Cuba: The Final Frontier of Touring



    Photography by Katarina Benzova, courtesy of The Dead Dasies

    Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Hilary Saunders goes inside what the recent change in Cuban restrictions means to touring bands. 


    Neeta Helms is trying to figure out how to get the double basses, harp, and timpani on a plane. Actually, she’s thinking she might need two planes. From her office in Alexandria, Virginia, she’s coordinating with representatives from the Minnesota Orchestra to transport 160 people and all their instruments to Cuba this May.

    “Only cargo planes can take the basses standing up,” she says with a laugh and only the slightest hint of exasperation.


    Helms, president of the concert touring company Classical Movements, is a pianist and singer herself. She loves her work and keeps an optimistic face about its social, political, and emotional value throughout our conversation.

    While members of the Minnesota Orchestra rehearse Beethoven’s third symphony, adjusting their intonation and perfecting their pitch at Orchestra Hall in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis, Classical Movements stays equally busy preparing all the touring logistics and providing political expertise for them to travel. The honor and excitement of their upcoming trip isn’t lost on the orchestra; they’re the first group of musicians from the United States to tour the embargoed island since President Barack Obama’s recent statement on Cuban-American policy.


    “We will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” President Obama announced on December 17, 2014. “Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”


    Dubbed “The Cuban Thaw,” this attempt at normalizing Cuban-American relations represents the first significant effort to do so in five decades. The United States and its 90-mile-away island neighbor have been estranged since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Because of Fidel Castro’s communist government, the States imposed an embargo that year and have maintained it since through the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. By 1962, travel and trade between the States and Cuba were prohibited. The Cold War only exacerbated tensions, as Cuba’s allegiances remained with the former Soviet Union.

    The pendulum of pressures began swinging in the Clinton and succeeding Bush presidencies. Notably, President Clinton attempted to open relations by establishing a baseball series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team in Havana in 1999. When President Bush took office, though, he reverted to tightening travel restrictions to and from the island, and in his second term was widely quoted as calling Cuba an “outpost of tyranny.”


    Today, neither country has official diplomatic relationships on the other’s soil. In fact, the US’s Interest Section in Havana and the Cuban Interests Section in D.C. are both outposts of the Swiss government.


    So when Kevin Smith, President and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, heard President Obama’s speech, he immediately began exploring the possibilities of what his organization could do to expedite the thaw through music.

    The Minnesota Orchestra has worked quickly to do so, at “lightening speed,” quips Gwen Pappas, the orchestra’s Director of Public Relations. In January, they reached out to Classical Movements to see what could be done.

    Within 21 days, Helms counted, Classical Movements secured the invitation from the Cuban Ministry of Culture for the Minnesota Orchestra to perform as part of the International Cubadisco Festival. The orchestra will perform on Friday, May 15 and Saturday, May 16 at the Teatro Nacional during the nine-day festival. It’s one of the most popular musical events in the country; Helms likened it to the Grammy Awards.


    This tour revisits a historical connection, as the Minnesota Orchestra actually played in Cuba consecutively in 1929 and 1930. To commemorate that relationship, the orchestra will reprise its performance of Beethoven’s “heroic” third symphony and collaborate with esteemed local musicians.


    Speaking from Minneapolis, the Minnesota Orchestra’s General Manager Beth Kellar-Long elaborates on the program and its significance. She states, “The other piece that we have confirmed right now is the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, and that will be a collaboration with the Cuban National Choir. Also, the piano soloist is a Cuban pianist, Frank Fernández. That’s going to be a really amazing experience for our musicians and hopefully for their musicians, too.”

    Having just returned from a site visit the evening before our call, Kellar-Long had only spent about 48 hours in the capital making arrangements for their upcoming trip. “It was a constant flurry of activity,” she describes, “seeing the hotels, chorus, and the hall, meeting with people that we’ll be working with there, including the soloist, and trying to get some activities going outside of the concerts themselves on some sort of cultural exchanges.”


    Back in the States, she is still working on getting passports renewed, documents secured, cargo shipped, and claims filed all in just two months.

    Because, of course, it’s still not easy to get to Cuba. The recent political remarks haven’t technically changed anything other than some attitudes. In fact, the US State Department’s website explicitly states, “Tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited under US law for US citizens and others under US jurisdiction.” And the range of exceptions for a general travel license to Cuba only includes the following:

    — Family visits

    — Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations


    — Journalistic activity

    — Professional research and professional meetings

    — Educational activities

    — Religious activities

    — Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions

    — Support for the Cuban people

    — Humanitarian projects

    — Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes

    — Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials

    — Certain authorized export transactions

    “The law technically hasn’t changed,” begins Helms. “The one thing that has changed is that if you are in one of the categories that the government allowed, you no longer have to apply to the Treasury for the license. But you must follow the rules strictly.”


    Pragmatically, she continues, “You don’t go there just for fun. You must follow an itinerary and a plan. That’s a promise you make, and you have to have documentation, etc. If you break that, you’re subjected to fines and even jail time. It’s extremely important to know what is allowed on this side and what the policy is on the other side. You have to know who can make that happen, and we were in that position, and the Minnesota Orchestra, for whom we have made travel arrangements for a long time, knew to contact us.”

    But while the Minnesota Orchestra is the first major group of musicians to arrange travel to Cuba since President Obama’s announcement, they’re not the only performers who have managed to secure travel rights this year.


    Both Andy Kelly, a singer, guitarist, and teacher based in Western Massachusetts, and the Dead Daisies, a new classic rock group comprised of members from INXS, Guns N’ Roses, Thin Lizzy, and Whitesnake, have already toured Cuba in 2015. And unfortunately, they both faced complications in their efforts to get to the island nation.

