Cox Violins in Cuba
[Update 5/2/16: A Vermont Little League team traveled to Cuba for a series of games with their counterparts in Havana. Click here to see their blog with lots of photos. Click here to listen to the VPR interview by Mitch Wertlieb with Ollie Pudvar, one of the Vermont players.]
From January 6 – 13, Doug and Laurie traveled to Santiago de Cuba with a group of 21 New England artists & musicians. While relations with Cuba are warming up fast, we still cannot fly to Cuba from New York or Boston, so we went on a charter flight (Sunwing) from Montreal.
Of our fellow travelers, more than half are musicians, but our group also included a printmaker, a piano technician, teachers, and a film maker. Mary Hepburn, who organized the trip, raised funds on GoFundMe for a selection of supplies to donate to the schools that we visited: reeds for wind instruments, strings and rosin, art supplies, and so on. In addition each person brought along supplies that we know are lacking for most people in Santiago: toiletries, medicine, clothing, reading glasses, linens, etc.
The night before our 6:30 a.m. flight, we gathered at the Fairfield Marriott near Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. Most of us were there in time to sit together for supper, getting acquainted with new people and reconnecting with others. For our early start we left the hotel at 3:30 a.m. in two minibuses, and began a fairly arduous check-in process. There were several overweight items to deal with, and we all finally gathered at the gate not long before boarding.
Our direct flight landed on time at Antonio Maceo Airport, where we went through customs. As we gathered up our suitcases (all loaded down with material aid, plus a few pieces of clothing and a toothbrush), our musical instruments (5 violins and an accordion), a box of piano tuning tools, 2 keyboards, art supplies, and so on, it became clear that the airport / customs folks were not prepared to take responsibility for letting us into the country with all this stuff, and they needed approval from the minister of culture, who also wasn’t entirely agreeable about it. Somehow, the keyboards were suspect. Finally we were the only people left in the airport, as we waited for someone to let us leave with the keyboards. Eventually they ok’d our progress after we promised to bring the keyboards back to the airport as we were leaving town on the 13th, so that the proper documentation (whatever that was) could be obtained. 3 minibus taxis waited for us outside.
Accordion and Fiddle players are like border collies. If you don’t give us something to do, we will find something to do ourselves, and you might not like the results. Andy Davis got out the accordion, Jill got out her fiddle, and we proceeded to play and sing and dance as we waited. The biggest hit was “Sasha!” – a dance from Russia. It’s silly and chaotic – a perfect beginning to our week in Santiago.
We arrived in Santiago around 2:30 p.m., and the taxis drove us to our various Casas Particulares – government-sanctioned private homes, bed & breakfasts, and apartments, more economical than hotels. They often have the advantage of including a host or host family which offers an opportunity for connecting with local folks. There were no more than 4 of us in any one casa, but at least 2 of us in each, all within 10 minutes walking of the Hotel Casa Granda. The hotel became our meeting point (and a preferred lunch spot for some). It’s across the street from the Cathedral and Parque Céspedes, a block or two from the Conservatorio, and you are within steps of great music at all hours of the day and night. Just down Heredia Street is the famous jazz club, Casa de la Trova.
After dropping off our stuff, getting acquainted with our Casa hosts, and getting oriented to where we were, we gathered at the Casa Granda. A comedy of errors then ensued as we tried to change our Canadian $$ into CUCs. Banks have funny hours, the Cadecas (money changing stores) sometimes have long lines, or they are closed for mysterious reasons, the hotel would not take Canadian money, etc. But all of us either succeeded in changing some money, or borrowed from those who did. After that we went our separate ways until we met up again for a group rooftop dinner not far away.
José María Heredia y Heredia School
Our first school visit was to this marvelous place. We were greeted by the school director whose English was quite good. She told us quite a bit about the school and introduced us to a group of students. We were lucky enough to have a chance to play for them and lead a few simple dances – including Sasha “from the Airport” – which was a big hit again (and everywhere else that we did it). Heredia has close to 500 students, ages 8-18, in dance and music. The students are chosen from all over the province. Gifted students are sought annually, and offered an opportunity to attend this school – about 100 of them board, as they live too far away. One of the coolest things about the school is a small Magic section. An elderly local magician wished that his art not be lost, so the school set up a program. Currently 8 students study with him at his home (so we could not see what they were up to), in addition to all the usual studies. All students are required to keep up with the Cuban school curriculum in addition to the arts studies.
We visited again at the end of our trip and were treated to a wonderful concert in their band room by the school band, some small combos, and this wonderful violinist, Paula.
