Performances and jam sessions break the ice during first U.S. cultural
mission to Cuba
A 33-member delegation that included Usher and Smokey Robinson visited
From a hip-hop block party to impromptu jam sessions, they shared
More cultural exchanges with Cuba are in the works
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
They came, they jammed, they danced to Cuban hip-hop, but did they conquer?
A group of American cultural officials and a dozen entertainers and
other artists returned Thursday from a four-day cultural diplomacy
mission to Cuba that was sponsored by the U.S. government and billed as
the first of its kind since the thaw in relations between the United
States and Cuba.
The 33-member delegation included representatives from three U.S.
government agencies — the National Endowment for the Arts, the National
Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian — as well as members of
the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
The trip was the stuff of hundreds of potential music videos — from
Cubans standing on the rooftops and dancing in the street as singer
Usher passed sitting on the roof of a van to Dave Matthews singing as
Cuban musician Carlos Varela strummed the guitar to a jam session at the
rooftop bar of a fashionable Cuban paladar (private restaurant).
It also produced some unusual cultural pairings as the official
delegation danced to a mean horn section played by young musicians at a
youth arts program, internationally acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell
played Bach for elementary students and a Matthews-Varela video ended up
on social media thanks to actor Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar and House fame.
Though communications from Cuba can sometimes be tricky, Usher Tweeted
up a storm during the trip and could barely rein in his enthusiasm about
the island. "People climbing in trees, on the rooftops, & flooding the
streets running. Love Cuba so much! Energy is insane!" he posted on his
Twitter account after his exuberant welcome by Cuban fans.
After taking a ferry across Havana Bay to the Regla municipality, which
he called the "Regla hood," he posted: "The scenery is so dope!" In
Regla, took part in a hip-hop block party."
At the Miguel Fernández Roig elementary school in Central Havana, Usher
sang La Guantanamera and Cuba que linda es Cuba and R&B singer Smokey
Robinson had his picture taken with the kids in their school uniforms,
blue kerchiefs at their necks. He noted that he loves Cuban music and
grew up listening to Cuban jazz.
The delegation also visited Cuba's Museum of Fine Arts, took in a
performance of the Rosario Cárdenas dance company, stopped by Finca
Vigía, Ernest Hemingway's old house and now a museum, and met with
directors of the Cuban Institute of Music as well as Cuban actors and
film producers at the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry.
There were also workshops, panels, lectures and discussions with Cuban
"There's a real willingness to see more cultural exchanges between the
two countries," said Ricky Arriola, Miami Beach commissioner and a
member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. "I
think everyone knows things are changing and culture can be one of the
drivers of this. It can have a profound effect on people's opinions."
"Havana reminded me of South Beach in the 1980s and Berlin in the 1990s.
You get the feelings that Cuba really is on the verge of change," he
said after he touched down in Miami on Thursday. Arriola said he was
surprised by how much some Cuban artists are trying to push the
boundaries of expression.
Among the other artists acting as cultural ambassadors were: Lourdes
Lopez, artistic director of the Miami City Ballet; choreographer Martha
Clarke; playwright John Guare; Larisa Martinez, resident artist at the
Bare Opera; John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for his role as Frankie
Valli in Jersey Boys; DJ IZ, and actress Alfre Woodard.
Usher and Penn were the most recognizable stars for the Cubans, said
Arriola. "Even the baggage guys recognized Kal, and, of course, Smokey
is revered but it's more of a generational thing," he said.
What did all the cultural diplomacy add up to?
For starters, more cultural exchanges are in the works.
The Sundance Film Festival plans to screen two films in Cuba next year
and bring in their actors and directors for panel discussions. Six
feature films produced by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and
Industry also will be shown in 10 U.S. cities.
And Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton said he'd like to not only see
Cuba take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is held every
year on the National Mall in Washington, but also be the focus of next
The National Endowment for the Humanities is giving a $30,000 grant to
the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware to send
a team of cultural preservationists and students to the island to meet
with their Cuban counterparts for discussions on conservation challenges
and techniques for preserving manuscripts, photographs and collections.
Arriola said there also will be NEA funding to send a broad range of
American performing and visual artists to Cuba. "Each U.S. agency is
committing resources and people to Cuba projects," he said.
"I believe that everything is opening up and this trip will contribute
to that," Robinson told Cubadebate, an official Cuban website. "Since
I've been here I have heard many marvelous musicians and I think you
have good possibilities of signing a contract with producers in the
New rules announced since the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement began on Dec. 17,
2014 make it easy to organize and carry out such cultural exchanges.
U.S. travelers may now go to Cuba to attend cultural performances,
exports related to artistic endeavors are permitted, and U.S. organizers
of public performances in Cuba no longer need to seek prior approval
from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. A requirement that any
earnings from such events be donated to non-profit groups also has been
Source: Performances and jam sessions break the ice during first U.S.
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