Global Atelier – Havana, Cuba

By Hannes Lackman

Bachelor of Fine Arts (Contemporary Music)

On the 28th of April, five students from Contemporary Music embarked on a trip to the musically-marinated land of Cuba. I was lucky enough to be part of this, I could have never of anticipated what I gained from the experience, and for that I am truly grateful to Alex Pertout and the University of Melbourne.

After a plethora of bumps and hiccups – a lost luggage bag, a missed flight, a potential bomb threat, and a number of food-related digestion issues – we had finally arrived in Havana. I walked out of the airport instantly greeted by an overwhelming wet heat. The strangely delightful smell of cigar smoke and fried chips was intoxicating after the sterility of the Boeing 737.

After coming through L.A where the sound of smiley-faced-corporate advertisements, brand new SUV engines, and blockbuster voices dominated the airwaves, I became drunk with aural pleasure as new sounds cascaded into perception. The rumble of a ’50s Chevrolet engine, the thunder of an all-too-close incoming plane, the patter of bare feet on concrete mixed with the clop of wooden soles on old marble floors, and the glorious squabble of the Spanish tongue. Our tourist guide – Eleanor – had a particularly explosive laugh that garnished the sound-cocktail of Havana. That rolling, bouncy language would become our first music lesson.

As we pulled out of the terminal and into the city, Eleanor gave us a rundown of the different municipalities as we went past them. Havana is divided into areas of function, rather than suburbs. For example on our way to the Tourist Area, we passed through the Education Municipal which had a monstrous library and a refurbished 1700s Spanish era building for the high school, then through the Communication Municipal – where a mailing system, and the telephone and internet companies operated.

We arrived at the Hotel Plaza – our home for the next 12 days – late at night. We walked into the foyer and were welcomed by more marble-clopping, more cigar smoke, and Steven Wyld the filmmaker who would document our trip.

The next day, we began our tuition with Cuban-Conga Royalty, Roman Justo ‘Pella Apito’ Hernendez, who would be our Afro-Cuban percussion teacher for the next 10 days. Pella (Pay-Ya) specialises in a particular type of Afro-Cuban percussion, which is considered as ‘folkloric’ due to the geographic and historic aspects of the music. His father founded a highly respected rumba ensemble, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and is a founding member of Conjunto Folkloric Nacional de Cuba – a large Cuban Folkloric organisation. We spent the first day with him in a function room on the roof top of our hotel in 33 degree heat, with no air conditioning, and no idea what we were doing. After six hours, we were dripping with sweat, our hands were tingling and swollen from the raw hide conga skins and we knew this trip wasn’t going to be a regular tourist holiday.

Our first obstacle was the language barrier. Generally, the Cubans we met could speak a little broken English and generally as a group we sucked at Spanish. However Pella spoke no English, and so in the lessons our only form of communication (when we didn’t have Alex or Steven translating) was through listening – very intensely – to the rhythms he would play, and we would attempt to replicate them.

Our next challenge was letting go of our western learning method. We were used to a musical education that relies on a piece of paper with symbols and notation, a metronomic pulse that dictates a strict and uncompromising time signature and old faithful beat one. This concept was non-existent in Pella’s teaching, or if it was, it seemed to hidden in a maze of syncopation, and he would NEVER begin a rhythm on beat one. Ever.

On the second day, we had another rhythmic boot camp with Pella, and after our lesson, he took us all to our first rumba, held at Patio de la Rumba.

A great lecturer of mine once told me that when we play music, we are simply manipulating energy. The energy generated by the 100+ people at this rumba would be able to power the Melbourne Cricket Gorund (MCG). For five grand finals. When I left the rumba, my perception of rhythm – and the effect it can have on people – had a whole new gravity. The dancers, singers and the drummers have a connection with each other that runs deep in the peoples’ history, and was extraordinary to witness and be a part of.

There is a harsh reality of a communist, third-world country showing some poverty amongst its citizens. Selene and Sean from our group had a pretty sobering experience with a local who was – to put politely – unhappy with the way things were. However it became evident for me that their strength and resilience comes from an unrelenting commitment to each other, to their music and their spirituality; the three elements seem to go hand in hand with food, water and oxygen for them. By the end of our trip we had seen some rumbas, we had danced a disturbing version of salsa, and could string together a sentence in Spanish, but I feel as though we had just scraped the surface of a world of music that we as westerners may never fully understand. As disappointing as that sounds, it only makes me more excited to do my best interpretation of what I experienced and to continue learning from this culture and its music.

Led by Alex Pertout, five contemporary music students were able to experience the music scene in Havana as part of the Faculty’s Global Atelier program. Global Atelier is made possible with the support of the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria.

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.