The Beat of the People
Location: Havana, Cuba
Seventeen Washington College students grabbed the opportunity of a lifetime over winter break living in Havana, Cuba, studying the vibrant ties between music and culture there, and learning much more about another world.
For ten days over winter break, Michelle Coleman ’15 could feel her world shifting, like a quiet earthquake. As one of the 17 students who traveled to Cuba for the inaugural offering of the course “Cuban Music & Culture,” Coleman studied traditional and modern music and dance, while every day her preconceived notions about the Communist island nation just 90 miles south of the United States fell away.
“I had this idea that the Cubans would be hostile to Americans because of the whole U.S. versus Cuba thing. It seemed like the relationship we had was pretty bad,” says Coleman, an economics and art history double major. “But it was quite the opposite. They really did embrace us.”
Although the trip, led by Professors Kenneth Schweitzer (music) and Aaron Lampman (anthropology), was designed to support the College’s new interdisciplinary minor in ethnomusicology, the students who traveled to Havana came away with a deeper understanding of the history between the two countries, the political and social effects of Communism and the 50-year-old U.S. embargo against the Caribbean nation, and the spirited and outgoing nature of its people, despite the hardships they face.
“I feel like the Cubans have this sense of self they want to share with the world,” says Sam Stuhler ’15, a business major and music minor, who has been studying under Schweitzer the specialized drumming that underpins the spiritual ritual of Santería. Schweitzer, who has traveled to Cuba multiple times, has been initiated as a Santería drummer and has drummed in more than 100 ceremonies around the world. His book, The Artistry of Afro-Cuban Batá Drumming: Aesthetics, Transmission, Bonding, and Creativity, was published in 2013 after more than 15 years of research and exploration.
The students attended more than ten musical performances and religious ceremonies throughout the city, contrasting the intimate Santería ritual drum and dance performances in private homes with church-sponsored carnivals and high-production commercial performances at such notable venues as La Cuerva y El Zorro, EGREM, and the Tropicana. Each morning the group would have a structured event or lesson, and in the afternoons, the students were free to explore the city.
“Dr. Schweitzer has so many contacts in the community down there, we were able to go to these events and get thrown right into the mix,” says John Dexheimer ’15, a business management major. “If we were to travel there as traditional tourists, we would never have gotten the opportunities to see and do all that we did.”
Rather than staying in hotels, the students stayed and ate meals with local working-class families, which only deepened their experience of the culture. Located just a block from the iconic oceanfront pedestrian walkway, the malecón, the students’ home bases were a short walk from Havana’s tourist and cultural centers, museums, and music clubs. They learned that everywhere, from the streets to the homes, music is the heartbeat that pulses through the Cubans’ routine work and play.
“Everywhere there’s music, or there’s someone painting or singing,” Coleman says. “It’s very alive. It’s not like going to a music festival and recording it on your phone. It’s much more spiritual than that, and you’re really looking at it, and you’re really living in it, and I loved that.”
The immersion into Cuban culture was also an eye-opener for this generation of students, for whom the Cold War, Communism, and the Iron Curtain are chapters from a history book. Yet in Cuba, they remain a living reality. And, being in Cuba at the historic moment when U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the embargo should be lifted and restrictions to travel and trade should be eased placed the political front and center in the students’ minds as they absorbed what they were seeing and hearing.
“As an American, I had a completely different vision of Cuba than what it is in reality,” says Katie Wellington ’16, an international studies major with a concentration in Middle East studies. “Cuba is a country of extremely warm and kind-hearted people, all of whom have suffered from the Cold War between their government and ours. When we first arrived in Havana, we saw families who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, something I could never imagine in my own life.” The country “is like stepping back in time, from the signature cars of the 1950s to the lack of connection to the outside world.” For instance, she points out that fewer than five percent of Cubans have internet access. “I think for the sake of the people, U.S.-Cuba relations need to be improved, and both sides will benefit,” Wellington says.
The daily effects of the country’s economic situation were visible in subtle ways, Dexheimer says. For instance, a restaurant’s menu might list a variety of sandwiches, but on a particular day have no bread. “Still, the thing that surprised me the most is how much Castro has been able to do infrastructure-wise, given the limited resources,” he says.
Despite the country’s difficulties, Coleman says Havana’s dynamic nature and the energy of its people made her re-examine her own culture and society. “They’re such a joy to be around. I don’t live like that. I live on a day-to-day basis doing my homework, going to sleep. They’re doing all kinds of things, they’re out there and they’re communicating with everyone and making music for everyone and they’re very friendly all the time. I want to be like that in America, and I want to share what I felt there.”