A Beautiful Cacophony

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The effort was there.

Throughout their two-week trip in Cuba, senior Kenneth Schuster had been trying to get the rest of the UMD Chamber Orchestra to boogie down. "As good as we are as musicians, I wish the people that I traveled with were a little more adventurous when it came to dancing. Everyone wanted to dance all the time, except for us." So when their tour guide beckoned him to the dance floor, Kenneth didn't hesitate. His heart was in the rhumba, but the guide's final refrain still rings in his ear, "You don't have to move your butt so much. That's really just for the women."

From dance tips to experiencing music's profound ability to transcend borders, fourteen Bulldogs opened themselves up for all things authentically Cuban this January. They landed on the communist island country just weeks after the U.S. lightened the trade embargoes that have been in place for more than 50 years, since the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis.

Of all the UMD groups, it seems especially fitting that the first cohort to travel to Cuba was the musicians. Even the non-musical can conjure up the signature Cuban rhythm that motivated Kenneth's moves, and to be among the first Americans to make the trip made it especially momentous.

It's All Relative

UMD Chamber Orchestra group photo while in Cuba
The UMD Chamber Orchestra prior to their concert at the Episcopal Cathedral in Havana, Cuba

Earlier this month, the Star Tribune announced that the Minnesota Orchestra would be the first U.S. orchestra to perform in Cuba since President Obama announced his plan to normalize relations with the country. But the Minnesota Orchestra's Cuban concerts are scheduled for May, five months after the UMD Chamber Orchestra completed four, albeit smaller, concerts for Cuban audiences. “We were one of the first to go,” says Associate Professor Rudy Perrault who, along with Assistant Professor Betsy Husby, led the trip. "It was great to be able to ask the Cubans, ‘How do you feel about this?"

The significance of chatting with Cuban citizens wasn't lost on junior Daniel Keeler either. Daniel, who had to envelop his cello in a soft case, then a hard case, and then another hard case for the trip, related to a mom that he met. “She had very broken English, but she said that she sent two sons to America and hadn’t heard from them in a long while. The fact that she wanted to know more about the U.S. and the U.S. system and relate it to what she knew— it was kind of like what we’re doing.”

Relating, whether through street-side conversations or in symphony concert halls, was the mission of the trip. Rudy partnered with a fine arts conservatory in Havana so that his students could see a high level of playing and folded in opportunities for his students to perform. In between concerts, the group immersed themselves in the signature food, art, and classic cars of the country.

It didn't take long for the group to get into the groove. Perfecting that groove, however, took a little practice.

From Rigid to Rhumba

UMD Chamber Orchestra Performing in Cuba
Little girl pretending to play the violin in Cuba
Kenneth Schuster, center, and the UMD Chamber Orchestra performing for a school group in Havana, top, while a student plays along

Remembering the struggle, Rudy's voice raises an octave or two. The director of orchestras at UMD was combining his patience, passion, and musical expertise, all his tools, in effort to get his orchestra to feel "Wapango," a rhumba that they were going to perform on their trip to Cuba. "It took hours of trying to get them to stand up and dance. We tried everything." Rudy concurs that the Minnesota culture may have played a part in the difficulties, calling it "ridged" in comparison, but he paints a vivid picture of the process, "It was a disaster. It was blood and tears. They fought it all the way... until it started clicking."

"Wapango has a certain feel that you can't get unless you're in that culture," says Daniel. While adding his cello chords to the symphony orchestra's "Wapango" performance in Cuba, he peeked at the audience for their reaction. "They kind of looked at us and smiled, like 'Good try."

Betsy Husby says that what finally pushed the students from disaster to "good try" was an opportunity to live among the culture that bore the piece. "I really feel that the students living there started to feel it," she explains. "You hear the music everywhere; it's always in the background." Betsy compares learning music to learning a language and says that this total immersion helped her students.

Music also became a way of communicating. Kenneth remembers struggling to talk to some Cubans about a soccer game, but noticing a shared passion for their art that transcended language barriers. "We met up with a couple of violinists. One of the musicians started playing for us, and that was really cool for me. They only spoke so much English and I only spoke so much Spanish, but we played the same instrument, so we saw eye to eye."

That shared vision is where it all starts.

A school group performing in Cuba
Havana street
A UMD student shows a Cuban student her violin
Photos, top to bottom: a) A Havana school group performs for the UMD Chamber Orchestra B) The colorful buildings of Havana C) Savannah Harland shows a student her violin

UMD Those who can Duluth

Written by Lori C. Melton. February, 2015.

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Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu

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