Cuban Connection

I've been asked about my Cuban connection, so here is a little information about how it came about that I have my music performed so often in Cuba.

Since I teach a world music class with emphasis on Latin Music and the African Diaspora at the University of South Carolina, I was eager to go on a research trip to Cuba. My first trip there was with a group, and although going with a group was a wonderful opportunity to gain access to people and institutions I wouldn't necessarily have access to if I were traveling alone, I knew I had to go back with more specific goals.

The wonderful book Cuba And Its Music by Ned Sublette is extremely informative and I use it as a textbook in my class. But I wanted to experience how much of what I had read about was still relevant today. Or whether the success of The Buena Vista Social Club and tourism that evolves around music nostalgia of pre-revolutionary SON had turned the island into a musical museum, so to speak.


In the meanwhile, I had made connections to musicians to interview them about specific topics related to the subjects I am teaching. Furthermore, from both an educator's and a composer's perspective, I wanted to find out how the new music scene had developed in Cuba since the revolution. In particular I was interested in how isolation from the western world, and how Soviet aesthetic doctrines had an effect on Cuban music.

Limited access to new music from abroad has definitely had an impact. Conservatory-trained musicians are lacking knowledge about the musical vocabulary and instrumental techniques that have developed over the last 50 years.

For musicians in popular genres and jazz, I noticed no signs of isolation, however. In the contrary, some younger jazz musicians I saw were as close to the New York scene aesthetically and technically as if they had all just come back from an extended stay there.

ISA Instituto Superior des Artes

ISA Instituto Superior des Artes

On the other hand, the positive side of close ties to the Soviet system has led to an exchange of music educators. I met quite a few Russian music professors at the legendary ISA (Instituto Superior des Artes), and many Cuban musicians over age 40 have spent some time studying abroad in former Eastern Block countries and have been exposed to some of the rich musical traditions from that part of the world.

Since as a composer I consider my main rhythmical influences to be the bouncy odd groupings of rhythms from the Balkans and Eastern European folklore, in addition to the multi-layered and polyrhythmic rhythms of Latin American and African music, it was great for me to find classically trained musicians who are well versed in these at times tricky rhythms. I tend to also add a good dose of funky and jazzy elements into my mix. 

Musicians, such as pianist Marita Rodriguez, told me they were hungry for new music, but often had trouble connecting to more avant-garde aesthetics. I sent them a few scores, they wanted more and wanted me to adapt something for them or write new material specifically for them. Of course, they have no commissioning budget, and because of the realities of their economical situation, where a full time orchestra job pays maybe $40/ month, I'm happy to donate my scores to musicians who to such an extent embrace my music.

Sala Cervantes

Sala Cervantes

They have already put on three performances of my music - two of which you can see below, two more performances are confirmed, and an additional two more have been submitted to a festival but not yet confirmed. If the timing is right, I hope to be able to visit Cuba for the premiere of a sextet for woodwinds and piano.

 I am happy that music, books, and visual art do not fall under the limitations of the embargo. But I'm pretty sure my email correspondence with Cuban musicians have been screened by both the NSA and the Cubans...