Harlem/Havana festival celebrates a shared cultural history with Cuba, paused by embargo

An exchange between the infinitely rich cultures of Cuba and Harlem is surely a marvelous idea. Afro-Cuban jazz was born in Harlem, the uptown neighborhood has been home to generations of immigrants from the Caribbean country and it shares a history with the island nation.

But the more than 50-year U.S. embargo was a roadblock.

The seeds of a Harlem/Havana festival were sown even before 2014, when President Obama announced an agreement to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba and restrictions began to ease.

On Monday, the first Harlem/Havana Music and Cultural Festival — an international visual and performing arts, fashion, education and culinary exchange — will kick off, with respected Cuban musicians, performers, educators and others taking part in Harlem Week activities and other programs around town through Sunday.

Among the Cuban performers scheduled to participate is saxophonist Cesar Lopez. His group – Cesar Lopez y Habana Ensemble — features guitarist Emilio Martini, percussionist Otto Santana, bassist David Faya and rising young jazz pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco y Su Grupo.

The JJ Folkloric Dance Company, made up of graduates of art schools and the Higher Institute of Art of Cuba, will perform. Arte y Moda Cubano will fuse fashion with music, dance, art, design and crafts. And visual artist Eduardo (Choco) Roca Salazar, one of Cuba’s most distinguished print-makers, will tout his collography, a technique used to create collages from complex materials ranging from chair seats to fabrics, wood, sand and earth.

In addition to Harlem Week, the Apollo Theater, Jazzmobile, Harlem Summer Stage and the National Jazz Museum will host Harlem/Havana events. One event will be the Macy’s Herald Square presentation showcasing Cuban chefs Raul Colon and Martha Caballero, fashion designers and performances by some of the visiting bands, on Thursday from noon to 8 p.m.

A highlight of the festival’s summer celebration will be a scrumptious culinary component featuring longtime uptown Cuban restaurants touting their traditional menus, and Cuban-inspired dishes and cocktails served at non-Cuban eateries.

In the festival’s winter component, an American cultural contingent will travel from Harlem to Havana in February.

The Harlem/Havana festival was announced at a press conference held at Sylvia’s restaurant in June with a host of VIPs, including Rep. Charles Rangel; Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul; H. Carl McCall, chairman of the State University of New York Board of Trustees, Cuba’s UN ambassador, Rodolfo Reyes Rodríguez, and Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lloyd Williams.

Williams explained that the Harlem/Havana effort was born approximately two and a half years ago with help from Rangel, who has been a staunch supporter of ending the embargo.

So before much-herald government announcement of efforts to normalize relations between Cuba and America, Williams said, they began to work on an initiative to link Harlem and Havana.

“And over the last two years, we worked aggressively on putting that initiative into place,” said Williams.

Working with the Congressional Black Caucus, Rangel and Rep. Greg Meeks, City Councilwoman Inez Dickens and others, an agreement was worked out with the Cuban Ministry of Culture during a 2015 trip to the nation, Williams said.

During the trip, auditions were held to select the Cuban musicians, artists and performers who will making the trip to Harlem this month.

Citing then-Cuban President Fidel Castro’s 1960 stay in Harlem’s Theresa Hotel, the joint fight against apartheid in Africa and the impact of Cuban immigrants in Harlem since the 1920s, Reyes Rodríguez reinforced the numerous historic connections between Harlem and Havana, and praised the cultural initiative.

At the press gathering, Hochul represented Gov. Cuomo, the first U.S. governor to lead a trade mission to the Caribbean country after Obama’s Cuba announcement.

For information about the Harlem/Havana Music and Cultural Festival, including a list of events, visit www.harlemhavana.nyc.

Ron Scott, Daily News

August 12, 2016

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