Day Seven – Handcraft Market and Final Concert

Today was bittersweet. It was our last musical event of the trip. I think everyone was relieved to be done with all the appointments and workshops and all of that, but also sad to be nearing the end of our trip. We still have a full day tomorrow, but the day is totally unstructured and free. There is talk of shopping, sitting by the pool, “exploring,” and a few people trying to rent a boat and go out in the ocean. I have actively discouraging the boat thing, and I actually think renting a boat in Cuba is kind of difficult (which makes sense).

We started at a shop back at Morro Castle that sold cigars, coffee and rum. I think they bought coffee (no really, rum and cigars are illegal to import). Then we went to a large indoor market in Old Havana. The market was similar to a lot of things is Cuba. Cool, but a little touristy. There were a lots of aggressive vendors selling the same thing as another vendor five stalls down. But there were some nice things, and the kids will bring back some nice trinkets. There was a lot of beautiful artwork. There were definitely some original artists there that were more than competent. I didn’t get pictures, but I accidentally recorded 45 minutes of video of me and my wife walking through the art section.

After the market we had lunch on our own and then met up in the afternoon for a 5:00 concert with Vocal Luna, the group we did our first collaboration with. As with the Concert on Day Five, I was disappointed in the execution of things, but in the end it worked out.

The workshops here have been great, the people have been great, the choirs have been great, but the concerts were a big disappointment, and in some ways a little embarrassing. Once again, we had maybe twenty-five people in attendance, most of whom were people already hanging around for the workshops and rehearsals. There were a few professors from the conservatory, and a few music students, but that was about it. We are in a 500 year old city, with old, stunning churches, many, many state supported concert halls of varying size, and a city of 2-3 million. It couldn’t have been too difficult to either have a concert in one of the Old Havana churches with all the tourists walking in and out, or to arrange something in the evening, put up a few posters, and invite local music students. We prepared about 90 minutes worth of music, from memory, yet both of our concerts lasted about on hour, which included 4-5 tunes from the host choir and one or two combined tunes, and a set of our music. More than half our rep we never got to sing. Plus, our concerts were at 3:00 on a Thursday and 5:00 on a Saturday. Hey Cuba, how about 8:00 any night of the week?

Sorry. In the end it wasn’t about the concerts. And I know that. And we have had an incredible time. We will remember this experience for the rest of our lives. And even the concerts were great in their own way. We shared an experience with the host choirs, and the small audiences loved us and were incredibly responsive. But from a professional perspective, they were a let down. I don’t think there was a single kid who felt bad about the concerts, which is really the most important part. That’s why I haven’t raised much of a stink.

As you have surmised, this concert was pretty much the same as the concert on Thursday. Almost no audience, but the folks that were there were incredibly receptive. The venue was the same place we had our workshops with Vocal Luna and Coro Exaudi. Vocal Luna sang six beautiful songs, then we did about six.

The soloists in City Called Heaven were all graduating seniors. Very cool.

Then we sang Guantanamera and Walk in Jerusalem together. I also acknowledged the students who were graduating or moving on. It’s always sad to see students leave, but there is always a “last time” when you sing in a choir. So we sadly said goodbye to our seniors, and wished them well in whatever is next.

After the concert there was a lot of hugging and cheek kissing (Cubans always kiss on the cheek) as a greeting and a goodbye. Wilmia (the director of Vocal Luna) was very complimentary and I think I have a new friend. I got my hugs in with the students who are graduating, and after a good thirty minutes we went of to change and then dinner.

At dinner in Old Town Havana, we also said thank you to our drivers and tour guides. They were so wonderful. Each one was funny, kind, thoughtful, and incredibly helpful. I think we all feel as if we have made new friends, and we will be sad when we have to say goodbye to them a final time on our departure day.

Tomorrow is a free day. Niki and I are off to try to find some of her family who live in a suburb of Havana. Jane, our guide from Harmony International, will be hanging around the hotel for the time that Niki and I will be gone (just a few hours in the morning), and will have cell phone numbers to get in touch with us if there are problems.

More to come soon.

Day Six – Old Havana and Morro Castle

Today we didn’t do any singing. It’s the first day since our arrival that we haven’t sung. I think the timing was perfect. It’s tough to sing everyday, especially when on tour in a foreign country. So today we did the tourist thing and had some downtime. There’s a little less to write about because there were no surprises or schedule changes!

