University of North Dakota: Day Two – Cuba!

I’m sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Capri in downtown Havana. The weather is very nice…breezy, low 80s, partly cloudy. We are settled all in, and so far things are going fine.

This morning started with the entire choir trying to get breakfast in our hotel in Miami. It was kind of mess. The hotel was not prepared for all fifty of us, in addition to all the other people trying to get to their flights. In the planning stages for the trip we were told up we should expect the unexpected and that the schedule we had was not going to be exactly the way things were going to work out. But that was supposed to be in Cuba, not Miami. Anyway, we all made it though breakfast, got on the shuttle, and made it through security with zero problems. Getting to the gate, through security, and onto the plane was about as straightforward as any international flight I’ve ever been on.

The same cannot be said for our arrival in Cuba. The airport is small and somewhat rustic, to put it nicely. Immediately there were many questions for myself and Jane. Well, mostly me. Who was I? What do I do? Why are we here? Did I have a computer? A camera? There were just a whole lot of questions. The kids went through customs without incident, but I was singled out for additional screening. I brought along a small digital audio recording device to record some of the concerts, and the Cuban officials had never seen anything quite like it. But after a search and more questions, they let me through. It was definitely nerve wracking, but ultimately, not that big a deal.


Our flight was only about 45 minutes. After the customs rigamarole (for me anyway), We got on two buses and drove around the city for awhile, seeing some of the sights. We have two guides, Jorge and Janet, and two drivers, Ernesto and Darwin. First we drove to Plaza de la Revolucíon and took a nice group photo.


Next we went to Hotel Naciónal to change money. That took some time, but was worth it.


Next was lunch. Our bus went to Doña Carmela, one of the newer family run restaurants, called paladares. Two or three years ago these type of restaurants didn’t exist, but were allowed as part of a number of policy changes in recent years. The other bus went to a different restaurant, as these restaurants are pretty small, and accommodating fifty people isn’t easy.


Well, our group had an amazing experience. We ate some good food in a beautiful setting. The dining room was outside, in a walled in courtyard with mango and papaya trees, coconut palms, bougainvillea, and many other tropical plants that I couldn’t identify. There were wandering musicians, named Trio Madrigal, playing traditional Cuban tunes for the diners. They played “Chan-Chan,” which is one of the pieces that we are singing on tour.

Front of Havana Airport

Niki and I were with about twelve other kids at a large table in a small room with large open windows, set apart from the main house. Toward the end of dinner, Trio Madrigal came into our dining room and sang a few tunes for us. They were excellent, highly skilled musicians, singing three part harmony and all playing instruments. After they finished, the kids were all giving me a look. I know that look. They wanted to sing Chan-chan for Trio Madrigal. So we did. I think we blew them away.

The staff came out of the back and the kitchen and surrounded the room to watch us. The other singers who were spread around the restaurant slowly trickled over and joined us. By the time we were done, the entire restaurant was surrounding the room, either singing or watching. Half way through, Trio Madrigal grabbed their instruments, and played with us to the end of the song. It was incredible. I took a video of it, but can’t really post it here, due to how large the file is. But when we get back, I promise I’ll post it. After that they requested another American song, and so we sang Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “We Shall Walk in the Valley of Peace.” It’s hard for me to put into words how cool of an experience this was.


There were many other amazing things that happened today, including an interesting check-in at the hotel, followed apparently by a dance contest. A cool dinner looking out over the water, and some very interesting Trinidadian musicians. I’d love to share all the details, but alas my internet is only for one hour, and my brain is fried.


Tomorrow is a clinic with Coro Exaudi and an afternoon concert. I’ll try to update tomorrow evening.

–Joshua Bronfman

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