Cuba, since 1958, has been a land mostly off limits to Americans for travel. And even with President Obama's move to normalize relations between our two countries, still only those on educational and cultural exchanges are allowed to travel to the island.
The Minnesota (MN) Orchestra saw an opportunity for one such cultural exchange, and announced in March that it would travel to Cuba in May for a historic pair of concerts in Havana. It has been 15 years since any American orchestra performed on the island, and 85 years since the MN Orchestra was last in Cuba. For the Orchestra, this tour was particularly significant because it highlighted the immensely positive shift in morale among the musicians from a 15 month lockout that ended just over one year ago
Classical Minnesota Public Radio has long partnered with the orchestra to live broadcast many of their concerts, and when the Cuban concerts were announced, Classical MPR knew it was important to share this historic event with its listeners.. I pushed to be part of the team that would travel with the orchestra to document the trip visually.
On the ground in Cuba, it really is as picturesque as one imagines. Old American cars truly are everywhere, making up almost a third of the vehicles on the road. The humid sea air makes for incredible golden light in the mornings and evenings along the Malecón. And everywhere we turned there was live music. From several welcoming performances our first night to different performances at every meal, including breakfast, we were immersed in Cuban music.
Most of the time in Cuba was filled with rehearsals and educational outreach for the orchestra in addition to two formal concerts.
One particularly interesting encounter I had often on the street was the excitement of Cubans when they learned I was an American. Many people would ask in English, "where are you from?", but would be truly surprised when you would say The United States. Nearly everyone wanted to know our opinion of the easing of relations between the countries.
With the average income in Cuba only roughly $20 a month, it is clear there are some major changes needed for the people to really thrive and for the country to repair some of the crumbing historic infrastructure. At the same time, there is an incredible sense of identity and pride among Cubans. I fear rapid change may bring into Havana the same international corporations and monoculture that you find in every tourist destination across the globe.
I hope that the increased openness between the US and Cuba means that this will be the first of more travel to the island. It really feels unlike any other place in the world that I’ve traveled.
Images from this project are copyright Minnesota Public Radio and Nate Ryan LLC.
View all of Minnesota Public Radio's coverage of the historic trip at classicalmpr.org/cuba