. The thatched roof of the stone barn he built by hand sports solar panels, and the methane that he harvests from his cows’ dung is piped into the home he and his wife restored, providing cooking gas. He sells to Havana restaurants, and will soon institute a farm box program for local residents. Several years in, he is earning a profit and is slowly, steadily expanding. He showed us the well that he and his first two employees dug by hand (14 meters down), and called it a “metaphor” for how hard they were willing to work for the betterment of their beautiful and confounding country.

Rows of jars with seeds of various vegetables, all labelled.

Starters at Fernandoʼs farm. (Photo by Jeremy Gill.)