We started in Old Havana, which is very beautiful. It’s filled with 300-400 year old buildings from Havana’s time as a central shipping port. It is very beautiful.

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It’s also filled with very aggressive street vendors who will charge you 5 CUCs to take their picture or 15 CUCs for a handmade poster (that five other vendor seem to have…whoever made those posters by hand is very, very busy!).

Run Away!

Run Away!

A few kids maybe paid a little too much for things, or maybe had to buy a few CUCs for a sketch or a serenade that they didn’t want, but no one was harmed. I had to chase a few of them off me, and when you push back on them, they aren’t aways nice about it. But, we survived.

After Old Havana it was lunch and dinner on your own. A little free time to nap, explore, check email, etc. I took a long nap. The evening was Morro Castle, which is the fort that has guarded the port of Havana for a few hundred years. At 9:00 most nights they do a little reenactment of a colonial cannon firing ceremony. If you are into that sort of thing, it was cool. Some of the kids really liked it. I was ready to leave soon after the cannon was fired. I didn’t get a lot of good photos because by the time we got to the cannon portion, it was pretty dark.

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A few kids traveled across the city on their own to watch a dinner concert at another hotel. We may have some updates about that concert in the future, but I talked to them when they returned, and they had a great time.

Tomorrow we do some more souvenir shopping at the large market, and then an afternoon concert with Vocal Luna.

Day Five – Coro Exaudi

Today was another interesting day. It all worked out in the end (in spanish, resolvér is the national term for “it got all messed up, but we worked it out.” They apparently say resolvér all the time here). We had another wonderful exchange, and a little bit of down time. It was the perfect balance of structured and free time.

I apologize about the videos being blocked from yesterday’s post. Uploading is a little bit of a pain. It is doubly difficult because internet access is so limited. Granted, I have it much better than most Cubans because I actually have access, and can afford it (about $5 an hour), but I must purchase internet access one hour at a time. They sell these little scratch cards at the front desk of the hotel that allow for internet access for one hour. You scratch off the silver covering, just like a lottery ticket (I won!), and then enter some codes into your browser. Not exactly primitive, but not super easy either. Speeds in the lobby are decent, though I get no connection at all in my room. So if something gets messed up, I can’t just hop on and correct it.

Food has been interesting too. It’s generally not very good. It’s not horrible, though there have been some close calls. Regular Cubans just don’t have access to the same quantity and quality of ingredients that we do. Also, in Havana especially, they know that we are comparatively well off. So the prices tend to be high. A few of our earlier lunches were 15 CUCs (CUCs, pronounced “kooks,” are the currency that is issued to foreigners. It’s a fixed exchange rate, and is not recognized internationally as a currency.  So it’s worthless outside of Cuba. It’s about 85 CUCs per $100 dollars). That’s way too much…it’s more than we were told we’d need from the tour company, and just all around way too much. We talked to our guides and they helped us find cheaper places. Turns out there are a number of cheap, decent places within two blocks of our hotel. It’s interesting to note that 15 CUCs is roughly a months wage for the average Cuban.

We started our day in the same place the we had our clinic with Vocal Luna. Here we met with one of the more well known choirs in Cuba, Coro Exaudi. Their director, María Felicia Pérez, was really great. She is one of the most respected conductors in Cuba, and is well know around the world. She knows my friends and former teachers Bruce Browne and André Thomas.

María Felicia Pérez

María Felicia Pérez

We did the usual we sing, you sing thing. I don’t think the choral directors are used to the “clinic” or “masterclass” thing that we do in the US. Usually, when there is an exchange with two choirs and two different conductors, especially if they are from different cultures or have different areas of expertise, the directors will work on the pieces within their own areas of expertise that the other choir is singing. The idea is that one sings, say, a spiritual, and then the person with the most expertise in spirituals works with the group a little on the style, pronunciation, etc. Then, the roles get reversed. That way you are really “exchanging” ideas, concepts, etc. But none of our clinics have so far really worked out that way. It’s mostly been the we sing/you sing variety. The Cubans really love spirituals and gospel, and if I was one of their directors, I would really love for an American to help me on the style, so I could get it more authentic. But I think there’s a different approach here. I certainly want them to tell me how we could improve what we are doing with our Cuban piece.

