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Blog by award-winning composer Kati Agócs

 

A COMPOSER IN HAVANA

Kati Agocs

   The first American Composers Forum Delegation to Cuba is taking place this week.  There used to be a rich tradition of musical exchange between Cuba and the U.S. prior to the Cuban revolution. But after 1959, this type of cultural exchange became largely criminalized by both countries. The situation is now starting to change, but these things take time. As a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations opens up, and as the barriers of the last fifty-six years of political antagonism are slowly being weakened, ten composers and a large group of patrons are visiting Havana and preparing a concert of our works here. Here are some initial impressions.

We flew into Havana on a Sunday morning. Along with most people on the trip, I have never had the chance to spend time in Cuba. Even before we touched down I could see how wild, rustic, and fertile the land appeared. Sugar cane, bananas, and rice were being farmed on the lands surrounding the airport. There were palm trees, old military bunkers that looked like long and thin barns, and country roads with almost no cars on them. The airport was mildly chaotic, with everything appearing to be from the 80s or before. Together with the sense of beaucracy there, it reminded me of Hungary in the 1980s prior to the system change. The women working in the airport, and other places as well, all wear patterned fishnet stockings and mini dresses as a kind of uniform. A large number of stuffed animals were being brought into the country. I took a photo of a guy with an oversized stuffed bear that was almost as big as he was, because I thought Olivia would think it was funny. Then I kept seeing him throughout the airport – I ran into him three or four more times, and he popped up suddenly behind me while I was going through customs.

You learn that you have to go with the flow here no matter what happens - -people are not goal oriented in the manner that we are accustomed to in the U.S. People are more warm, open, and animated than I have seen anywhere. They seem to make instant connections with anyone that they interact with. They will help you unconditionally to do whatever you need to do or to get whatever you are asking for. Havana feels more safe than any other urban center that I have been in. You see families together a lot, fathers holding or playing with their children, and couples in their 50s and 60s walking with their arms around one another. Because of the longstanding trade embargo, people in Cuba are not materialistic. They have scarcely any of the things that we take for granted in the U.S., such as the things you would normally buy at a drug store. Perhaps because of the aspect of “stunted capitalism”, they don’t seem driven or focused on their jobs the way we are in the U.S. Their attitude seems to be: “life is hard, let’s party”.

I have also noticed that people really appreciate and make the most of what they have. They clean their living spaces meticulously. As a visitor here, one starts to wonder how they came to acquire every big or little object that is beyond subsistence, for instance the air conditioner that is in my room in the Vedado district, which looks to be about forty years old but still works.  A VH1 music video channel was playing on the TV in a café that actually plays music videos from the 1980s as a legitimate (not retro) thing.  Most of the clothes that people are wearing look like they are from the 1980s or 90s. You’ll see a guy with a cheesy plastic purse from the 80s around his shoulders, wearing a shirt with American glittery printing on it, walking with a women in a skin tight dress and platform shoes also from the 80s. They look incredibly happy and radiant. It’s a state of mind: If they think they look good, then they do. People seem to be in high spirits, dignified. Everyone seems to look younger than his or her age here.  The women that you see on the street look beautiful no matter what clothes they are wearing.

And the cars! Obviously I had been told to expect the cars, but nothing could have prepared me. Most are from before 1960, with the very rare occasional model from the 80s or 90s. When you first see them, they look so retro as to not even be believable. You feel like you are in another era. . If you watched Mad Men and think seeing the old cars on that show is remarkable, that is nothing next to this. I started out trying to take pictures of them, but gave up fairly quickly because I simply could not adequately capture the impression that they collectively make. I have seen a few horse and carts to, on the highway coming in to Havana from the airport. It is astounding how they keep these cars on the road - -there must be hundreds of thousands of miles on some of them. Apparently they make their own parts, and some of the cars can become a hybrid of different cars, because they insert one part from one different car and another part from another. Most of them look outwardlyin beautiful shape. Any car can become a cab if you negotiate a price to get somewhere. The streets near hotels are lined with 1950s convertibles, some with wings. The diesel fuel and incinerates from all of the old cars is making me cough, but I’m starting to get used to it.

In Havana the buildings are expansive, grandiose, mostly a yellowish or cream colour, with ceilings normally up to three stories high. You will see structures reduced to rubble, looking like they will cave in any second, but they are still somehow beautiful. A breeze comes in from the ocean, whose shoreline fronts the district I am in. Everything feels humid, slow, permeated by that breeze. I rode on the top of a double decker bus through the entire city, with the wind whipping through my hair. You gaze down avenues onto streets between monumental buildings, into neighbourhoods in which everything seems to be falling apart, in a time warp that stopped in the 1950s, with paint peeling and piles of wood and parts of buildings, people sitting on high balconies or rooftops and waving and shouting when the bus goes by, families playing in parks together. I passed the sprawling, quiet grave yard, which looks to be all above ground, and the university with its imposing “alma mater” statue of a figure on a chair at the top of the stairs leading to the entrance. The Cuban culture obviously value education greatly, and their passion for the arts seems to be as innate as breathing. To be speeding through this majestic place that I have no prior associations with, and which seems to be frozen in time from a wholly different era, was ethereal. I’ll get to music in the next post. I have my first rehearsal with the ensemble today (Monday), as well as a concert of music by Cuban composers. Tomorrow (Tuesday) our concert will take place in Basilica Menor del Convento de San Francisco de Asis, a beautiful church built in 1591 that has been converted into a chamber-music venue. This will be the first live concert of contemporary American music in Havana since the Cuban revolution.