Sounding Out Cuba
Kim Taylor visits Cuba with Dave Matthews, Smokey Robinson, and Usher to find a country rich with art, education—and possibility
Kim and son Henry with Usher, who also had impromptu performances with Cuban counterparts.
In the winter of 1961, we were told, Che Guevara asked Fidel Castro to play golf in what had been the most elite country club in Havana, by then long deserted, its members having fled the Revolution. No one knows whether it was Che’s or Fidel’s idea, but it was decided this would be the location for a national art school, the Instituto Superior de Artes. And this was the spot where my 15-year-old son, Henry, (pictured right) and I found ourselves this past April.
In Cuba. Havana. Standing in the courtyard of this school, built by architect Ricardo Porro and inspired by female fertility. “Notice the four breasts at each end. We are now inside the woman’s reproductive organs,” our guide intones. A bit much for Henry, who chooses to sprint inside to see some other art.
I was six years old when the Cuban missile crisis played out. I remember watching our handsome President, John F. Kennedy, on our television with rabbit ears, telling us to store rations in basements or bomb shelters, and my mother crying. I helped bring distilled water and condensed milk down to the cellar. I brought down Candyland and Chutes and Ladders since I couldn’t imagine what my father would do, home all day from work, cooped up in our dank basement.
I grew up looking at the metal globes at home and school with the terrifying red hammer and sickle of Russia plastered over the tiny island of Cuba. A bearded Castro (pictured left next to the right of his brother Raul) remained a menacing figure over the years, in his olive uniform and boots and beret with the red star, denouncing America at every turn.
Yet here I was, a world away from my Berkshire home yet only a 45-minute flight from Miami, in the hot sunlight of this country that had cast such a dark shadow on so many of us for so long.
As a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, I traveled to Cuba in April with my son, Henry. (James was on a long-scheduled concert tour, so he could not join us.) We were part of the first official cultural delegation between the U.S. and Cuba, following President Obama’s visit of reconciliation.
As we were driven from the airport on one of the many vast buses, all made in China, my son exclaimed: “Gee, this country is poor!” We were driving by university dorms that loomed like a decrepit prison.
“Why would anyone choose Communism, Mom?” he asked.
“Google Batista, honey.”
The roads were old and often littered with piles of asphalt from abandoned jack-hammering. But the crumbling architecture was eclectic and elegant, even in its decay. Moorish, Spanish, Baroque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco—reminiscent, somehow, of an old mining town in the American West, having turned its back on the future. (Pictured right, the facade of a city apartment.)
Our lovely guide—tours are required to hire government-employed guides—announced from the bus’s tinny mike: “You will be hearing a lot about the glorious year of 1959 when the people’s will prevailed.”
It so happened that our visit coincided with the exact date of the Bay of Pigs invasion, 55 years ago. That fact did not go unnoticed. We were, sometimes good-naturedly, needled about the Bahia de Cochinos.
Another coincidence was that the twice-a-decade meeting of the Communist Party was taking place, shrouded in secrecy and basically a stone’s throw from our hotel. A Cuban journalist whom we met a number of times at events explained there is no transparency to such meetings and that foreign press is banned. Only state-owned media outlets are allowed in. The only reporting that was evident was an edited, delayed broadcast on state television, showing Fidel in a blue-nylon Adidas jacket, surveying the proceedings at the Palacio de las Convenciones, looking frail and gaunt.
Shortly before our trip, Fidel had suddenly reappeared, like Banquo’s ghost, to rail against President Obama’s visit, saying, “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.”
The retired leader, whose younger brother, Raul, was reaffirmed as president and first secretary at the Congress, accused Obama of “sweet-talking” the Cuban people during his visit in a recent opinion piece carried by all state-run media.
“Every one of us ran the risk of a heart attack listening to these words,” Castro said in his column, dismissing Obama’s comments as “honey-coated” and exhorting Cubans never to forget the many U.S. cabals to overthrow his Communist government.
So, in the face of extreme poverty and a repressive and mysterious regime, is there change in Cuba? Is there hope?