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So, after a bit of back and forth, and a lot of discussion of what we will do and how and the usual large group of people standing in a circle waiving their arms and talking fast trying to figure things out, we actually got María to give us a few comments on Chan-chan. She is a very passionate conductor, and you can see that music really flows through her and excites her. When I’ve talked with other directors here, the conversation was more “who are you where are you from, etc,” but for María, it as always “I love this piece, the lines are so lyrical, and it expresses sadness and beauty, but to do it right you must do it this way, etc.” It was great to have those kind of discussions with someone local, and of her musical background. She gave some nice comments and correct a few little things here and there.

After the clinic we went back to the hotel to change for our 3:00 Concert. Well, we were told it was 3:00, but it was actually supposed to be at 4:00. So, change of plans…no biggie…we will resolvér it! When we arrived at the concert “venue” this is what we found:

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“Concert Hall”

As you can see, we are in a tiny lobby.

Receptionist

Receptionist

Our “audience” was tiny…it was basically the workers in the building that we were singing in. A few invited folks, but really, just some random people. María Felicia was, I found out later, very embarrassed.

"Audience"

“Audience”

Our tour leaders also told us later on that they were ashamed and frustrated by the venue. It was also wicked hot:

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Wicked Hot

But here’s the thing…it’s sort of what makes all the schedule changes and revisions and miscommunications we’ve had to deal with on the tour OK…the Cuban audiences are really, really great. They are so enthusiastic and appreciative. They clap vigorously, hoot and holler, tap their feet along, and just have fun. Despite the awful venue, it was quite a nice little concert. The audience loved it, and the kids left feeling like they’d done well and were appreciated.

If you are thinking of going to Cuba, you have to be willing to endure last minute inconveniences, plan changes, and a general lack of really knowing what is going on. For some of the more uber-organized of us, this could be really hard. But if you can let go, and not get too worked up when things don’t go exactly as you were told, the musical experiences and interaction with the Cuban people are truly unique. If you have to have your tour planned down to the minute six months in advance, do not go to Cuba. Go somewhere else, like Sweden or Germany. But if you can roll with it, a visit here is worth it. I know that these kids will never forget the trip.

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There were somewhere around 10-15 students who had expressed reservations about spending as much much money as we did for the trip. I’ve already spoken too a few of them who have said, “thank you so much for encouraging me to come on this trip. It has been incredible so far. I’m really glad I didn’t back out,” or something to that effect. That really makes me happy.

Dinner that night was at an Italian restaurant in Old Havana. I say “Italian” because we had spaghetti with red sauce (quite possibly just Ragu), and a “pizza” with corn on it. Yup. Corn. But we did get this great shot of our guide Janet (YAH-net) mimicking my dancing during Chan-Chan:

Day Six is Old Havana and Morro Castle.

Day Four – Coro Cámara de Matanzas (Matanzas Chamber Choir) and Varadero Beach

Well, we have had some fun experiences over the past thirty-six hours. We’ve heard some great choirs, seen some beautiful sights, and spent some time on the beach. This was the most “vacation” type day we’ve had, even though we did a workshop with a choir.

We had an early departure from out hotel (early for college students anyway). We departed at 8:30 for the state of Matanzas, which took about two hours. Along the way we stopped at an overlook point that had a small tourist shop and some musicians.

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Many tourist trinkets were purchased:

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And there was a little dancing.

Our destination was Ermita de Monserrat in the City of Matanzas. There we had an exchange concert with the Matanzas Chamber Choir. They were dressed in beautiful, all white, linen dresses, shirts and pant. They were a sight to behold. The venue was a small, very old church overlooking the city that had been converted to a tourist attraction, and also hosted regular arts events. It was a beautiful location and the acoustics in the church were very good.

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The church was very small, similar in size to the one we sang at with André Thomas while in the Netherlands. This experience was a little more straightforward than some of the others we’ve done. They sang two pieces, we sang two….back and forth. Well, they went first, and wow:

They also sang the James Erb arrangement of Shenandoah, which is pretty tough, and very beautiful. Aside from some small pronunciation issues, they sang it exceptionally well:

The exchange was wonderful, and we had a fabulous time. I was very impressed by the skill level of the choir. Their music was hard, and they really sang well. It was a wonderful experience.

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The Conductors

After we went to the Golden Sands Hotel in the city of Varadero. This was a full service resort with a large pool, beautiful beaches, and good food. They gave us five rooms to change in, and we headed out to the beach. My, oh my, are we a pasty group! I admonished the kids to sunscreen up, and everyone did, though a few of the paler of us still got a little burned. Nothing was catastrophic, however. There was volleyball, the beach, full size chess board, and lots of other things to do. There was even a competition in the pool! I will let the students tell you about it (I wasn’t there). But I hear it was…interesting.

