Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra Discovers that Music is Everywhere in Cuba
The fifty-seven young musicians of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra (OSYO) carried their instruments through the Havana airport, cleared customs and opened their cases for the instruments to adjust to the balmy Cuban climate. The musicians themselves also quickly acclimated to the warmth of Cuba and its people, culture and music. Music is omnipresent in Cuba, and the Oakland musicians encountered it everywhere they went – in the streets, hotels, restaurants and concert halls.
On their very first evening, during dinner at a typical Cuban restaurant, the orchestra was serenaded at their tables by an acoustic quartet consisting of guitar, lute, flute and percussion. The ensemble’s lively rhythms and enchanting vocal harmonies impressed upon the California visitors that they had really arrived in Cuba. The young musicians’ fast adaptation to this new culture was evident when one of the orchestra’s percussionists got up to join the ensemble on the bongos, amazing Cubans and Americans alike with his effortless assimilation into the Cuban groove.
The orchestra was delighted to discover that live music was de rigueur at each restaurant, and others followed the percussionist’s lead by joining the local performers on saxophone, maracas, claves, chequeres, bongos and timbales, as well as singing and dancing along. Ensembles’ homemade CDs were the perfect souvenirs for the orchestra to remember the wonderful music of Cuba that they had not only heard, but also had played along with and danced to throughout the tour.
Music and dance go hand in hand in Cuba. In Santa Clara, dance instructors visited the orchestra’s hotel to teach a two-hour, wonderfully entertaining salsa class. In Havana, an all-female company led orchestra members in an Afro-Cuban music workshop, sharing songs, percussion rhythms and dance steps to a traditional Yoruba song, which stayed in the young Oaklanders’ heads and hearts long afterward.
OSYO also shared their music with Cubans, performing three energetic, well-received concerts in the Teatro Tomás Terry in Cienfuegos, Teatro La Caridad in Santa Clara, and the Teatro Nacional in Havana. In acknowledgement of Cuba’s reverence for Russian culture and music, the orchestra selected powerful works by some of the great Russian composers. Local Cuban choirs opened the first two programs, and, in a beautiful gesture of goodwill, performed American spirituals along with their usual Latin American repertoire. On the final program, the Havana-based Schola Cantorum Coralina collaborated with the orchestra to perform Mozart’s “Alma Dei Creatoris” to the great delight of the audience and the orchestra members. These concerts were a valuable opportunity for exchange with Cuban musicians in a classical setting.
Thanks to their tour guides, the orchestra learned about the history of the song “Guantanamera”, Cuba’s unofficial anthem. Some of the students then performed the song for their family members from the supporters’ tour who had joined them for a farewell dinner on the penultimate night of the tour. The orchestra even soaked up popular Cuban music, singing the reggaetón hit, “Hasta Que Se Seque el Malecón” with great excitement on the bus rides home at night.
The Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra was most fortunate to tour Cuba at a time when diplomatic relations have improved between the two countries. Some of the goals of our countries’ respective leaders are that the Cuban and American people come together, exchange ideas and experiences, and strive for mutual respect and understanding. These fifty-seven young musicians from Oakland proved to be incredible ambassadors for their city and country, engaging with Cubans through a most meaningful and beautiful medium: music.
Photos courtesy of Charles Tai
Catherine John is an ACFEA Tour Administrator in the San Francisco office. She has been a longtime fan of OSYO and was very lucky to accompany them on their Cuba tour. The exceptional young musicians were even nice enough to let her play violin in the orchestra!
Read Catherine’s full bio here.