Friday, July 17, 2015

Cuba Day Five: Authors, Singers and Poets

Unlike any country I’ve visited before, processing everything I’ve seen, heard and experienced in Cuba will take time. That’s my big disclaimer that there are necessary holes in my daily reflections because I need to collect some thoughts and build on them throughout the week, rather than throwing all the spaghetti strands against the wall now.

This morning, our delegation made a visit to the Hemingway Museum – the home and Caribbean influence of the iconic author.

In the afternoon, we completed what was one of the cultural highlights of this tour. We performed with the gay Cuban chorus, Mano a Mano for Cenesex (the government organization for sex education in Cuba).  First, Cenesex:

Prior to the performance, we had an hour long discussion with who I understood to be the #2 at Cenesex. During the conversation, there were one or two admissions of things that need improvement in Cuba (namely adoption rights for LGBT people and family-based discrimination). Many questions were asked about HIV/AIDS, discrimination, and gender identity. A relatively rosy picture was portrayed on the state of LGBT rights in Cuba. I’ll have more time to process and accurately write more on this topic from home, so please stay tuned for that in the coming days.

The performance with Mano a Mano was a highlight of the week. Mano a Mano is a five-member group that looks more like the backstreet boys than a chorus. We tooks turns singing. The Cuban group, all very young, attractive and musically talented (if not a bit green), sang with a live band accompaniment. We’ve learned that many performers in Cuba rely on what tracks and music are available in Cuba to determine their programming. Fortunately for Mano a Mano, they have a great production team behind them and are able to sing mostly original works. At the end of the performance, both groups combined to sing two songs. Sondheim’s “Our Time” translated into Spanish has become a bit of an anthem for Mano a Mano. And of course “Make Them Hear You,” sung in Cuba’s native language, takes on precient meaning when being performed for the heads of the Cuban government’s de-facto LGBT rights group.

Amazingly, the day didn’t end there. When we returned to the hotel (again State-run), the lobby was decked out in rainbow flags hung next to Cuban flags, and there was a stage set up with our banner hung behind it. With TV celebrities and politicals drinking mojitos, GMCW performed a near hour-long set for some of Cuba’s elite. It was one of our most energetic performances thus far, and I don’t think we know yet the impact it will have.

Later at night, GMCW was invited to a house party given by the director of Mano a Mano. With actors, well-known singers, and members of the local gay community, it was one of the more authentic and eclectic experiences of the week. Among many surprises and learning experiences that occurred, the producer of Mano a Mano (who has 3 Latin Grammy’s by the way), was shocked to learn that the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is all volunteer. That would never happen in Cuba.

I was surprised, and very pleased, to learn that artists are among the better paid people in Cuba. Jose Marti, the poet-revolutionary whose status as a national hero means his statue can be found on every block in Cuba, left a legacy of personal and political expression through art. Cuba, not known for it’s tolerance of free speech, does not seem to censor music and art nearly to the extent that it censors other types of political dissidence. I suppose even the tightly controlled government of Cuba can’t turn its back on the artistic roots that sparked its founding.

Cuba Day Four: A Day Off

Our fourth day was a very welcomed day off. We spent it in Las Terrazas, an eco-tourism community about an hour outside of Havana. At night, we returned to a party that was thrown for us at a new private gay club called King Bar. It was truly a let-your-hair-down night (and an Advil-morning)!

Something unexpected happened at King Bar. A drag performer came out during dinner in what, at first glace, appeared to be blackface. There was an almost audible collective gasp by the 40 Americans in our delegation. I know the cars are old here, but had we really stepped this far back in time??

Quickly it became apparent that the drag queen was indeed black herself. My shoulders relaxed a bit. This experienced sparked a conversation among our delegation on cultural indicators and the lense that each participant brings to this type of people-to-people diplomacy. As Americans, especially with the news headlines of recent months, we come to the race discussion with a great deal of sensitivity and fear of offending (well, some of us). In the US, your life expectancy can depend on the color of your skin.

