FAIRFIELD — Last week Keith Johnston touched down in what had been a taboo land for most Americans for decades.
He collected his luggage and went right to his first rehearsal with local professional brass players, struck along the way by things he didn’t expect — roads better than their American counterparts and “phenomenally friendly” people he interacted with through scraps of common language.
In Santiago, Cuba, the Sacred Heart University director of bands and trombone professor described a vibrant music scene scattered across every street and park of the old city, which dates back to 1515. In his casa particular — the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast — nestled in the city’s historic district, Johnston found every comfort and sampled home-cooked local food, including a lobster tail that “must have weighed a pound.”
The idea of the trip to Cuba — possible as travel restrictions recently eased when former President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro began normalizing the countries’ relations — was actually born in Haiti. Johnston has taught at music summer camps in Haiti since 2008. At a brass festival there, Johnston met some people from Cuba who suggested a similar musical collaboration in their country.
Within months, a fellow brass player and retired music educator organized an all-brass concert with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Oriente in Santiago. Johnston arrived in Cuba Feb. 6 for a week of rehearsals and workshops, leading up to a Feb. 11 concert. For the collaborative performance, local composer Ernesto Burgos wrote a new piece on commission. Johnston, a trombonist, performed and conducted.
The concert melded dance-style pieces, typical in Cuba, with more traditionally American choices, including Mozart and
elements of fanfare and jazz. The mixed ensemble practiced and performed in a concert hall that had once been a church that housed a boys’ school with a well-known pupil.
Among a group of students in a photo on the wall is a young Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary that went from American darling to foe when he aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and subsequently retained a totalitarian grip on power. As he aged, he pulled away from leadership and finally turned the presidency over to his younger brother in 2008. He died in November at 90.
Only months after the former leader’s death, Johnston filed into Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. He saw the tomb housing Castro’s ashes, as well as the final resting place of Jose Marti, a poet and celebrated hero of the latter 19th century for his role in the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain.
“One of the things I learned in Haiti — and it took me a long time to learn this — is when you’re a tourist, especially in a country that isn’t one of the traditional western countries, go be a tourist,” Johnston said.
Along with the cemetery stop, he toured San Pedro de la Roca Castle and saw a glitzy cabaret performance at the Tropicana Santiago, calling it an outdoor “visual feast.” He bought local craft arts as souvenirs or in other small tourist shops, aiming to channel his dollars into the local economy.
“And of course we heard lots and lots of music,” Johnston recalled. “Santiago is really known for musicians. You would walk along the street and they’re in alleyways, they’re on street corners, they have parks everywhere and musicians performing all over the place. Just wonderful.”
Walking through the old city and hearing musician after musician, Johnston heard few somber songs.
“The style of music is joyful,” he said. “Music and dance seem to go hand in hand, is what it felt like to me. The music, there’s such a joyful kind of playing, very upbeat.”
He found something similar in the local music scene as he has on other trips, a stark difference from music in the United States where he believes it has become a dispensable product.
“It’s a different form than what a lot of the rest of the world experiences. For a lot of the rest of the world, music is part of their soul, it’s part of who they are, it’s part of what defines them and their humanity,” Johnston assessed, “and that was very much the case in Cuba.”
Throughout his weeklong stay, many of Johnston’s perceptions melted away. He felt reminded of the scope of the world beyond American borders.
“Here’s something that I learned real fast: America’s had this embargo. The rest of the world hasn’t,” he said. “The rest of the world has been going there — we ran into tourists from Germany, tourists from Japan, tourists from Ireland, all over the world.”
Even as relations recently warmed, the 1960s-era American trade embargo remains in place.
In his chats, representing just a handful of Santiago locals’ thoughts on the Cuban political scene, Johnston heard confusion about how a successor might be chosen for President Raul Castro, who has pledged to relinquish his post in 2018. Some told him they were not convinced he would step down, some that a change in leadership would not impact their daily lives.
Back at the Fairfield university where he has worked for nearly 15 years, Johnston said he hopes to continue a relationship with the Santiago-based orchestra and brass players he met. Some gave the Bridgeport resident their addresses, imploring him to send letters.
Johnston plans to offer a session soon for band students to come hear about his experience in Cuba. Orchestra organizers invited him to return to conduct a concert next year and offered for him to bring some students along. He hopes some of the musicians he met can also travel to play collaboratively at Sacred Heart, and aims to bring the composer, Burgos, for a visit.
In the case of Cuba, Johnston explained, he sees one-on-one interactions where Cubans and Americans can get to know each other as the most effective way to bring about change.
“I think, ultimately, that’s how progress happens,” he said.