Music in Action

Poets Head for Sultry Music Mecca

from The Rock, Winter 2013

WHILE CUBA AND THE U.S. REMAIN IN A WAY CO-EXISTENCE, the ability to travel under educational parameters is beginning to ease up—slightly. Select schools and programs are being allowed to head for the island nation, provided they meet several requirements in program scope and intent.

This past May, Whittier College was able to offer a foray to the country, under the auspices of a paired course in history and music. As a result, music professor and accomplished Cuban flautist Danilo Lozano and history professor Jose Ortega led 10 students through the sights, sounds, and smells of Havana, Cuba, and its surrounding areas.

“Cuba is about as far as you can get from the United States within a 90 mile stretch,” said Lozano. “There are definitely diplomatic and political differences between both countries, but in terms of culture it is also very, very far away from U.S. culture.”

The group prepared for this trip over the course of two semesters. The students enrolled in History of Modern Cuba with professor Ortega in the fall and in Music of Cuba with professor Lozano in the spring.

The aim of the trip was to guide students through an examination of the richness and diversity of Cuban music—its folk traditions and popular music—and learn how its expression and aesthetics reflect Cuba’s cultural, social, and political history.

“It was a year’s preparation and then you have the immersion experience to see whether or not the students go it. That goes beyond any test,” added Lozano.  

To being the 17-day sojourn through the island country, the group first traveled from Los Angeles to Miami and, finally, to the capital city of La Habana. While there, the students visited Cuba’s historical sites by land and sea – Revolution Square, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, and Ernest Hemingway’s La Vigia Estate to name a few. Cultural institutions like the National Museum of Music and Superior Institute of Art and hot spots La Zorra y El Cuervo and Café Taberna were also on the itinerary.

In their travels, they met tobacco farmers, poets, jazz players, artists, historians, professors, a magazine director, museum curators, and, of course, musicians both young and old.  They were also given opportunities to roam Old Havana.

In her travel blog, Colleen Daly ’12 reflected on the “variety of sensory experiences” that Cuba provided.

 “For fear of forgetting, or perhaps being obliterated by the overload, I began to focus on specific senses each day,” she wrote.

“Sound, however, was the reason for the trip. By the end of the Music of Cuba class on campus at Whittier, each student knew exactly what the popular clave pattern was - da da da dada, da da da dada. Walking through Habana Vieja, each of us would subconsciously clap along the beat as we passed bands serenading lunchtime guests at white-tableclothed cafes. I think we liked to imagine that the rhythm of the clave was as engrained in us as the patterns and cadences of rumba, salsa, son, and cha cha cha were engrained in the Cuban people. The variety of beats and tones we heard in the music and lilting speech of the island’s people was spread across a wide, never-ending range.”