Performances and jam sessions break the ice during first U.S. cultural mission to Cuba

American artist Usher embraces an Afro-Cuban dancer after a performance at the Arts Institute in Havana. He was part of the delegation on a four-day cultural mission to Cuba.
American artist Usher embraces an Afro-Cuban dancer after a performance at the Arts Institute in Havana. He was part of the delegation on a four-day cultural mission to Cuba. AP

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 cultural officials.

“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 year’s event.

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 United States.”

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 dropped.

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