    “It was quite difficult to go there,” Kelly flatly states from his home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “Really there haven’t been any changes that I’m aware of as far as the tourist travel. You still have to go under the old license system.”

    Kelly, a 57-year-old independent musician, has been playing since 1970. For the past dozen years or so, he’s been traveling and performing with a group he founded called the Sister City Music Ambassadors. He works with a roster of other musicians that changes personnel and musical genres on each trip.


    “We believe that we can help to make friends with people around the world, build bridges between different cultures by using music,” he maintains.


    On this trip to Cuba, Kelly went to Havana with a four-piece rock and country band for a week in early February. He sang and played guitar along with his daughter, Tessa, and multi-instrumentalists Chris Parkinson and Ben Jaffe. Kelly’s wife, Susan, also traveled with them, serving as the group’s tour manager.

    But it took both Kelly and the Dead Daisies each more than a year to finalize their respective travel plans. Kelly tried to apply for his own license last summer but was denied. He ended up going through a People to People Ambassador Program license as a Citizen Ambassador through Project Por Amor. And the Dead Daisies began their planning and application processes as early as 2013.


    Dave Edwards, the Dead Daisies’ manager who previously managed INXS, acknowledged that their visa process changed midway through the process. Plus, they had to prepare for a host of inconveniences not regularly found in other popular countries where his bands tour.

    Calling from outside Los Angeles a few days before the Dead Daisies’ trip in late February, Edwards explained, “There’s two currencies, one for all of us tourists and there’s one for the locals. There’s a whole lot of those idiosyncrasies that are kind of unique since the embargo.”

    He continued, “You can’t use American-based credit cards. These days when we’re touring, a lot of stuff is done through us getting around with credit cards between hotels and all that sort of stuff. It’s a simple thing of paying bills or paying for the things that you need to put on. It’s a dilemma, and it becomes very challenging.”



    And once American musicians arrive in Cuba, they’re often shocked by the frozen-in-time state of the island. “Not much new building has gone on since [The Cuban Revolution],” says Kelly. “The houses, they look like they haven’t even been painted, to be honest with you. They’re beautiful old houses because this was the gem of the Spanish empire originally. The houses have marble floors and Roman columns, but they’re all beat up. They haven’t been taken care of.”

    He describes the streets in Havana as full of cars from the 1950s. ”It’s not just one or two of them!” he exclaims. “They’re keeping those cars since the pre-revolution days. And music is probably the same way to some extent.”

    But that music is also a means toward communication and mutual understanding. Most visas include some component of cultural exchange, which enables the American musicians to interact with, teach, and learn from the Cuban people. Kelly noted that he tried to incorporate Spanish language hits like “La Bamba”, “Guantanamera”, and “Bailando” into the Sister City Music Ambassadors’ repertoire so that his audiences would hear familiar tunes. But some American chart-toppers from the 1950s, as well as British songs, also proved to be quite popular.



    He fondly recalls performing with young musicians at the Sociedad Cultural José Martí, a cultural center in Havana. The Sister City Music Ambassadors alternated performing with the local group, and Kelly says, ”After we played with the children’s group, I called them back up to do ‘Bailando’ together. Everyone’s laughing and having fun, and then the teacher said, ‘Wait, we’ve prepared something special for you, too!’ So she sits down at the piano, and she was wonderful — one of those teachers you can see can just really spread the spark of music to children. And these were small kids, ages seven to 10 years old. They started playing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine!’

    “Everyone is swaying and singing ‘Imagine’ together and then she said, ‘We have one more,’ and they started playing ‘Hey Jude’,” he exudes. “That was really one of our special moments.”

    The Dead Daisies also packed their weeklong trip with diverse musical exchanges. They went to a local rumba club, documented a local recording session with local Cuban musicians in a style that Edwards describes as “a classic rock Buena Vista Social Club,” visited music schools, held master classes, and culminated their trip with a performance at the Cuba Rocks for Peace concert at Salón Rosado de La Tropical.


    Two days before the band left for Havana, bassist Marco Mendoza called in between normal errands like a dentist appointment and picking up his kids from school. Thinking about the Dead Daisies’ extraordinary upcoming trip, he shared his eagerness for performing and learning about the country’s musical history.


    The significance of the band’s trip was not lost. “Music does matter,” he stated staunchly. “I’ve always been a firm believer that in the form of entertainment, music can bring awareness to a lot of issues, politically and otherwise.”

    While he’s careful to differentiate between raising awareness and spurring action through his art, Mendoza acknowledged that the Dead Daisies’ Cuban travels have the potential to affect touring opportunities for other American musicians in the future.


    “Diplomacy is looking good right now,” he said, “so hopefully we can be some good ambassadors down there and start opening some doors.”

    Dizzy Reed

    That sentiment is shared among the American musicians of diverse genres who have toured Cuba this year and those who are planning to do so. From Minnesota, Pappas says, “Musical exchanges between people are always powerful and positive. So for us to have a chance to go to Havana and play for people there, and maybe for our musicians to have a chance to play some jazz music with Cuban musicians there, these are amazing opportunities that we’re privileged to be a part of.

    “With the normalizing relations, hopefully it will be more and more possible for people and musicians to travel to Cuba and to have this experience.”


    Back outside of Washington, D.C., Helms reiterates her company’s role in facilitating such trips to Cuba. Her statements resonate far from the capital, though. “We believe that music and American musicians are great ambassadors for their country. It sounds like such a cliché,” she admits with a quick chuckle, “but the power of music is so strong, and musicians just find ways to make music.”


    Hilary Saunders is a writer based in Miami. She writes for Paste, eMusic, the Miami New Times, and more. Follow her @Hilary_Saunders.

    H/T to Heather Kaplan.

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