William Ballard, a piano technician from Saxtons River, VT, was in our group. He brought along tools and materials and made it his personal mission to improve as many pianos as he could during the week we were there. While there are piano tuners in Santiago, technicians, materials and tools are lacking, and the climate is not kind to pianos, so there was plenty of work for him. While the rest of us were goofing off, Bill was working on a piano somewhere, unless he was playing sax with the jazz combos.
Conservatorio Esteban Salas
We visited the Conservatory several times; violinist Dan Stepner made arrangements to practice there every day (in a room with AC and a private WC!). Bill did as much piano restoration as time allowed, and played with their jazz combo. We had a bulletin board set up so that all 21 of us could keep up with changes to the schedule, meeting places and times, field trips and dinner invitations. The students and staff of the Conservatory were just then returning from their holidays, so things were a bit unpredictable, but we had a wonderful morning playing for them and hearing them play for us. The highlight for Cox Violins was a trio of violinists, playing Cuban music on three of Doug’s violins. These three handsome young men traded off parts effortlessly. (Apologies for the shaky video.)
At the end of the trip Doug made a gift of two violins to the Conservatory. The language barrier made it a bit confusing, but we hope these two instruments will make a difference to some of the players there. As communication between the US and Cuba improves, perhaps it will become possible to learn who is playing them, what they are playing, and how they are doing.
Academia Profesional de Artes Plásticas José Joaquín Tejada
On Monday morning, one contingent went to the Conservatory for Dan Stepner’s master class, while a group of us traveled to the José Joaquín Tejada School of Art. This is a small school – only 30 students of high school age, and it is not especially well equipped. But they have as many faculty as they have students! In addition to their studio work, they must also fulfill all the requirements of a regular high school curriculum. We visited a portrait drawing class (they draw each other), the painting studio, the sculpture studio (the school janitor was the model), and the printmaking studio. The printmaking teacher is known throughout Cuba and elsewhere, so there is real prestige here. Annie Silverman of Abrazos Printing in Somerville, MA, gave a workshop on making small books. She brought 800 pieces of paper, thread, scissors, awls, and who-knows-what else along with her to Santiago, as well as a suitcase worth of donated supplies from her local art store.
Laura Fuentes Community School of Music
Perhaps our most important donation was to the Laura Fuentes after-school music program. It’s right downtown and absolutely buzzing with activity. One of our infamous keyboards was destined for Laura Fuentes (the other to the Conservatory). Kids of all ages come here after school and in the evening for music classes, instrument instruction, etc. It’s a poor school in a poor city in a poor country, but what they do have money can’t buy – the love of music in a culture that promotes it for everyone. You can’t walk down the street without hearing people play. Some of it’s great, some of it’s not, but it’s all around.
We visited the school on Monday afternoon when they were in full swing. The kids sang and played for us, big groups, small groups and soloists. We did the same for them, finishing up as usual with Sasha.
In and around Santiago
We had plenty of time during our stay to visit interesting places, wander around town, go to museums, the beach, the hills outside town. Some of us took dance lessons. At least one person sat on a horse. Annie and I visited La Gran Piedra – a World Heritage site and national monument, and the Jardin Ave de Paraisos nearby. Others went to San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, Cayo Granma, and the Museo del Carnaval where we lucked into some wonderful dance and music performances. As a group we visited Basílica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, where sufferers are healed and appeals made to the Virgin and her Santería counterpart, Ochún. Several of us left candles and made appeals, at least one of which was miraculously granted.
Our stay included an evening at the Jazz Club Iris, where Ben Stepner played a solo piano set to our delight and that of the local audience. Our guide, Erick, plays bass in the Septeto Tipico Tivoli, and they played on the rooftop at the Casa Granda one night and again at the Patio de los dos Abuelos (Patio of the Two Grandpas). If you go to Santiago, make it your business to hear this group. We did not even scratch the surface of the great music in Santiago. One of Doug’s violins made a brief appearance with a group in Parque Céspedes. Our new friend Eduardo is playing it here.
Everyone couldn’t be everywhere, but we were able to pool our experiences and know that next time we will see the things that we missed. The folks that went to Roca del Morro heard a female a capella quartet , Vocal Vidas, that was so wonderful they invited them to our rooftop barbecue the next evening, and we hope that we can arrange for them to visit us in New England eventually.
But what about the keyboards?
As we promised, we took the two keyboards back to the airport on our way back to Montreal. Our guide, the wonderful Erick, rounded them up (on foot!) before rounding up all of us at our various casas, with about half as much luggage as we had when we arrived only a week before. Erick promised that the keyboards will ultimately go to the schools they were meant for – the Conservatory and the Laura Fuentes Community Music School.
Our last sight of Erick was standing there with the keyboards on a trolley. What happened after? It’s a mystery.