“Mano a Mano means hand in hand,” says Fermin Rojas, a Cuban-born filmmaker who grew up in Miami Beach and South Miami and now lives in Oakland Park with husband and business partner Jay Kubesch.
Mano a Mano is also the name of Cuba’s gay men’s chorus, a group of five singers visiting the United States for the first time and performing Saturday night in Fort Lauderdale with 80 members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida.
“The people in Cuba love Mano a Mano,” says lead singer Arian Ferrer, 29, of Havana, who with the rest of his group arrived June 13 in Fort Lauderdale. Since then, they’ve performed concerts in Los Angeles and Washington; Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York; and in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They sing in English and Spanish.
“We like sharing our talent and our music with audiences in the U.S.,” Ferrer says. “We like being able to reach and touch people’s hearts through our work. [The U.S.] is a huge country. There are so many different types of people here. Different cultures. You can learn from all different cultures without going to different countries.”
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Rojas and Kubesch conceived a Cuban chorus while making a documentary on the island, “Alumbrones,” a feature about life in Cuba through the eyes of 12 local artists.
“One of the artists I interviewed during the making of ‘Alumbrones’ said something to me that really struck a chord: He said, ‘All I can do is leave a record of what I have done for my country,’ ” said Rojas, who 50 years ago at age 6 moved with his family to South Florida. “I started to think about what I could contribute to my country of birth after having reunited, so to speak, after 50 years of separation. The answer came rather quickly: For 10 or 12 years, I sang with Miami Gay Men’s Chorus. I thought Cuba is ready for a gay men’s chorus. And it’s been a very interesting journey ever since.”
About two years ago, Rojas and friend Chris Verdugo, a Miami-born Cuban American who now is executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, moved ahead with starting a Cuban chorus.
They hired musical director Ernesto Lima Parets, an adjunct professor at University of Havana School of Music, and by word-of-mouth advertised auditions for “gay male singers.”
“I toyed with the idea of whether to do a mixed chorus, a women’s chorus or a men’s chorus,” Rojas says. “I came to the conclusion that the visual impact of a gay men’s chorus in a macho country had more impact in the country — daring and in your face in a macho country.”
Despite Cuba’s long history of being anti-LGBT, about 50 men showed up for the audition, Rojas says.
In fact, the Cuban government has been supportive of Mano a Mano, he says.
“They haven’t interrupted the process at all, which is a good thing,” Rojas says. “As far as Mano a Mano, the group goes, we are a completely independent, nongovernment organization which has been embraced, if by nobody else, CENESEX, which is the national Center for Sex Education in Cuba. They champion LGBT rights and women’s rights.”
Cuban leader Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela heads CENESEX.
“Mano a Mano has been invited two years running to perform in the annual performance show that celebrates against homophobia and transphobia,” Rojas says. “It’s sort of like gay pride. They don’t like calling it gay pride because they feel it is not inclusive enough.”
Since the beginning, Rojas and Kubesch have privately funded all expenses of a full-time Cuban chorus.
“Jay’s third cousin wrote a few tunes you might know,” Rojas says. “His name was Cole Porter. Let’s just leave it there.”
Others have underwritten Mano a Mano’s U.S. tour.
“One, a generous grant from the Gil Foundation. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. The Kubesch family, private donors. We had great help from travel partners including Southwest Airlines, Cape Air, Havana Air and JetBlue,” Rojas says. “The budget for 42 days including meals, hotels, all costs excluding airfare: $50,000. All airfares have been donated.”
The U.S. tour also dovetailed with GALA Chorus’ international festival the first week of July, in which 190 member choruses from around the world convened and performed in Denver.
There, Mano a Mano got to better know members of the Fort Lauderdale-based South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, which during winter season has about 150 members.
“Both groups are just back from Denver,” says Mark Kent, executive director of the South Florida chorus. “It was absolutely awe-inspiring to see so many LGBT people not just from our country but from Germany, Canada and China, all coming together under this umbrella of music. Music is such a shared human experience that it becomes common language.”
Kent, 51, says it “makes sense” that Mano a Mano’s final U.S. concert this tour be in South Florida.
“It felt like the right thing and the exciting thing to do,” Kent says. “Plus they’re really good. They’re just an incredibly gifted group of young men. They are so sweet. They were just wide eyed and excited about the adventure in front of them. I think South Florida is just going to eat them up.”
If You Go
▪ What: The Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida presents “¡Fraternidad!” with guest artists Mano a Mano of Cuba.
▪ Where: Sunshine Cathedral, 1480 SW Ninth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
▪ When: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 23
▪ Tickets: $25 to $45 (premium price includes dessert reception with Mano a Mano afterward). To purchase and for more information: www.gaymenschorusofsouthflorida.org/tickets_2015_2016.html