In Cuba, racism exists, but not in the same way or severity that we see in the United States. The black figure with over-exaggerated features is not a cultural indicator of anything malicious. It’s a historical figure in Cuban Theatre that is a part of the culture. It’s a visage we have seen in high and low-brow art all over the city. The Cubans in the audience (black, mulato and white) all seemed to be perfectly entertained and happy with the performance, and this allowed us to relax a bit and adjust our lense. 

I realize I sound a bit like some people in America who use “history” as a justification to fly the confederate flag. To an American living in America, that makes sense. But this is Cuba, with an entirely different history and approach to race. 

P.S. Sorry for the lack of pictures. They are all on my phone and today I'm using my laptop. Look for more in the coming days. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cuba Day Three: Feeling Heard

Our third day in Cuba encompassed the most aggressive schedule, a triple header with concerts in the morning, afternoon and evening. After going for a run outside and experiencing the diesel-filled air (I won't be running a marathon here anytime soon), we went to the Cuban Institute of Friendship for a presentation on Cuba's history and relationship with the US. The presenters acknowledged imperfections in the social project as they call it, and made clear that there is room for growth in Cuba. We also had a conversation about gender equality, and I was surprised to learn that 44% of the Cuban Parliament members are women. 

Next we went to the National Library of Cuba, one of the most important cultural and historical institutions, for a performance. Afterwards, we spent time asking and answering questions with the audience. A gay Cuban asked us about organizing as a gay community in the US, and wanted to understand how our groups are formed and founded. After explaining to him the structure and processes of our organization - he became more impassioned and asked "now that you have marriage equality, when was it that you finally felt heard by the majority?" I think what he may have really been asking is "how can I be heard?"

Again, a pin drop moment, because we had just finished singing "Make Them Hear You" in Spanish. I explained to him and the audience that in many places in the US, LGBTQ people can still be fired from jobs, and that's just one example of the rights we still lack. There was an audible gasp in the audience and I truly believe they were surprised to hear that the struggle for real equality is still alive back home. 

Earlier in the concert, our Artistic Director Thea Kano had asked someone from the audience to hold a rainbow flag while GMCW sang Over the Rainbow. It was this same man who asked the question, and we learned from him after the concert that he has never had a rainbow flag before (the sale of them is not permitted in Cuba). He was near tears asking if he could keep it. After today we have one less flag and one new friend.

Another audience member told us he had been waiting for a moment like this in the country he loves neary his whole life. And there was acknowledgement throughout the room that it is because we are connecting over music (not speeches, not political dissidence, not policy convenings) that this experience is possible. Once again, music paves the way to mutual understanding. 

Our second performance took place in an arts school for elementary through high school aged students outside of the city. Aside from the lack of A/C and crumbling walls, this could have been my elementary school. Proud parents filled the room taking photo and video of their kids, whose performances ranged from adorably mediocre to polished and earnest. 

Our third performance was at a block party organized for our delegation in a neighborhood near our hotel. There are so many things to remember about this evening, among them musical performances by us and local residents for each other, andif course lots of rum. 

The most memorable part for me came from a seven year old girl named Laura. With my passable Spanish, I introduced Chris to this seven year old as my "novio," or boyfriend. Public references and displays of affection in Cuba are still new and raise eyebrows, but I figured what the hell. After asking about Laura's family and watching her dance with my mom (who became the life of the party), it was time to leave. Laura ran up to me to say goodbye, and then said she wanted to say goodbye to my novio without an ounce of hesitation. She gave us both kisses and asked us to stay longer. This is a child, and indeed a generation, that will grow up knowing that love is love. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Cuba Day Two: A Flag Flies in Havana

I have quickly learned that the experiences which occur in a foreign country in 24 hours are far too numerous to comprehensively include in one blog post. So, for the next week I will distill what I think are the most important takeaways from each day of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC's concert tour in Cuba. My lense may be different from that of others, so I hope that my friends and colleagues on this tour will also document their experiences. 

Okay, enough with the oversized asterix...let's get back to Havana. While my first entry had us looking back, today's entry has us looking to the future. There's a lot of talk back home about flags lately, and the US is not alone. 

