Cuba – Lynne’s 1st trip Dec 2012
I just spent the most amazing week in Havana, Cuba. The journey started at SFO on Saturday Dec 15th; I flew SFO-Miami, arriving at 12:30am Sunday Dec 16th. I was scheduled to meet my fellow dancers at 4:30am for checking in.
The paperwork and customs experiences went smoothly, as did the flight to Havana. Once we arrived, we picked up our checked luggage (sniffed by military dogs) and headed to the exchange counter to get some Cuban currency. Travelers use CUC’s, one of 2 Cuban currencies; the other, moneda nacional, is for Cuban citizens. This different monetary system allows Cuban citizens to attend cultural presentations and purchase other things at a price they can afford.
The cab ride into Havana was my first glimpse at the motorcycles and 1950’s cars we’ve all seen in photos. One of the first sites we passed was the huge Chinese gate over the road into the Chinatown area. I stayed nearby in a “casa particular” on Calle Amistad near Neptuno, in the Viejo district, one of the oldest areas of Havana. (There were other dancers in this, and several other casas nearby. We all had breakfast and dinner together there.)
Sunday afternoon was spent walking around Old Havana, getting my bearings. Many artists were at work in hidden studios down side streets. Late evenings were also spent walking the Prado or down Calle Obispo, where Hemingway’s favorite, Floridita Restaurant, still offers their original Daiquiri.
Each weekday we had 3 hours of dance classes at the Narciso Mendez Dance Studio. Our principal dance teacher, Daisy Perez, was a true master of many dance styles from the folclorico orisha dances to Rumba and Mambo. The master singer with the drum ensemble was expert. Class was taught in Spanish with very spare translations. It was immersion for me. The 3rd hour class was salsa, taught by Daisy’s very good assistant, Abel. There were students of the academy who were there as our dance partners for class.
Daisy always started a new dance with an explanation of what all the movements of the dance mean. She also had the drum ensemble show the specific rhythms of the dance, having us clap the beats, then alternate to the rhythmic pattern. This helped us internalize the music and learn the dances.
The rest of the days and evenings were filled with meetings and concerts. I was constantly told about how things “don’t work” in Cuba. I was extremely fortunate to meet most of the Cuban conductors and composers I had on my list for potential collaborations!
Tuesday evening I was invited to Digna Guerra’s concert of her 5 groups, which make up the Coro Nacional de Cuba. I heard singers from 5 year olds to the touring adult ensemble. Afterwards she invited me to attend a rehearsal on Thursday. I left the venue to attempt my first solo taxi ride in the “old car” taxis. These “collectivos” stop for multiple passengers going the same direction. It was an adventure!
Wednesday afternoon, Erica Peng and I met with the composer I’ve wanted to commission for the PME Cuba Project: Prof. Roberto Valera. (Erica helped me greatly with telephone calls in Spanish and with translations at this meeting.) I have been writing to him since September and he agreed, days before I left, to meet us. Prof. Valera is not only one of Cuba’s great composers, he is also the Vice President of UNEAC, the union of writers and artists of Cuba. He was very interested in the project and has agreed to write a new piece (once we fund the commission).
I found that these high-level Cuban artists were universally impressed and supportive of the PME Cuba Project. They all want to give me music and to collaborate!
Wednesday evening, Erica and I attended a rehearsal of the dance group that PME will be studying with, Siete (7) Potencias. They work in a community center in Alamar, a Havana suburb 20 minutes away by car.
The artistic director showed us examples of several orisha dances and songs that I recorded. It was fascinating to see since we had just learned the elements of these dances that morning in Daisy’s class. It was encouraging to see that the company’s new members were having trouble perfecting the dances too.
And it was illuminating to see the principal dancer show us what it was REALLY supposed to look like. Her skirt for the Yemaya dance/song was a rippling sea, completely under her control! Amazing.
Thursday morning, Digna Guerra offered to pick me up to attend her Coro Nacional rehearsal. It was exciting to hear them preparing Mozart’s Requiem. That day the electricity didn’t work, so they worked a cappella. This is a fully professional chorus. They rehearse during the day and some of them teach the younger groups. Their tone is beautiful and because they must memorize their music, she is able to completely shape the dynamics and phrases. It is thrilling.
Before rehearsal I was introduced to another conductor whose name was on my list, Corina Campos. Her group of 14 singers, Vocal Leo, wins awards for their singing and choreography around the world. Ms. Campos is also the top professor of choral conducting in Cuba. She escorted me back to our dance studio and invited me to her group’s concert on Saturday afternoon. She also wanted to give me some music. She offered to give PME a workshop in June on this music.
Thursday night Alina Orraca’s Schola Cantorum Coralina gave a concert at the Cathedral. When I arrived the chorus was lined up outside and I asked if Ms. Orraca was available. I waited by the door and saw “a conductor” walk by and introduced myself. She grabbed me and took me straight to the front of the church to sit. Shortly afterward she, the chorus and her soloists began a wonderful performance of Saint-Saens’ “Christmas Oratorio” plus a Holiday segment of songs. It turns out this was a nationally televised Holiday concert! Very cool.
Friday night we had the opportunity to see the National Contemporary Dance Company at the beautiful Teatro Nacional in central Havana. It was one of the last times that 3 of their core repertory pieces will be performed. Inspired!
Saturday was jam-packed. I started with a 2-hour singing lesson with Ariel, the master singer from dance class. He was very generous, teaching me songs and chants specific to each orisha in the folclorico pantheon. Next, our friend Luis Barberia (who came to sing at a PME rehearsal) took me and Erica to meet with an arranger friend of his who wants to send me some music for the Spring concerts. He leads the band at the Trocadero Club.
At 4pm we went to hear Vocal Leo with Corina Campos. They sang Cuban songs as well as some African American Spirituals. Ms. Campos gave me 2 songs, one by Vocal Sampling’s arranger, which she can coach in June.
Our last concert was at 6pm at the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis. It was a very skilled chamber orchestra performing a wide range of repertory, including the beautiful “Concierto de Aranguez.” The Basilica is a possible venue for a PME concert in June.
The next morning I departed for Miami, full of excitement and stories.
I look forward to returning to Havana with PME!