Final Thoughts on Cuba

By Scott Chamberlain

(Reposted with permission from

For some time now, I’ve been planning on doing a final wrap-up about my time in Cuba with the Minnesota Orchestra. My last tour-related article for MinnPost was amore analytical overview of what the tour meant on a broader scale, and I’m quite proud of it.

But at the same time, the tour touched me deeply on a personal level, and I wanted to capture my personal feelings with a post here on my blog—one that would serve as my final thoughts about the tour, provide profound wisdom that would set the Internet ablaze, and no doubt win me not just a Pulitzer, but a Nobel Peace Prize for my ability to bring two hostile countries together.

As you may have noticed, such a blog post has not yet materialized.

In truth, the demands of my real job made it hard for me to get back to my blog, but the real problem was the issue of timing; as time went on, I thought Cuba was becoming less and less relevant. We’ve been back for several days now… would anyone care?

Well. Over the last few days, Cuba and the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour there have been in the news again and again, with notification that the U.S. has dropped Cuba from the list of states sponsoring terrorists, and renewed attention on its cultural festivals. Plus, the Star Tribune just had a packed reception where it unveiled large-format photos of the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour, Minnesota Public Radio just unveiled a new four-minute video of highlights from the tour, and the local ABC affiliate just ran a tour- related special on Sunday morning.

Cuba, it appears, is staying on folk’s radars.

So let me stop making excuses and try to put my feelings about this tour into words.

* * *

In talking to my wife recently, she asked if there was one thing about the tour that stood out over all else. This is a question I’ve struggled with a great deal over the past few days, and I finally made peace with the fact that my answer essentially has to be, “not really.”

What really makes this tour stand out for me is not the fact that there were one or two blockbuster moments, but there was an endless stream of wonderful, almost unbelievable moments that wove themselves together to make a seamless whole: The delight at finding an apothecary that looked like it came right out of the eighteenth century. A wonderful conversation with a craftsman who takes found items like bits of wood and creates beautiful masks that he sells in a market. Conniving with a bartender who, when I explained I wanted to try their best rum to celebrate the success of our first concert, pulled out a special bottle that they don’t even pour for the high-rolling tourists. Those glorious flowering trees along every street. The plazas that looked like movie sets. Watching our musicians jam with Cuban musicians on stage.

Too many details to recount.

But many of these small details worked themselves into larger patterns.

Concert goers gather in Havana’s Teatro Nacional before Friday night’s historic concert.

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Concert goers gather in Havana’s Teatro Nacional before Friday night’s historic concert.

The Music

I don’t know if I can say that, objectively, these were the finest orchestral performances I’ve heard. For one, I’m anything but objective.

But in my humble opinion they were sensational.

These concerts were instantly legendary… and for all the right reasons. As I mentioned in my reviews, there was passionate music making coming from all sides. Again and again the musicians were ripping into their instruments to pull that last ounce of drama. There was beauty and tenderness, balanced with animal ferocity.

There was nothing polite in these concerts… no sense that “we’re just happy to be here.” Osmo and the Orchestra respected their audience too much for that—and gave them two real concerts.

And that magical moment when the Orchestra unexpectedly broke into the Cuban and American national anthems….? I can’t convey how electric that moment was.

As I said, I would be hard pressed to name one single memory from the tour as my absolute favorite. But if I had to, the playing of the national anthems—and the overwhelming response from the crowd—would have to be it.


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Old Havanna

The Locale

Another huge take-away was what an incredible place Havana is… with incredibly rich, dense layers of history. I’ve taught Cuban history in the past and was fully expecting this to be the case, but what a difference it makes to finally experience it for yourself!

Havana was one of the greatest cities of the Spanish Empire, and evidence of this illustrious past are everywhere, from the great houses and baroque churches that grace the Old City to the mighty fortresses that still keep vigil over the harbor. But there’s more to the city; the sugar boom that started in the nineteenth century sparked a building boom that added neoclassical grace to the city. The gangster era brought its own charm, as did the modernism of the mid-twentieth century.

So many layers, so little time.

Many of these buildings are currently in a state of disrepair—but they are still there, and with additional funds they could be renovated and reused.

And part of the city’s charm is that this is living history. The habaneros are proud of their past, and know their city is full of treasures. Moreover, they are delighted to share this history at the drop of the hat. There was nothing stuffy or formal about it, as can sometimes be the case in, say, the historic cities of Europe. Habaneros are filled with a warm pride in their city, which they are eager to share.

I was also blown away by the rich, dense layers of Cuban culture, too—particularly music. As I wrote earlier, the breadth and depth of Cuba’s musical traditions are astonishing. And the pervasiveness of music remains one of my most lasting impressions of Cuba; at a reception with some of the tour attendees, we again marveled at how much live music we experienced while there. It wasn’t just one type or genre of music, but every kind we could think of.  We heard a drum ensemble, orchestra, a cappella chorus, jazz band… plus two legendary ensembles, the Septeto Habanero and Orquesta Aragon, who together created the Latin dance craze of the last century. You’re conditioned to think of Vienna or the cities of Italy as natural centers of music, but they have nothing on Havana.

