American Stars Jam With Cuba's Best Musicians In Havana

Originally published on April 30, 2016 8:25 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

American musicians have long embraced Cuban rhythms and melodies. Think Dizzy Gillespie jamming in Havana nightclubs, Ry Cooder recording the "Buena Vista Social Club" but now they're doing it officially. The first U.S.-Cuban government-sponsored cultural delegation since the 1959 Cuban revolution has just returned from Havana. NPR's Mandalit del Barco went with them.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Whoa.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: On stage at Havana’s La Fabrica de Arte Cultural, American stars Usher, Smokey Robinson and Dave Matthews engaged in a bit of international call and response.

SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) Yeah, yeah yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Yeah, yeah yeah.

ROBINSON: (Singing) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Oh.

ROBINSON: (Singing) Ooh.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Ooh.

DEL BARCO: This performance space didn't exist three years ago. It's another sign of change in Cuba. Like the other Americans in the delegation, Smokey Robinson said he was thrilled to perform with the Cubans whose music he's long admired.

ROBINSON: It is so intoxicating. It's so rhythmic and so grab a hold of you (laughter) you know?

DEL BARCO: The visit was a collaboration with some of Havana's best musicians, like X Alfonso and pianist Aldo Lopez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: During the visit, American violinist Joshua Bell performed with an all-female classical string orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: And Usher lit up a street party in Regla, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Last year, Usher got married in Cuba. Now he was back with his wife and an entourage of bodyguards and a social media assistant who tweeted about the trip. At the home of the late writer Ernest Hemingway, Usher reflected on their visit.

USHER: You know, a lot of people, people of power, dignitaries, celebrities, they come here to a place like this for photo ops, but this was an opportunity to really kind of forge a great relationship in talks about education, art, culture - you know, Cuban and American doing things together productively.

DEL BARCO: Of course, this was not the first time American and Cuban musicians have played together on the island. But this delegation, which also included actors Alfre Woodward and Kal Penn, the heads of the Smithsonian, the NEA and the NEH, marked the first time in 59 years that both governments sanctioned an official cultural exchange. At a recently opened rooftop restaurant, singer Carlos Varela welcomed the warming relations between Cuba and the U.S. with caution.

CARLOS VARELA: (Speak Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "We worry that coming to Cuba will just be a new American fad," says Varela. He wonders whether visitors will really make the effort to get to know the people and the culture here like the musicians on the delegation did. Varela's protest ballots were once banned by the very same government he was now representing as a cultural ambassador. Several times during the visit, Varela performed one of his songs about opening doors in a duet with Dave Matthews.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALLS AND DOORS")

DAVE MATTHEWS: (Singing) There can be freedom only when nobody owns it.

VARELA: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Keeping the beat on stage with Varela and Matthews was Cuba's hottest new drummer, 28-year-old Yssy Garcia, who's performed in the U.S. but always returned to Cuba. She says her entire education at the music conservatory was free.

YSSY GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Garcia says she's grateful Cuba recognizes musicians as workers. Every month she gets a regular government salary - the equivalent of about $20, which buys rations of rice, bread and milk for her family. She supplements that by playing as many as four or five gigs a day with other musicians, and she has her own band that fuses jazz and hip-hop, music that in the past was banned at Cuba's music schools. Contrast her experience with musician Dave Matthews.

MATTHEWS: Yssy is a phenomenal talent who makes a very meager living. I'm extraordinarily compensated for playing music. That seems unfair, right?

DEL BARCO: Matthews was impressed by Cuba's commitment to arts education and he said he wishes the U.S. had the same for its public schools.

MATTHEWS: I could have my taxes raised by 30 percent if my government told me they would teach my children to play music and art and ingrain it in my country. I wouldn't be the least bit upset.

DEL BARCO: This was Matthew's first trip to Cuba. He brought along his sister, his wife and their three children. He also brought hard-to-get strings for the tres guitar, which he gave to musician Andy Rodriguez and his friends.

MATTHEWS: And it's my pleasure, man. It was so nice to meet you and then I just thought, hey, I know some tres - I finally found...

ANDY RODRIGUEZ: It's really difficult to get strings here. It's like sometimes we use what we have.

MATTHEWS: That's what I'm saying, so I got this.

ANDY RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, that's funny. Thank you.

DEL BARCO: During his visit, Matthews worried about the impending wave of American tourists and how they might change the character of Cuba.

MATTHEWS: You know, let's got to Havana and see what it's like. Apparently it's falling down. It's frozen and, you know, that kind of thing makes me want to go crazy. I want to get a megaphone and scream, emergency, the Americans are coming. Hold on to what you have 'cause it's going to be a hell of a storm.

DEL BARCO: Cuban rappers Alexey Rodriguez and Magia Lopez, members of the hip-hop group Obsesion, worry about some of the same things.

ALEXEY RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Rodriguez said with the changes, Cubans have to hold onto their cultural identity, and Lopez says they need to be strong not to lose their soul. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.