Kauai Voices returns from Cuba tour

Photo by Gene Padilla – Members of Kauai Voices with Cuban choir Sine Nomine after performing for each other in Cuba. Kauai Voices director Randy Leonard is far right; Sine Nomine director Leonor Suarez Dulzaides is fourth from right, wearing orange lei.

“We have so much more in common than not, especially how the people of both of our islands come from so many different cultures, giving us all broader world views,” Randy says. One thing that is very different, however, is that the Cuban government fully funds the arts.

By Pam Varma Special to The Garden Island | Sunday, February 18, 2018

Members of Kauai Voices returned home Wednesday after one week of singing in Cuba with three separate Cuban choirs, becoming the first Hawaiian vocal group to perform there. Twenty-two members of the 50-member Kauai ensemble made the trip, along with a pianist, bass player and percussionist. I was one of the singers.

Director Randy Leonard first began formulating this trip in 2016, when he realized the group was ready to perform internationally.

“At that time, President Obama was re-establishing relations with Cuba,” Randy says. “We didn’t know how long that opening would exist, and how long before Cuba began to change.

“I envisioned that Kauai Voices would be ambassadors of Kauai, Hawaii and the United States, to bridge our two countries through music.”

During the past week, that’s exactly what happened.

By sharing music, the Cubans we met felt our love and aloha, evidenced by their smiles, laughter and even tears of joy. In turn, we learned that Cubans’ hearts are as warm and accepting as our own.

“We have so much more in common than not, especially how the people of both of our islands come from so many different cultures, giving us all broader world views,” Randy says.

One thing that is very different, however, is that the Cuban government fully funds the arts. Members of all three choirs we met and performed with are professionals, meaning that singing is their job, literally. They practice five days per week, multiple hours per day. One of the groups requires that all members have higher education in music, and even then, they still are required to audition.

Photo by Gene Padilla – Kauai Voices director Randy Leonard, left, holding Cuban flag, with Maria Felicia Perez, director of superb 12-member Cuban choir Exaudi, after the two groups gave a joint concert.

In contrast, while Kauai Voices members are required to audition, we come from a wide variety of musical backgrounds. Some of us can read music, others learn strictly by ear. Some, like me, are somewhere in between. We rehearse one night per week as a group, and practice on our own for many hours to achieve the sound for which Kauai Voices is known. Most of us have full-time employment, predominantly in fields unrelated to music, and we fund our own participation in the choir, including paying our own way to visit Cuba.

The first Cuban choir we met with was Vocal Luna, an 11-member, all-female group. When they sing, it sounds like one angelic voice creating perfect harmony with itself. In our workshop with them, we learned one of their songs, and they learned one of ours.

Two days later, our two choirs performed a joint concert for an audience in the salon of a former presidential palace. A talented (and adorable) children’s chorus sang first, then Vocal Luna. The audience loved them both, and so did we. Most, if not all of us, were a bit concerned. How could we possibly follow those two acts? Fortunately, audience members were clearly relishing the whole experience.

We opened with “Aloha Kauai,” featuring Penny Prior dancing hula, barefoot, of course. The audience instantly connected with her and us, and with what we were conveying from Hawaii. The Cubans could not take their eyes off Penny as she danced, and some of the children emulated her as best they could.

Next we sang “Africa,” which we opened by making sounds of rain and thunder with our hands and feet. The children’s chorus, which was by now sitting in the first several rows of the audience, delightedly began imitating our hand movements.

When we sang “We Are the World,” Vocal Luna’s translator began waving her arms rhythmically in the air, others copying her. Most people in the audience knew the meaning of the words, and sang along, smiling, tears in their eyes. In that moment, we knew the difference in our training made no difference. Music connected us all.

Our second connection was with the group Exaudi (Latin for “listen”), a 12-member mixed choir, at the Hispano-American Center of Culture, their practice and performance facility. Unlike Vocal Luna’s director, who immediately felt like a sister, Exaudi’s director, Maria Felicia Perez, exuded a stoicism while we were learning a couple of each other’s songs during our workshop.

At our joint concert, Exaudi performed first. They sang all of their songs a cappella (with no musical instruments accompanying them), as did the other choirs we met with. In their second song, their voices sounded so much like a symphony, I actually looked to make sure there weren’t violins on stage. “Superb” would be an understatement. We were in awe.

Knowing we sound nothing like them, most of us were intimidated. I overheard one of our members semi-jokingly say, “Let’s just go home now.”

Unlike the concert the evening before, this audience was cooler, as if they were waiting to be impressed.