But Havana had some surprises, too… surprising us in ways that were in and of themselves surprising. For example, our cellphones didn’t work and there was next to no Internet access. I don’t think I can express how bizarre it feels to be in a major urban area, and not be able to throw a quick photo on Facebook. Also, for a city of its size, there was very little in the area of “bustle.” Traffic was unbelievably light, even at what would appear to be “rush hours.” And there was no restaurant culture. I’m conditioned, when traveling, to stopping by local haunts and cafés to experience the real local cuisine. Not so much in Havana. There are some restaurants, but they are mostly geared towards tourists in tourist areas. There are “paladars,” or private homes licensed to serve food for the public; these are well worth visiting, but it was odd to find that as a whole, there is no restaurant culture.

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Imagine our surprise turning a corner in Old Havana, and being met by drummers and stilt walkers, who were there to greet us.

The People

But as memorable as Havana was, there was more to the tour than just an exciting destination. It was the human connections that were the most memorable parts of the tour.

For one, the extravagance of Cuban hospitality. At every turn, we were welcomed with an abundance of warmth and curiosity. I recognize our countries officially look at each other with a degree of distrust, but there was not an ounce of that in our interactions. The people could not have been more gracious, and our few dealings with government officials were welcoming, too. Again and again I was struck by the thought that these people wanted to the US and Cuba to come together. They talked excitedly about re-opening the US embassy, and normalizing travel. Again and again they referred to “December 17” as an iconic date that signified a new era in relations—and were thrilled to embrace this new era.

And my goodness… the music students we met.  It was wonderful meeting young people who were so passionate about music.  They were expertly trained, but were making do on so little.  In some ways, the instruments they were playing on reminded me of the classic cars roaming Havana’s streets—relics of a bygone era that were being held together with wire, tape, and a prayer.  And yet, they made those instruments sing.  The future of Cuban music is in expert hands.

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Flutist Roma Duncan worked with Cuban students in a workshop.

But it wasn’t just the Cubans who made such an impact on me. One of the things that struck me the tour was seeing an incredible “can-do” atmosphere that pervaded our entire Minnesota Orchestra family. We all knew that because of the incredibly compressed time frame, and the unique challenges of traveling to Cuba, many details were going to have to be managed on the fly, with a lot of creative problem-solving.

And that’s exactly what happened.

As I indicated on my blog, “Surprise!” became the watchword of the tour, along with the follow-up, “no problem.” It was immensely gratifying to work with musicians, staff members, board members, media, and orchestra supporters who cheerfully jumped in to do whatever needed to be done. There was no standing on ceremony, quoting regulations or saying “that’s not in my job description.” We all rolled up our sleeves and did it. What an amazing group of people.

Related to that, there was a powerful sense of camaraderie throughout the tour. It was wonderful to see everyone working so closely together, getting to know each other. I predict that the bonds that we formed will continue on, and continue to grow. This wasn’t like one of those trips where were all got sick of each other and looked forward to getting home… we really did come together as an organizational family.

And as I explained in my wrap-up for MinnPost, the work that we all did was transformational. Again and again, I saw first-hand what an impact the many mentoring sessions had, where the musicians got to work with aspiring music students and help them grow. Our musicians didn’t just passively listen to student ensembles or provide polite critiques—they dug in and changed lives. I don’t know if I can explain how humbling it was to watch the musicians literally hand over their mouth pieces, bows, tool-kits or other items so that the students, giving students much-needed equipment to match their talent. Or career advice. Or practical knowledge. It was a sharing of wisdom with students who were eager to hear it.

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Minnesota Orchestra staff, musicians, and Board members dancing together in the glow of history-making tour.

Larger Lessons

But at the end of the day, there is one more thing that strikes me about this tour… a larger lesson that was woven throughout everything without ever being articulated.

To thrive, you have to be bold.

The odds against this tour actually being a success were long. But the Minnesota Orchestra took stock of itself, and took a risk, trusting in the abilities of its musicians, staff, and supporters. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off; the organization has actually emerged stronger for having taken this risk.

In a time when so many critics are calling classical music passé, and urging orchestras to retrench in order to survive, this tour is a powerful counter-example that shows the folly of this approach. Orchestras need to think bigger and be daring… just like every other organization. You grow from taking chances and overcoming obstacles, not by playing it safe.

No one wants to support an organization that is retrenched, fearful, and defensive.

But the same could be said about moving Cuba-U.S. relations, too. Even a few months ago, a cultural exchange like this would have been highly unlikely, and anything coming of such an exchange would also have been highly unlikely. But we took the chance, and said now is the time to engage. It was a huge gamble; but in my opinion, it too paid off, and as a result we are on the brink of a new era.

And I believe this tour has had a role in bringing this new era about.

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In honor of our tour, the Meliá Cohiba Hotel proudly flew the Stars and Stripes. We were told it was the second time since the Revolution that the American flag had flown publicly.

And so, the tour was an unbridled success. It open horizons, allowed for the sharing of great music, and transformed all of us who were involved. And it showed that the Minnesota Orchestra is an organization that is running on all cylinders right now; it is achieving remarkable things.

As great as this tour was, its success makes me even more excited to see what the Orchestra can and will do next.

* * *

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to travel with the Minnesota Orchestra, and in my own small way be a part of this historic tour.  And I am especially grateful for support from readers like you that helped made it possible for me to participate.  You all are incredible.

¡Muchisimas gracias!

Scott Chamberlain is author of the blog, “Mask of the Flower Prince” in addition to a variety of professional musical and literary activities. Learn more about him here.

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