The full crew posing at the Centro Cultural Africano Fernando Ortiz.
Of all the musical experiences on my recent trip to Cuba with Mick Moloney and Green Fields of American, the most enriching were the moments of informal music making. They gave us opportunity to better get to know our new Cuban friends, and the more we learned the more we were captivated by their dedication and skill.
Everyone found Yadira Hernández Barrera a delight, for example. She’s an accomplished singer with an endearing personality who graduated from the Unidad Docente de Canto Lírico Ernesto Lecuona de Pinar del Río in 2007 and is the director of the Antigua Tradicional y Folclórica Resurrectio, a folkloric group that was involved with Havana’s CeltFest Festival for three years. Barrera is quite knowledgeable about Irish music, but she sings in Irish, a language she doesn’t speak, and learns the songs by ear. What’s it like for her to learn songs in Irish? “It’s very different,” she explained. “Everything – the pronunciation, the feeling. Phonetically it is very soft, it’s not like Spanish, which has a more hard pronunciation. There are sounds that we just don’t have here.”
Yadira Hernández Barrera singing
at the Teatro Macuba in Santiago.
Paino is a highly accomplished musician with classical training who performs traditional music. She’s worked with the Asturian group "Xareu de Ochobre,” and with artists including Nuala Kennedy and Niamh Ní Charra at CeltFest. Although reserved in demeanor, it all changes when she plays. Her skill as a fiddler is formidable and together with Tergis delivered one of the week’s most moving moments, an air and a selection of reels played as a duet, during the concert at Santiago’s Teatro Macuba.
The players on the trip who might most intrigue readers were the two uilleann pipers, Corrales and Méndez. Corrales, whose outgoing personality reflects her playing style, started out on the Asturian bagpipes, but she took on the uilleann pipes five years ago. “I didn’t know this instrument existed,” she told me, “but a professor came to Pinar del Rio with some posters of this instrument and I wanted to know more about their music.” She got her start, as did Méndez and the dozen or so uilleann pipers based in Cuba, through Gay McKeon, who first visited Cuba as part of CubaFest in 2011.
The gregarious Méndez started on the Galician pipes when he was 14 through Havana’s Galician Society, but switched to the uilleann pipes in 2011 after Gay McKeon’s visit to CeltFest in 2011. He’s become a lovely, controlled player, as evidenced by his superb version of the air “Dear Irish Boy.” The road the instrument’s put him on has even taken to Ireland a number of times, where he’s well known. “It amazing, sometimes I say it’s like my second country,” Méndez says of Ireland. “I enjoyed the best kind of music. I’ve dedicated my mature life to this music and when I have the opportunity to play with masters in Ireland, like my teacher Gay McKeon, it’s very good. It’s great for us.”
Alexander Suárez Méndez & Rosalia
Acosta Corrales delighting the audience.
Cuba is amazing and a brilliant place to visit. There is an impression among Americans that going to Cuba is not only difficult, but with recent regulation changes, a near-impossibility unless you join an expensive group tour. I learned this is definitely not the case, as it’s simply a matter of understanding how to navigate one's travel license (which is simply designated online) and then obtaining your Cuban visa or “tourist card” at airport check in. Quickly put, individuals travel under the “Support for the Cuban People” license. This category encourages travel to support Cuba’s emerging private sector as much as possible and stipulates that US visitors engage in a “full-time schedule of activities” that “enhance(s) contact with the Cuban people” and “result(s) in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.” Examples of required activities include staying at casa particulares (bed and breakfasts), eating at paladars (restaurants), and shopping with cuentapropistas (self-employed workers), which are all private enterprises that operate independent from the Cuban state. They’re simple to find and are everywhere.
Musicians, in particular, should feel comfortable going to Cuba. Bring an instrument, put the feelers out, and you may find yourself a nice session with engaged, connected musicians, like the ones on this tour, especially if you’re in and around Havana. Or, if you learn a little about how Cuban music works and venture out from the capital, you’ll find new and rewarding musical experiences in places you wouldn’t necessarily imagine.
This trip to Cuba was a memorable and eye opening. The performances the Green Fields did with our new Cuban friends were engrossing and proved yet again the strength and portability of Irish traditional music across boundaries. But the friendly, positive encounters we all had with musicians in general spoke volumes about Cuba and its people. Congratulations to the Fund for Reconciliation and Development for their leadership and vision in building a bridge between Cuba and the Irish diaspora – it’s fertile musical ground that everyone should know about and experience. For more information about the organization and about travel to Cuba in general, visit the Fund for Reconciliation and Development’s website, www.ffrd.org.
Part 2 of Daniel Neely's Cuba report is here.