Conversation with Cuba

Cascadia Composers' journey to Cuba opened eyes and ears to musical and cultural riches


When Havana Contemporary Music Festival president Guido Lopez-Gavilan wrote to David Bernstein inviting the Cascadia Composers association (northwest chapter of the National Association of Composers, USA) to his festival as guests of the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba, he included this entreaty:

“As is well known, our country is going through a difficult economic period, and therefore, we would appreciate it if you could communicate with us, regarding the possibility that you could obtain funding for your trip.”

What a profoundly gracious understatement. As if nearly 60 years of economic sanctions were nothing to go on about between potential friends. Bernstein got busy and procured the help of Project Por Amor to arrange for safe passage of six Cascadia composers (David Bernstein, Daniel Brugh, Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, Jennifer Wright, and Art Resnick whose work was performed though he did not attend due to illness) to Havana for the festival, held Nov. 14-22, 2016.

This Saturday, the Cascadians reciprocate with two concerts, the first featuring new music from Cuba performed by FearNoMusic, the second showcasing the sounds of the Pacific Northwest. In October, Oregon musicians performed the music the Cascadians took to Cuba in a concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall called “A Cuba con Amor — To Cuba with Love.”

Wright rehearses with Cuban musicians for a performance of her “Loopers” in Havana. Photo: Matias Brecher.

I invited each composer to offer their perspectives on the trip and was pleased by the commonality of their responses. All mentioned the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people and the tragic beauty of Havana. All marveled at the brilliant, sensual, passionate musical environment. And all were blown away by the artistic commitment and passion of the festival players.

Project Por Amor is “an artist-run organization which harnesses the power of arts and culture to bring Cubans and Americans together.” With its extensive relationships with Cuban cultural, arts, and governmental organizations, the organization was able to assemble a robust itinerary for Cascadia that included cultural experiences outside the format of the festival.

Begun in 1984, the Havana Contemporary Music Festival (Festival de La Habana, de Música Contemporánea) has been presented by the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba and the Cuban Institute of Music each year since. The festival presents contemporary chamber, vocal, and instrumental works in unique concert venues such as the Minor Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (located deep in the historic center of Havana) and the Ernesto Lecuona salon (inside the National Lyric Theater of Cuba).

My knowledge of Cuba is derived from the films Cuba of 1979 and Strawberry and Chocolate of 1993, Buena Vista Social Club album from 1997 and documentary from 1999, and perhaps most impactful, Pedro Juan Gutierréz’s Dirty Havana Trilogy. The glamorous romance and intrigue of the earlier film is tempered by the sexual politics of Strawberry, and the pornographic dirty realism of Dirty Havana Trilogy is a grimy window into the cumulative effects of urban poverty on Havana’s population due in no small part to the US embargo. The album and documentary Buena Vista Social Club exposed the Cuban people’s joie de vivre and deeply rooted, undying passion for their musical heritage.

The common threads of all of these sources are resilience, creativity, and courage—all characteristics apparent to and appreciated by the Cascadia composers who visited.

Though most of the composers tried to down play expectations, understandably, they hoped for quality performance of their music. David Bernstein, having been instrumental in the orchestration of the tour, was especially anxious that the concert of Cascadia composers’ music would be successful. In his words, the results exceeded expectations.

Jennifer Wright noted that her performers found elements of Cuban rhythm in her piece Looper, an element she had not been aware of before going to Cuba. “They were delighted to recognize ‘their’ Afro-Cuban rhythms in the piece, so they were really hammering them out,” she wrote, “and here I was, with a completely different, lyrical conception” of the piece.

Those who have worked with Paul Safar know that the key to his successful performance projects is his insistence on multiple, quality rehearsals. Yet despite last minute, limited rehearsal time, Safar praised the highly skilled, up-tempo performance of his pieces and the enthusiastic reception by the audience.

Eugene Symphony concertmaster Lisa McWhorter, composer Paul Safar and Delgani Quartet cellist Eric Alterman perform Safar’s “Trio of Dances” at Cascadia Composers’ October concert, “To Cuba with Love.”

Ted Clifford, whose Child’s Play for two pianos includes bean bags on piano strings and a toy melodica, noted the lack of preparation time as well, but even so, was very satisfied with the performance of his duo. Wright was especially pleased with the willingness of her ensemble to tackle a conceptual piece (of undetermined instrumentation) at the last minute and thrilled with its successful impromptu performance. Wright and Bernstein both came away with commitments to include their work in the repertoire of various Cuban ensembles.

Clifford (on melodica) and Wright perform his “Child’s Play” at Cascadia’s October concert at Portland State University.

Concerts and Conversations

The Cascadians were treated to concerts of music outside the festival as well, and several named these musical soirees the highlight of their trip. One evening at a local bar, La Bodeguita del Medio (said to be a favorite haunt of Hemingway, which says a lot about the stasis of cultural development in the city), seems to have provided a bit of magical realism for three of the composers. An acoustic band of piano, bass, guitar, flute, percussion, and singers (who, in Wright’s words, “shout-sang their Afro-Creole at the top of their lungs into the tropical night air”) charged the composers with the need to move their bodies and left their ears ringing in response to a doggedly joyous cowbell.

Obba Irawo (Octavio) led a rhythm workshop for Cascadia Composers.

Safar mentioned a memorable evening of Latin jazz at a neighborhood club that featured a fabulous pianist and an evening reception that included salsa dancing with Cuban musicians as his personal highlights. It seems that “handsome” strolling singers with battered old guitars often showed up unannounced at dinner time in the host homes singing original canciones. “The people make their own soundtrack in Havana,” Wright said.

Cuba has been toying with a bit of capitalism as of late in an attempt to breathe life into its struggling economy. Clifford recounted his conversation with a cab driver who, although he had family in Miami, would not consider moving to the US in response to the easing of sanctions because of his ties to Havana and a new government job offer. The cabbie welcomed the recent capitalist endeavors and hoped for more development in that vein, though he worried that Havana might become another Las Vegas. More than one of the travelers mentioned the willingness of their hosts to discuss politics and their faithfulness to their country where education and health care are free and employment guaranteed.

Cascadia Composers soaked up Havana street art during their cultural exchange. Photo: Matias Brecher.

With successful performances under their belts, rewarding interactions with Cuban peers, and the lingering inspiration of the Cubans’ passion for their popular culture, the composers all returned to Cascadia satisfied and charged with purpose: if the Cubans can create a soundtrack to their life of endurance and resilience in the face of poverty, can the composers of the northwest embrace their biome in their music and celebrate the rich life we all live in this temperate paradise?

Cascadia’s Dan Brugh and guide in Havana.

Concerts of Appreciation

This weekend’s concerts juxtapose those Cuban and Cascadian sounds. At the New Pearls of the Antilles concert this Friday, two Cuban composers will be in Portland to have their music played by the Fear No Music ensemble. Both the Cuban composers and the Cascadia composers will be on hand to discuss the music and the trip to Cuba last fall. A pre-concert “Cuba Chat” at 6:30 that is free and open to the public.

Then, on Saturday, the Sense of Place – Sounds of the Pacific Northwest concert will feature works by Cascadian composers inspired by the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and by their trip to Cuba.

Cascadia Composers presents “New Pearls from the Antilles” with FearNoMusic, 8 pm May 19, Temple Baptist Church, 1319 NE 7th Ave. Portland, $5-$20.

Cascadia Composers presents “Sense of Place – Sounds of the Pacific Northwest,” 7:30 pm May 20, Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, 2828 SE Stephens St., Portland. $5-$20.

Daniel Heila writes music, loves words, and plays flute in Eugene.

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