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After the beach we drive home and had dinner on our own. Finding good food here is tough, and you have to be careful not to eat the wrong thing. A few of us were sick yesterday and today because we unwittingly drank some tap water at the Golden Sands resort. The stomach virus the few of us caught was short and not excessively violent, so no one’s time was really ruined. It was just a handfull of kids, and after a trip or two to the bathroom, it had passed. So, no worries…we are all doing well.

Day Five will be a morning collaboration with Maria Felicia Perez and Coro Exaudi, followed by an afternoon concert. I hope to be able to update you by the end of the day.

Day Four

Sorry for missing you all last night. It was a long day. Actually, less happened than on previous days, but we spent more than half the day either on the beach or driving. So by the time I got home I was exhausted. I hope to have more for you later today. Please keeping following us, and also please share this with other people you know who might be interested. Talk to you soon.

Day Three (Part Two) – La Escuela Guillermo Tomás y Restaurante Tocororo

After lunch on Day Three we all hopped on our buses and took a twenty-five minute bus ride to La Escuela Guillermo Tomás, a school age music conservatory. It was deep into the neighborhood of Guanabacoa outside of Havana. We drove through narrow streets and alleys to get to the school.

This Turn Was Executed Perfectly

This Turn Was Executed Perfectly Without Backing Up!

The school itself was very old and crumbling, but also bustling. There is no AC in the school at all, just fans and open windows. The students we were scheduled to sing for range from upper high school to middle elementary age.

As you can see from my use of the past tense, the schedule didn’t work out exactly as we had planned it. As we got closer to the school we noticed another tour bus had slipped between our bus in the back and the leading bus. When we arrived, the mysterious bus opened up and began spilling high school age, American-looking kids holding instruments. Mass confusion erupted, as our guides, my wife, and the school officials tried to make sense of the situation, in Spanish. There was lots of “para bara usted con blah blah blah!!” spoken really fast, over and over, with arms flailing in the air. It turns out that somewhere along the way, we were double booked with a Canadian high school jazz band! They loaded all their gear into the school and set up, while we continued to talk to the school representative. Our guides were annoyed that the schedule, confirmed multiple times with multiple people, wasn’t as promised. I offered that it was much more important that the high school kids from Canada get a good experience, than for my college kids. I said that our kids would be just as happy to have an afternoon off. It’s all about the kids, right?

Well, as soon as I offered to concede, the school officials said (in Spanish) “no, no, no, don’t worry about it. We will combine things and it will be good for everyone.” Or something like that. So we tromped up two flights of dark, muggy stairs to what must’ve been the band room. There had to have been 120 people crammed into a very small room. Oh, and it was easily 90 degrees in the room. It was sort of chaos.

So I said to the organizer (again, through my wife), “look, we’re going to sing two pieces (dos piezas), and then get out of here.” It was too much, with all those people in that room, and the last thing I wanted to do was to ruin things for the high school band. So we sang “Daniel, Servant of the Lord” and “Chan-Chan” (our second of three times today). After each song the Cuban kids erupted with screams and applause. They went crazy! I actually felt bad for for the band, but at that point I was just ready to get out. We gave a big bow, piled on the bus, and were out.

Kids Going Crazy

Kids Going Crazy

After the chaos of the school gig we needed a little down time, so we went back to the hotel for some much needed rest. After that it was dinner at restaurant Tocororo.

Well, Tocororo was another out of this world experience. It started off pretty normally. Appetizer, pineapple juice, etc. We filled most of the restaurant, but there were about four tables with some folks from maybe England or Ireland. After about 15 minutes a small jazz group took the stage right by our two largest tables. The group had piano, tenor sax, trombone, two percussion, bass, and two female singers. It started off slowly, but they were a real hoot. They worked the crowd, coming down off the stage for solos, dancing with the students, hamming it up, and just playing really, really well. Think Copa Cabana-type jazz.

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After thirty minutes or so of building musical intensity, what should they start playing but…you guessed it…Chan-Chan! Well the kids couldn’t resist, and started belting out the words at the top of their lungs. Everyone really got into it. After the band performed Chan-Chan, they played a few more tunes. Dinner was mostly over, and was getting pretty raucous. I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was one of the singers. She apparently knew we were a choir, and asked that we sing for them! The result of that request is the video you see below.

