An American in Cuba - Part One
21 December 2019 | Havana, Cuba
Terri Potts - Chattaway
I was told it would be different and amazing. I was told it would take me back in time. I saw photographs. I heard stories. I knew what to expect. Or, so I thought. But imagining something is quite different than truly experiencing it.
It is not that I am a novice at traveling. When I was a little girl, my father took our family to live in Bangkok during the Vietnam War. We were there for nearly a year while I attended fourth grade in the Catholic school, Raum Rudi. On the way to Thailand, we spent time in both Tokyo and Hong Kong. I have visited the Czech Republic and Poland, Wales and London, Canada and the British Virgin Islands. I have lived and traveled in Mexico for the last six winters. So, yes, I've experienced culture shock, especially living in Asia which is so very different than our country. Still, Cuba is unique in its culture and politics and reminds me of a place the rest of the world left a long time ago.
What makes our Cuba experience so vastly different from any other travels? That is the question I am wrestling with. It isn't simply that it is a throwback to the culture of the 1950s. Maybe staying in an Airbnb in La Habana Vieja (old town) amongst the locals - and not in a fashionable hotel on the beach - gave us a genuine feel for the every-day Cuban and how she/he lives. Maybe it was that we were personally invited to Cuba by the Arango family and welcomed into their home adding a very personal connection to this country. Maybe I come from a certain perspective because I am older now. Or, maybe it is because I am witnessing, what I believe, our country to be on the precipice of great change. (By "great" I don't necessarily mean good.) With that in mind, it was inevitable that I would compare and contrast our countries' histories and politics. Whatever the reason - and I would venture to surmise that it is a combination of all those reasons - our visit to Cuba has been an education and a blessing.
The road to Cuba started several years back when Jay's daughter, Amy, (who is a music teacher at Canyon Crest Academy High School in San Diego) was at a club one night where she heard an Afro-Cuban jazz band, Los Hermanos Arango. She got to talking with them as they shared a common passion for music. The Brothers Arango said it had always been their dream to play with an orchestra to which Amy replied, "Oh, my dad can do that."
Over the past two years, Jay has taken eight of the Arango's original songs and written orchestral music to accompany them. "Hardest shit I've ever done in my life!" He said.
Combining jazz with orchestra is difficult for many reasons, not the least of which jazz is free-flowing and often spontaneous, whereas orchestral music is measured and certain. In addition to that, there is a language barrier. Only one of the brothers speaks English. Only Amy speaks fluent Spanish. Thus, Amy became our translator, along with a little help from Google.
The first concert was held in November of 2018 at Canyon Crest Academy with Amy's orchestra, Los Hermanos Arango and Amy conducting. Jay sat proudly in the audience. It went well.
Los Hermanos Arango is mainly a family affair. In America it is comprised of Feliciano on bass, Eugenio on percussion, Ignacio on guitar and Christina (their sister) on vocals. Julio Valdes, originally from Panama and now working as a professor at San Diego State University, steps in on keyboards as Feliciano's son, Fernando, - who usually plays keyboards - is unable to get a visa to the U.S.
In Cuba, we learned the band has a whole litany of musicians; Fernando, the keyboard player, as I mentioned above and Ignacio's daughter, Elizabeth, on vocals. I believe Christina's daughter, Yulia, sometimes sings vocals too. There was trumpet, sax and several more percussion players. In other words, it is quite bigger than the five who perform in the states.
This collaboration between Amy, Jay and Los Hermanos Arango was very special in that it not only brought two very different cultures together through music, but also two families.
Two beater cars drove up to our Airbnb in La Habana Vieja. We couldn't miss them because neither one of them had mufflers. Eugenio and his friend were in one and Francisco and Fernando were in the other. They exited the cars and gave us a warm welcome. Hugs and smiles all around. They were there to pick us up as they had invited us to their home for lunch and to talk music.
We drove through the streets of Havana to their neighborhood of Guanabacoa. Guanabacoa is known for its Afro-Cuban heritage and its Indian name means "land of many waters" although I did not see the many springs that are written about in tour books. What we did see is Colonial buildings and the every-day life of the people as they populated the streets in numbers. The muffler (or lack of) roared and Jay joked about the "caro musica" while I held on as we traversed bumps with no shocks. Buses passed, sending fumes our way. Emission regulations doesn't seem to be a priority in Cuba.
There are a surprising number of cars for a country that neither manufactures nor imports automobiles. I am not sure how it works. I know they are expensive. One of our drivers during our visit pointed out a Kia. Ninety thousand dollars he told us. An SUV could cost upwards of $150,000. Even an old 91' Russian car could cost $45,000. I asked who owned the expensive cars. "The government, musicians and entertainers." He said. He went on to explain that you could tell a government car or taxi by the blue marking on the license plate. From that point on, I noticed an abundance of blue markings.
But I digress. Back to the Arango family.
We arrived on a quiet street crowded with houses. The buildings were old, much of the paint was chipped and showing its age. But the street and yards were free of litter. The Arango family came out to greet us with more hugs and smiles. They welcomed us into their home.
Theirs was a modest house. We entered into a small living room decorated with red couches and chairs. The living room opened into a long, narrow hallway with doors leading off to the bedrooms. The doors were closed. The hallway led to a kitchen area with the bathroom at the end. The house was neat and tidy.
We exited out the back door to an enclosed cement patio with iron rod tables and chairs painted white. This would serve as our dining area. Some greenery with bright flowers draped the walls. A staircase led to a second-floor apartment where Eugenio lived with his wife. Downstairs, on the side of the house was what looked like a garage. It had yet another kitchen we were told. Two dogs sat behind the iron-rod door looking longingly at us.
Our hosts began by offering us refreshments; beer, soda, and a shot of rum, of course. The conversation was mixed between Spanish and English with Amy and Ignacio translating. Jay, Marco and I tried what little Spanish we knew. When all else failed, smiles worked wonders. The mood was festive.
The ladies served up delicious local quisine. All homemade, of course. We had pork, rice and beans, potatoes, salad, and my favorite, plantains. The wine came out at lunch, as well as the music. Mateo and I braved the dance floor and even got a few dance lessons from the girls. Much laughter was had by all.
Two days later, the beater cars arrived again. This time they were taking us to El Conservatorio Provincial de Musica GuillermoTomas. It is here we were introduced to the orchestra and Maestra Samira Fernandez. What professionals! The orchestra was top notch and comprised of musicians of all ages. And Samira! Wow! That lady knows her stuff. She had the orchestra practiced and ready to play Jay's orchestrations with Los Hermanos Arango.
And then there was Amy. How she got up there and conducted both groups, seamlessly combining the two styles - and in another language - is beyond me. In Amy's introduction she shared how honored she was to be part of this very special collaboration. Tears came to her eyes and her voice wavered - and the students clapped in response. They felt her genuine love. This was what was so special about our trip. The joining of two very different cultures through music. Like the saying goes, music truly is "the universal language."
Two days later, the beater cars showed up again. This time we were going back to the school for another rehearsal which was to be recorded. In addition, Los Hermanos Arango, Jay, Amy, and Samira were interviewed for a local television show. As we left that day, Amy handed the baton back to Samira and congratulated her and her orchestra on a job well done.
Los Hermanos Arango will continue to work with the Conservatory of Music and this project. Meanwhile, Jay and Amy are working to bring Los Hermanos Arango back to the United States for a tour through some of our colleges, to work with their orchestras.
It has been a labor of love for both Jay and Amy. For me, for all of us who were present for this experience, it was a most unexpected gift.
Note: More photos on FB.