Bridging the gap between the U.S. and Cuba through music

By Amanda Kraus |

Growing up in a household full of music junkies, music has always been an important and influential part of my life. Little did I know, it would find its way into a study abroad trip to Cuba where I’d see just how universal and influential music is.

Though the Cuban government has, and still tries, to retain a certain amount of control over what comes in from the United States. With the trade embargo the U.S. placed on the country, music has managed to easily slip through the cracks, and the Cuban people love that just as much as you’d imagine us homesick college students did.

That non-stop cultural fusion through music in Cuba shines through in what music junkies consider to be one of the greatest classic rock songs of all time. Hotel California by the Eagles can be heard playing anywhere and everywhere just as it can here in the states. Little did I know the happiness I felt when I heard a friend of our professor strum those first few chords on the porch of our rental home in Tarara, would not be the last time I felt that joy and connection during our trip.

I would find it again on our first hike on the trip, this one to a waterfall in the countryside. This time, the song was sung in Spanish by an elderly man sitting on a rock with his guitar.

And again in an odd but awe-inspiring, trip to the “pre-historic wall” painting in Vinales. This time being played off a phone by two Europeans who had also climbed the rocks as a few of us on the trip did in an attempt to get a good view of the mountains adjacent.

Cuba’s musical indulgence reaches far beyond Hotel California, of course. Myself and others on the trip were constantly seeking and fully embracing the music, finding ourselves overjoyed when another familiar tune played. It’s not uncommon to turn a street corner in Havana and find a band serenading the streets, be asked to dance in a bar or enjoy a few Spanish songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar during lunch.

For the duration of the trip, we had the same three taxi drivers take us from location to location. We eventually came to find the drivers’ entirely-Spanish playlists in the car to be soothing, and even familiar, mumbling along to some songs as the trip went on and we heard them more often.

But we were still ecstatic when our driver started playing more familiar hits like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Stevie Wonder’s, “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” the driver swaying back and forth with us as we sang in the back seats. Though seemingly insignificant, those were unforgettable, heartwarming moments.

And of course, there were the nightclubs. One of the most popular spots for our group was Fabrica de Arte in Havana. A factory-turned-nightclub and art gallery is well worth the line that can stretch down the street around the side of the building. Walking in, you can catch glimpses of beautiful artwork peaking out from the masses of people.

Finally emerging from the initial crowd at the door, you find yourself in an art gallery. With walls white from floor to ceiling, people quietly shuffle past pieces sipping drinks. After so many rooms of back to back art, you find a hallway with people pouring out of it and can hear the thumping of speakers. Once you finally break through the doorway, you’re surprised and amazed to find a huge nightclub and bar. This continues throughout the building for about three stories, with only one exit to try and find your way back down to. Some rooms are stages with live bands, some with DJs, switching between American hits like Bruno Mars’, “That’s What I Like,” to Spanish favorites like “Despacito” and “Bailando.”

One of my personal favorites, though, had to be Casa de la Musica in Trinidad. After a trek up a steep, cobblestone street, we arrived at the venue. Practically throwing my 1 or 2 CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos) cover charge at the bouncers, I was awestruck to be looking up at an outdoor, amphitheater-style stage surrounded by long benches carved into the limestone, packed with people and waiters buzzing back and forth with trays full of drinks. After just a couple of minutes, the girls of the group rushed down to dance and were eventually invited on stage by the band to dance along to the music.

Beyond constantly indulging in the music itself, art and various other odes to musicians and band can also be found throughout Cuba, particularly John Lennon of the Beatles. In John Lennon Park in Havana, a statue of Lennon seated on a bench resides in the park for photos. Across the street, a bar named The Yellow Submarine, plays nothing but classic rock hits.

Even the team of OnCuba, an independent media outlet in Havana, decorated their office with a quote from “Imagine,” by John Lennon—an ironic, strong statement, considering independent journalism isn’t permitted in Cuba.

One of the more heartwarming experiences by far, though, was going to watch a pen pal of one of the students perform at a music venue in Havana. Flagler College’s Hannah Pierce got into contact with Cuban singer and musician, Aurorita Feliu, and after going to see her perform, the rest of the group was beyond thrilled she had. Not only did she have a one-of-a-kind voice, she was pure talent on guitar, and had an equally amazing band backing her.

Though she had us fully mesmerized and swaying with the Spanish pieces she performed, she paused to introduce us, her “American friends,” to the rest of the crowd and then began singing Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” with us snapping our fingers to accompany her. Both locals and our group joined in on the song.

For all of us in the room, the music connected us emotionally and culturally in a way few other things could. No matter how different we may have seemed, music brought us together during that song and the many others we heard on our trip.

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