I’m done writing for today. Tomorrow we travel to Matansas for a collaboration and a few hours at the beach. I can’t promise I’ll be able to update tomorrow, but I  will try. Your kids are all safe and sound, and really having a life-altering experience. Thanks to everyone who has helped to make this trip happen.

Day Three (Part One) – Voca Luna y Cuban Tourism

Well, It just keeps getting interesting. We have a little down time between 3:30 and dinner at 7:00, and I’m taking this opportunity to update you on what happened today. It was a lot! I didn’t even cover everything that went on yesterday, and I don’t think I’ll be able to tell you about every little detail, but I can give you a pretty good picture.

I mentioned in my last post that things in Cuba often got mixed up and changed and that our schedule might not wind up being exactly as we were told. I have stressed to our group that something was definitely going to go wrong or get mixed up, and if you have the right attitude, you can view any “setback” as an unexpected “opportunity.” Well, it happened today, and the kids responded with an amazing attitude. It really turned out better than if we had followed the plan perfectly. I was very impressed with their maturity and attitude.

We started with breakfast in the basement of the hotel. It was incredible. It was a huge buffet. They had everything you could want, and more. Pancakes, bacon (sweeter than American bacon), scrambled eggs, made to order omelets, potatoes, cereal,  pastries, champagne (but not for us obviously), as well as the typical European breakfast staples of cheese, cured meats and breads. But there was more. A huge selection of tropical fruit, including papaya (fruta bomba), mango, pineapple, watermelon, as well as dried figs, dates, and other dried fruits. There were also fresh fruit juices in many flavors, smoothies, blood sausage (I guess breakfast blood sausage), sautéed vegetables, marinated beans, and some pretty amazing Cuban Coffee (Café Cubano). I think this might be the absolute best part of this hotel. I should probably move on to what we actually did.

After breakfast we loaded up the buses for a workshop. It turns out that the clinic was not going to be with Coro Exaudi, but rather Ensemble Vocal Luna, a professional women’s choir. Such is Cuba, and the experience was great.

For the young women of Ensemble Vocal Luna, singing in this group is their full time job. They sing about five or six hours a day, and perform all over the country. They are made up of about sixteen singers, mostly in their mid-twenties. Their director is Wilmia Verrier Quiñones, who was just awesome.

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Wilmia Verrier Quiñones y Yoshua Bronmpfmán

We arrived at a beautiful old building right on the Malecón. We went upstairs, and into a small, stuffy theater. On the floor were chairs and a digital piano was on the stage. After introductions and the usual “how are we going to do this” conversation, we started with warm-ups. We mixed the women’s choir up with our choir, and Wilmia and I traded off leading. After warm-ups, Wilmia led us in learning an arrangement of “Guantanamera”. It was a lot of fun, and definitely put us out of our comfort zone.

The way she taught us the music was by rote. That basically means that she sung the parts to us, and then we echoed them back. Then she’d sing a different part, we’d sing that one back, and then she’d put the two together. This way, we would progressively learn all of the different parts, using only our ear. I’m going to try to post a video of what that experience was like. It’s such a different process than what we are used to (though many choirs in the US learn this way, particularly gospel choirs). But, Concert Choir never learn music by rote.

Next we sang Rollo Dilworth’s arrangement of Walk in Jerusalem, and I conducted. There was much less to do for this piece, mostly because it came together so quickly. The Vocal Luna girls read very well, and were obviously familiar with the gospel style. Plus, their sound was very bright, which really works quite well for gospel music, with only a little modification to their approach.

After that we alternated singing for each other. We sang three songs, and they sang three. We just loved the music they sang. They had excellent intonation, great phrasing, and impeccable ensemble. There were a number of those young women I would love to have sing in concert choir. Well, really, all of them.

We sang Otche Nash and Salve Regina. We ended with our Cuban theme song, “Chan-Chan.” The girls from Vocal Luna got up and started dancing with us and singing along. It was very cool. I think we are probably going to be singing Chan-Chan at every stop. Cubans get a huge kick out of hearing us do their tunes, especially when they are being done well. One of the older singers in their group said that she had heard many choirs come to Cuba and try to sing Chan-Chan, and we were the best they’d heard. Quite a compliment.

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The View from the Balcony of the Centro Hispano Americano

After that it was lunch at a Cuban restaurant, and cleaning out a gas station of all of their bottled water. The day was packed with so much, that I’m going to split it up into two posts. Check back soon for Part Two.

ALL the Water Bottles

ALL the Water Bottles