Cuba is infamous. Hearing its name conjures images of cigars, mobsters, dirty dancing and dictatorship. Rich with history and controversy, Cuba has become a forbidden land and the subject of government embargoes and restrictions.
This winter break, 30 University of Richmond students, members of two Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) programs, traveled to Havana to study Cuban music and dance.
Led by Michael Davison, professor of music and the faculty mentor of the Salsa Meets Jazz SSIR program at Richmond, and Myra Daleng, director of dance and the faculty mentor of the History of Dance SSIR program at Richmond, the students traveled to Cuba to film, photograph and gather information to create short documentaries on the rhythmic Cuban culture.
Sophomore Josh Grice, a member of the Salsa Meets Jazz program, said: "[Cubans] all shared the same mindset, that salsa is in their blood. ...I really didn't understand that until I got into Cuba."
Music is what Cubans live for, said sophomore Kati Miller, who traveled to Cuba with the group. "And people there," she said, "if they don't play an instrument then they sing, and if they don't sing they dance."
Cuba is one of the top three superpowers in contemporary music, along with the United States and Brazil, Davison said, and the Cuban people have a strong sense of pride over their music's influence. Top-scale musicians even get paid more than doctors, he said.
"The people have very little," Daleng said. "The average salary is $12 a month...so at that point they have music and dance, and it's just everywhere you go."
Despite the blossoming culture, Cuba remains a third-world country. "I've been all over the world," Davison said, "[Cuba] is one of the safest places in the world because no Cubans can have guns."
Davison and Daleng still prepared their students for the reality of the nation's contentions. Davison's advice for the men was simple: Stay away from Cuban girls. He warned them they would want their money. He prepared the women by informing them there were often bathrooms that did not have running water, toilet paper or toilet seats.
Despite Cuba's poverty, Davison said, "I'd never tell a Cuban this, but sometimes even though you have nothing, you have everything."
Davison and Daleng organized activities for students including trips to Chinatown, night clubs and the National Ballet of Cuba where they saw the Nutcracker. They also took part in dance classes where students were taught the basics of the cha-cha. Having been to Cuba 18 times before, Davison organized a private demonstration of the rumba on the famous Callejon de Hamel, an alley known for its dance performances every Sunday.
"We went to the Tropicana, which is the best night club in the world," Davison said. "It's outside. It's the only club that Castro didn't shut down, so it's like 90 minutes, non-stop music, 25-piece live band and probably 500 dancers."
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Miller, who plays the tenor saxophone in the university's jazz band, said the visit to the Tropicana had been her favorite part of the trip, calling it a "fabled place" she had always wanted to see. "It was so out of a book," she said, "like all these people were smoking like big, fat cigars and drinking Cuban rum, and everyone was dressed up."
Grice and Miller both had the opportunity to speak with many Cuban people during the trip, and Grice said he had felt a sense of unity. He said he had not felt an anti-American sentiment. In the past, government restrictions limited the ability for travel to Cuba because of strained relations, but the Obama administration has reopened travel for educational purposes, according to the State Department's website.
"When you mention you are from the United States, they laugh," Grice said. "They joke with you and are like 'Oh you're our enemy.' They're not serious about that. They love Americans."
Miller agreed that the Cuban people were always approachable and joyful, but said she saw government propaganda, which spoke out against the United States. "There was this huge sign that had a picture of George Bush and called him a terrorist... and called capitalism the detriment of the human species," she said. Miller said, however, that the people have found a way to live despite the corruption, and it is through music that they find joy.
The students' documentaries will be shown at 5 p.m. April 11 in the Adams Auditorium.
Contact reporter Maria Rajtik at firstname.lastname@example.org
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