Desliz / Slip: Horns to Havana Delivers the Goods

Horns to Havana Delivers the Goods

New program brings instruments, musicians, and repair technicians to four music schools

Wynton Marsalis plays for music students during the trip that inspired Horns to Havana
It was a simple idea, born at an opportune moment: Jazz at Lincoln Center’s visit to Cuba in October 2010. For one exhilarating week, Wynton Marsalis and his elegant musicians blew their hearts out in Havana. They gave classes and jammed with students in four music schools, and almost every night played in concert at the Teatro Mella before crowds of cheeringcubanos.
Visits to the schools were inspiring, and brought the world-weary, often-on-the-road musicians to tears as talented youngsters made terrific music on instruments long past their prime. “Those horns aren’t good enough for these kids!” and “These kids are already superstars, I can’t believe they’re 12 years old,” were the kind of comments trailing after the students wherever the musicians played. At the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, I watched Marsalis in great teaching form as he explained his ideas about what it takes to be a true musician to hundreds of rapt—and knowing—students. The students were fearless, too. One after another they mounted the stage to play alongside Marsalis, as if to say “Don’t tell me I can’t be as good as you someday!” Lots of (Cuban) attitude. The Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians loved it.
Back in New York, several of those who’d worked on the trip decided that the energy of that week in Havana deserved a follow-up. The Horns to Havana project sprang to life from the inspiration of Susan Sillins, Diane Raines Ward, and Eric Wright. The Center for Cuban Studies became the fiscal sponsor; the musicians coalesced around artistic director Carlos Henriquez of JALC and Education Director Victor Goines. The idea was simple: to make it possible for each of the four music schools that Jazz at Lincoln Center had visited to have its own jazz orchestra by raising money for, and soliciting donations of, new and slightly worn instruments, and before a year had passed, to return with the instruments and with musicians to give master classes. The four schools were the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, the Manuel Saumell Conservatory, and the National School of the Arts in Havana, and the Guillermo Tomás Conservatory in Guanabacoa.
Benjamin Treuhaft’s earlier project “Send a Piana to Havana,” which had sent pianos to Cuba along with tuners to repair them and teach the art of fine tuning, served as H2H’s model. H2H realized that repairing instruments would be as important as bringing new instruments, so repair personnel were added to the group that would return to Havana in September 2011, and a Cuban luthier provided a list of necessary spare parts. From the beginning Horns to Havana was “staffed” only by volunteers – the musicians, the organizers, and the repair people all signed on pro bono. A gorgeous brochure produced early interest and donations; Ward, Sillins, and Wright stayed on top of the day-to-day work and persuaded other groups to partner with H2H by donating instruments and helping to raise money. Among these groups were the Bay Area’s PlazaCUBA, Music for Lifelong Achievement: The Sheldon, and R.S. Berkeley Musical Instruments.
Obtaining the necessary U.S. government licenses was the unenviable task of the H2H legal team. For a time, raising money became difficult because PayPal suddenly refused to accept donations unless we could prove we had the applied-for licenses. But donors were good – they gave the old-fashioned way! By late summer H2H had raised enough to ensure that the instruments, the spare parts, the musicians, the repair people, and the organizers would all get to Havana.
The government licenses finally came through, and on Sunday, September 4—two days after the materials went by cargo to Havana—the volunteers began arriving. The musicians were Goines, Henriquez, Ali Jackson, Vincent Gardner, Michael and Robert Rodriguez (Cuban American brothers), and Erica von Kleist. The repair superstars were Jeffrey Bollbach, Andy Frobig, David Gage, Kevin Gillins, and Brian Katz. They were joined by partners Sandra Levinson from CCS and Alysa Froman from PlazaCUBA. The tone of the visit was set on the first night, at a dinner with a few of the Cuban musicians. Victor Goines presented a new flute to the young flautista who had joined Jazz at Lincoln Center on stage the previous October. She was moved, and immediately tried it out by playing for us.
Although the cargo did not get out of customs for a nerve-wracking five days, master classes and repair work began immediately. The repair workshop was set up at La ENA, the Escuela Nacional de Arte, where H2H project volunteers got down to work and remained all week. The next day, the musicians and the H2H committee descended on the Guillermo Tomás Conservatory in Guanabacoa for a day of workshops and to present the gift instruments, preceded by a spirited welcoming performance by students who were already so accomplished they felt perfectly comfortable dancing wildly while playing their instruments—and the U.S. contingent joined them.
The following day, everyone met at an imposing purple-and-pink dormitory building in central Havana that houses arts students from other parts of the country studying in the city. There, the musicians conducted workshops with fifth- and sixth-graders from three elementary music schools: Manuel Saumell, Paulita Concepción, and Alejandro Caturla. Later, they returned to the school where Marsalis had given his “lesson” to hundreds, the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. On the same stage, the musicians again performed, and the gift instruments were symbolically presented: Diane Ward gave a beautiful new saxophone to director Roberto Chorens as a stand-in for the as yet unpacked instruments: two tenor saxes, two alto saxes, one baritone sax, one tuba, four trumpets, three trombones, three clarinets, three violins, drums and a double bass.
Friday was spent delivering instruments to the Saumell Conservatory and La ENA, while the repair workshops continued and the musicians set up for that night’s concert for students from all four schools at the National Theater’s Sala Covarrubias. The U.S. musicians invited several of the most remarkable students to join them on stage, and just watching them play together made the entire visit worthwhile.
On the last day, while most participants enjoyed free time in the city, the technicians continued their repair work. On their return to the States, they turned in assessments of their work and future involvement. Additionally, and perhaps one of the most important results of the trip, La ENA decided to construct a permanent home for the repair program. Tech David Gage said that the new construction “implies a solution to one of the most important physical obstacles the technicians saw in Cuba: a place to set up dedicated machinery, work space and storage facilities to efficiently teach and work.” All of the repair personnel promised to return.
Director Chorens of the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory said that “The exchange was a success, above all because there was so much human warmth. People often come here from all over the world to come into direct contact with Cuban musical life but this time the kind of friendship shown surpassed all of our expectations. As I said when you visited, more than the donations and their undeniable value for us, we will remember the warmth shown us by the musicians and non-musicians who came to us from Horns to Havana. I think that was the distinguishing characteristic of this project’s first visit.”
Co-founder Diane Raines Ward summed up the group’s feelings: “The Horns to Havana trip to Cuba was an overwhelming experience. Cuba itself is ravishing of course and the impact of meeting such gifted, spirited and hard working students and their dedicated teachers is something that none of us will forget. But there were singular efforts by so many: RS Berkeley’s gift of 28 instruments to Amadeo Roldan and allowing us to buy everything else at cost; the efforts of the instrument repair technicians who worked their hearts out; and the musicians who so generously used all of their talent and knowledge to work with the students. So many people, from donors to workers gave so much to make that trip happen and that’s a powerful legacy. I'll never forget it—I doubt that anyone who was on that trip will.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                            —Sandra Levinson

Sandra Levinson is the founder and director of the Center for Cuban Studies and Cuban Art Space in New York City.

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