Thank goodness there were two Kauai residents, coincidentally in Cuba at the same time, sitting in the front row beaming at us, along with the handful of significant others who had traveled with us.

As we performed “Africa,” I wondered if Senora Perez would view our handmade rain sounds as if we were schoolchildren.

But while we were singing “Wade in the Water,” I spotted her in the audience, sitting forward in her chair, singing along. Two songs later, she was still leaning toward the stage, singing with us.

After we finished our performance, Randy asked Senora Perez to come to the front of the room, to be presented with gifts he brought for her from Kauai.

As she was thanking him, we saw from the stage as her expression began to change. Suddenly, overcome with emotion, her stoic exterior dissolving, she began crying while speaking.

“She told me she was so moved by the passion and energy with which we sang, that she was brought to tears,” Randy says. “The change Senora Perez experienced is a perfect example of the difference that we can make, breaking any preconceived stereotypes.”

I sense that for decades Senora Perez has held her group together, the threat of funding elimination looming constantly, and that only her steely resolve to be the most excellent group possible has allowed Exaudi to continue to exist.

“Two days later, Senora Perez telephoned me in my hotel room to tell me she was still thinking about our performance, how moved she was and how much she enjoyed our vocal quality. I felt quite honored to hear that, especially since she knew we are not full-time musicians,” Randy said.

“She also told me she loved the sounds of rain we made with our hands in ‘Africa.’ ”

On our last full day in Cuba, we met with an all-male nine-member choir named Sine Nomine. Four of their members are counter- tenors, meaning they sing as high as first sopranos, the highest female voices.

After the emotions we’d experienced performing with the first two choirs, some of us thought that simply having a workshop with Sine Nomine might be anti-climactic. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

They gave a 20-minute performance for us. They sang so exquisitely and joyfully that halfway through their first song, most of us had tears streaming down our faces. When we performed for them, they sang along to “We Are the World.” Afterward, there were hugs, laughs and photos as if we had known each other for years.

For all of us, this visit to Cuba vastly exceeded our expectations.

“We really made a difference for the people we were able to interact with,” Randy says. “To see how genuine we are, the quality of people we are and the kindness we bring from Kauai, that changes people’s minds and visions of what we Americans are.”

Snapshots of Havana

Kauai Voices did so much more in Cuba than perform with choirs. Here are some of our favorite memories:

• Classic American cars used as taxis, primarily Buicks, Chevrolets, Dodges, Fords and Cadillacs, from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, painted in a rainbow of colors: bright green, blue, pink and red. Some are band-aided well enough to run, others are restored beautifully, including a 1928 Ford.

Photo by Randy Leonard – Kauai Voices members, from left Lee Miller, Lolli Hagen and Amy Lin Thomas, in a classic American car being used as a taxi in Cuba.

• Stunning architecture throughout Havana, some buildings beautifully restored, many others waiting their turn.

Photo by Pam Varma – A beautifully restored building in Cuba is bathed in sunlight and shade.

• Dancing to traditional Cuban and Latin jazz music played at restaurants and at clubs such as Club Havana, Tropicana and the Buena Vista Social Club, by musicians skilled enough to play with any of the United States’ most talented.

• Visiting the Havana campus of the Universidad de Las Artes (University of the Arts), where Cubans who qualify study music, painting, sculpture and other arts at no cost to them. The university is open to non-Cubans for a small fee.

• The look of sheer amazement and disbelief on the face of a children’s chorus member when she understood that Kauai Voices member Dennis McGraw was gifting her with a trombone he brought specifically for that purpose. (She had been chosen by her teacher to receive the trombone based on her musical aptitude.)

Photo by Pamela Varma – A young Cuban girl reacts after realizing the trombone she was playing was being gifted to her by Kauai Voices member Dennis McGraw.

• Standing two feet away while workers hand-roll cigars that retail for $7 to $20 apiece, and learning those employees earn the equivalent of about $18 per month, very low even by Cuban standards. (One cigar-maker, having no idea our group was coming in that day, had hanging from his work station a T-shirt with the saying, “Mucho aloha, bro.”)

• Poking our heads into a one-chair barber shop in the front room of a family’s small house, being invited immediately into their home, then being treated to a spontaneous four-piece percussion jam session in their living room.

Photo by Pam Varma – Spontaneous percussion jam session in a private home in Cuba.

• Impromptu singing during lunch in an upscale restaurant, greeted by the pianist’s huge smile. The pianist said it was the first time patrons had ever sung in that restaurant.

• Feeling the pride Cuban people take in their country and their independence.

• Our tour guide and bus driver, so touched by Kauai’s aloha spirit, fighting back tears at the airport as we were departing.


Pam Varma

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