Havana Heat

The Greenwich High School wind ensemble performs at the Plaza de Armas in Cuba during a week long trip in April 2014. Photo: Picasa, Contributed Photo / Greenwich Time ContributedTo hear the pulsing rhythms of Cuba, all you have to do is listen.

As members of the Greenwich High School band discovered during their recent trip to the island, music is everywhere.

“They hear it mostly through live bands, from their parents, from the songs that they sing themselves,” said senior Doug Wrotnowski, a trumpet player. “It’s ingrained in their culture from the time they were born up until and through their adult life.”

Wrotnowski’s insights are the product of a much-anticipated musical and cultural tour. The band’s seven-day trip in April realized a major goal of Greenwich High band director John Yoon, who was inspired by the 2010 visit to Cuba by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his orchestra.

The band originally tried to go last year, but it could not secure the necessary approval from the U.S. Treasury Department. This year, they got the green light.

The Greenwich High School wind ensemble's trombone section gathers with the trombone section of the National Band of Cuba after the two groups' combined performance in April 2014. The GHS students, in bow ties, left to right, are Aaron Kim, Paul Collins and Ben Albano. Photo: Picasa, Contributed Photo / Greenwich Time Contributed“I think the town of Greenwich should be really proud of the kids because they were young ambassadors on the trip,” Yoon said. “I think their behavior and curiosity about Cuban culture and openness to learn was phenomenal. They were playing with professional musicians who are some of the best in the world. Our kids held themselves beautifully against the high standard that the Cubans have.”

After flying into Havana on April 10 on a charter plane from Miami, the approximately 120 students and 20 faculty and parents got settled at the Occidental Miramar hotel, where the group stayed for the week.

They adapted quickly. The following day, students in the wind ensemble and symphony band played with the National Band of Cuba in the Plaza de la Catedral.

Greenwich High School students , Ben Albano, Vince Urbanowski and Peter Russell perform John Coltrane's âÄú26-2âÄù with Yasek Manzano's trumpet band in Cuba in April, 2014. Photo: Picasa, Contributed Photo / Greenwich Time Contributed“The most memorable experience for me was the rehearsal with the National Band,” said sophomore Elise Perry, who plays clarinet and alto saxophone. “Not only were they amazing, but so was the atmosphere that came with rehearsing with them. They were so excited and so into it, and when the music played, they were all just having a great time.”

The Greenwich contingent did not stop there. The next day, the school’s jazz ensemble played with one of the luminaries of contemporary Cuban jazz, trumpeter Yasek Manzano.

The students also met the next generation of virtuosos, visiting a national performing arts high school and an elementary-middle school for music. They were struck by how many of the children they met wanted to be professional musicians, which reflected the high esteem in which Cubans hold music as a career.

Members of the Greenwich High School jazz ensemble gather in front of the cathedral in Old Havana during their trip to Cuba in April 2014. Photo: Contributed Photo / Greenwich Time Contributed“The kids there, we asked them if they wanted to pursue music, and they all said yes,” said junior Isabella Del Priore, a flutist. “They were so young, but they already knew that was what they wanted to do. It taught me to love what I do and pursue things that I find interesting.”

While the students traveled for music, they were not oblivious to the long-standing political tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. The communist-ruled country has faced an American economic embargo for more than 50 years, and few Americans ever venture to the island. But any unease about their reception by the locals was soon dispelled.

“I had this expectation that they weren’t going to be that happy with Americans coming,” said senior Vince Urbanowski, who plays the tenor saxophone. “The first day in the hotel, there was this guy in the elevator, and he said, `Are you guys American?’ and we were like `Yeah,’ and he said, `Wow, it’s so awesome for you to be here. Thank you for coming.’ ”

Throughout their visit, the Greenwich musicians were also keenly aware of the widespread deprivation around them. Even the National Band players were short on essentials such as woodwind reeds, valve oil, trombone slide grease and drumsticks.

“One thing that I noticed, though, was how all the musicians are very happy,” said junior Lara Balikci, who plays the flute. “It was so unique to Cuba. When it’s juxtaposed to our lives at Greenwich High School, I feel like it just goes to show what people who have limited access to resources are able to do.”

Responding to the lack of daily staples, the band program donated clothes and toiletries to a special education school that they visited, as well as some used clarinets for the youth musicians whom they met. They also donated musical parts to the National Band.

When not performing, the students explored the Cuban capital and its outskirts. They visited a number of important places, including Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway‘s home just outside the city, the community of Regla, the Morro castle and the Christ of Havana statue.

More than 1,000 miles away from Havana, the students are now back in their familiar suburban environs at 10 Hillside Road. But they said that the trip will have a lasting impact.

“They all live and breathe their culture, and they all get really enthusiastic about it,” said junior Peter Russell, a clarinet and tenor saxophone player, who has grandparents originally from Cuba. “They share it with the world. It’s magnificent. It reminded me why I’m a musician.”

–Paul Schott,  greenwichtime.com

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