I awoke at the early hour of 6:30am to go to the gym - cliche, I know. I couldn't help but stop myself as I walked to the elevator and saw out the window what was, for many LGBTQ Cubans, a mirage. Something that the eyes may see but the heart can't quite believe. 

This is a photo taken in front of our hotel, La Quinta Avenida in Miramar. Among the many flags seen, including those of Russia, USA and Cuba, flies the pride flag. Proudly flowing in the wind, in front of one of the newest and more prosperous hotels in Havana (and a state-run entity), is a symbol of LGBTQ equality that is seldom seen on such public display. Having been only a very small part of this event, I can't do justice in words or any other medium to properly honor the importance of this symbolic act. 

It was not just the flag that struck a chord with me today. GMCW had the privilege of hearing and performing for the Mariana de Gonitch Chorus at Casa de la Amistad (the house of friendship).

There, a special thing happened. One of the songs from Mariana de Gonitch was also on our set list. Impossible Dream is a song that knows no borders - political or social. Our new Cuban friends belted it out with passion, sharing their experience and dreams. About an hour later, the Gay Men's Chorus sang a haunting a capella arrangement, sharing a different version of the same dream. You could hear a pin drop and you could see both Cuban and American tears being shed in the mutual understanding.

Later that night, we ended up in the Regla neighborhood where a few original Buena Vista Social Club members train and perform with the next era of Cuban Jazz musicians. The concert, emcee'd by a fabulous woman I can only describe as the Cuban Bea Arthur, featured a series of old guard singers who seemed to increase with talent, energy and dance moves as they grow older. Most of them were in their eighties (according to our emcee)!

In a spontaneous moment, Bea Arthur introduced the Gay Men's Chorus to the whole audience and invited is up to sing. It was a recognition not only of us as musicians, but of the advancing acceptance of LGBTQ people in Cuba. It is moments like these that we hope will occur more in the following week, and well beyond our time here. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cuba: Day One

To talk about the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington's first day in Cuba means going back in time. But I don't mean going back several decades when most of the cars on the island were built. Rather, we're just looking back to one day before we left the USA for what I have already found to be an enchanting country full of personality, beautiful and strange dichotomies, and plenty of heart.

Our Cuba experience actually started the night before we left with a moving and well-attended kickoff performance at Trinity Cathedral in Miami, where my brother is the Assistant Dean. 

Churches are often associated with antipathy toward the LGBTQ movement. But being hosted by the Cathedral for the kickoff concert of a tour that promotes LGBTQ rights in the Caribbean makes me one proud brother. Hearing the phenomenal sounds that came from 21 talented musicians makes me one proud ED. 

The fillowing morning, on Saturday July 11, just a few hours before departing for Cuba, I awoke to an email criticizing GMCW for accepting an invitation from Mariela Castro and thereby legitimizing the oppression that is historically associated with Cuba. It wasn't the first time we had received this kind of message and I have been ready to hear it for quite some time. But if I have to be honest with myself, I was angry when I first read the message. "Isn't our work as musicians beyond politics?" I a not unusual flash of idealism.

But quickly I checked myself. There is very real pain in Cuba's history, particularly for LGBTQ people. There is very real and positive change that has occurred in Cuba, and Mariela Castro's influence will always be linked with that. There is still a long way to go on the island, and yes, there are very real politics associated with an LGBTQ concert tour in Cuba. We are citizen diplomats.

I was reminded of these politics as I sat at dinner on our first night next to Ambassador DeLaurentis, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba (and the presumed new Ambassador to Cuba beginning July 20 after diplomatic relations are formalized again). Many times in our conversation I was reminded of two things: that people connecting with people is the best way to advance social change; and arts and music are always ahead of politics when it comes to democracy. 

After dinner, Chris (my boyfriend) and I made our way in a 1950s Chevrolet to a Havana gay bar where more than a dozen American singers and at least as many Cubans were dancing to late 90s anthems. It was encouraging to see this collage on the wall of the bar:

A symbol of hope juxtaposed against iconic visages of the past seemed to be perfectly fitting for our first day in a country that, slowly but surely, is moving the needle on LGBTQ rights.