The answer is a cautious yes. And it lies in Cuba’s social and education systems and in its arts. Cubans are fiercely proud of their artists—their dancers, their musicians, their poets.
We saw numerous performances, including collaborations with members of the U.S. President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities—Usher, Dave Matthews, and Smokey Robinson—who were traveling with us. There were discussions with leaders of Cuban cinema and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry; Afro-Cuban religious drumming for the Santeria ceremony; and a visit to the oldest recording studio, where Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, and the Buena Vista Social Club have all recorded.
There was also a magnificent performance of Vivaldi and Piazzolla by the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, a string ensemble of primarily young women, their dazzling virtuosity as evident as their joy and pride in performing for us. They smiled and moved to the music as they played, some tossing their long, liquid, black hair. (Pictured left, a young Cuban violinist practices at the Instituto Superior des Artes.
The most moving aspect of the trip was a visit to an elementary school in the heart of Havana. Here, the President’s Committee’s Turnaround Arts program, which works to bring artists to underserved schools throughout the U.S., brought actor John Lloyd Young, Usher, and actress Alfre Woodard to the school.
The children, impeccably dressed in blue-and-white uniforms, were riveted by their American guests. No slumping or eye-rolling or yawning. Their toothbrushes and dingy facecloths hung in perfect order against the peeling paint of the classroom wall. Their teachers seemed extremely loving and encouraging. One of our committee members spoke to a third-grade class.
“So, what do you like most about your country?” he asked through an interpreter.
“Nature,” said one child.
“Music,” said another.
“What about your heroes. Do you like any of them?”
Finally, one young boy raised his hand timidly and ventured “José Martí,” the revered national poet, long dead, one of whose poems comprise the lyrics to the unofficial national anthem, “Guantanamera.”
Our last night was spent at the fabulous Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the former headquarters of the city’s electricity company. It’s a space brimming with avant-garde painting and photography, performance art, dancing, singing, and, that night, an abundance of mojitos.
While the Cuban people remain proud of such remarkably vibrant centers as this one, others can’t conceal their excitement at America coming to town. (Pictured left: although the sale of Coca-Cola and all U.S. goods are prohibited, pre-Revolution metal signs adorn restaurant walls.)
The Cubans we met informally—drivers, guides, hotel staff—were delighted and bursting with pride about the fact that Fast and Furious 8 is scheduled to film in Havana soon. And about rumors that an episode of “The Kardashians” is to be shot here as well.
“You know, that’s not really America, or what a lot of Americans are like,” I said meekly to one Kardashian enthusiast.
“Oh, we like them. We are looking forward to these things. It is the future.”
One can’t help but wince at the thought of what aspects of American culture will be visited on these lovely people. As we were leaving, we heard that the first Carnival cruise ship to dock in Havana was due the following week.
Is there a middle ground between derelict dorms and the Kardashians? Between a state-controlled television and “Naked and Afraid”? Between Cubans’ pride in their national poet and arts and our own national malaise and anger and cynicism?
Cubans have done so much with so little for so long. One can’t help but hope for an end to the embargo (which Cubans insist on calling el bloqueo or “the blockade”) and the end to an era in which this island, so close to “the enemy of the North,” as we are still known in some quarters, will be fully normalized.
Perhaps the answer lies in Cubans’ generous appreciation of all types of art. They are extremely proud of the fact that Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote here. His house, Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), is serenely pristine and lovingly preserved with his animal trophies, paintings, fishing tackle, and personal library of 9,000 books. One feels a kind of benediction for the Cuban people in a line from The Old Man and the Sea, set, of course, in Cuba: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”
Smokey Robinson with Kim Taylor.
Dave Matthews, his family, and Henry Taylor (Matthews performed in spontaneous jam sessions with Cuban musicians, including acclaimed singer-songwriter Carlos Varela.)
Henry Taylor in a traditional Cuban taxi (a convertible 1956 Ford Fairlane) with pals, including Dave Matthews’s twins Grace and Stella.
Tapas at San Cristobal, one of Cuba’s best-known paladares (privately run restaurants in people’s homes.)
A poster of the Castro family genealogy at the school.