Editor's note: Classical MPR assistant Brooke Knoll is in Havana as part of a U.S. contingent taking part in the Cuban American Youth Orchestra. Follow along as she shares her experience with this cross-cultural musical venture.
The first thing you notice when you land in Cuba is the heat. Next, it's humidity.
But all of this is overshadowed by the people who greet you, welcoming you to "La Habana," Cuba (COO-bah). I have the great opportunity to intern for, as well as play with, the Cuban American Youth Orchestra (CAYO). Started by Rena Kraut, who was inspired by her experience playing with the Minnesota Orchestra on its 2015 visit, CAYO aims to connect American and Cuban musicians for professional-level music experience, as well as engaging students from both countries in arts diplomacy.
Today, a group of 24 musicians from all across the United States melted into a group of about 40 Cuban musicians consisting of students and young professionals. When we, as Americans, talk about our relationship with Cuba, sometimes we focus too much on the political implications between our two countries and fail to realize that we are all human and that our government might represent our countries but not our individual goals and aspirations. This was immediately apparent as CAYO rehearsed together for the first time as a cohesive ensemble.
Although shaky at first, the musicians quickly became in sync while playing through Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. You would've never guessed that these musicians don't speak the same language, let alone that they met only a few minutes earlier.
Even so, both groups of musicians bring different talents to the table. Everyone became acutely aware of that fact when starting to rehearse Mojito con Suoco, a piece that Cuban composer Guido López Gauilán was commissioned to write by the Paulus Fund. The Cuban musicians are familiar with clavé, a rhythmic pattern that is swung and commonly used in Latin America music. The U.S. musicians (myself included) stumbled over the exact note placement before getting into the swing of things.
There also are speaking parts within the piece, saying phrases in Spanish that were unfamiliar to most of the U.S. musicians. Everyone shared a laugh as we attempted to pronounce unfamiliar words in time with the music. Although it might have lacked accuracy, it was more than made up for with gusto and enthusiasm.
This first day in Havana just proves that although as musicians we might have grown up on different rhythms, we're able to use that to teach each other the idiosyncrasies of our shared language: music.