It was a moment of supreme irony.
Sitting on metal folding chairs in a tiny rehearsal space, my wife Gail and I were amazed to hear the US Marine Corps official march being played with enthusiasm by the Banda Municipal Concerto Infanti — an accomplished symphony orchestra made up of Cuban kids aged 14 to 18.
The performance of “Semper Fidelis,” led by a famed conductor and trumpeter who once accompanied Frank Sinatra at Havana’s legendary Tropicana nightclub, took place during our recent tour of Cuba as part of a US-based cultural exchange program.
The concert also shed an interesting new light on a deeply troubled country. Cuba has been thrust onto the world stage following President Obama’s decision to begin restoring diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s once-reviled Communist society. As we saw often on our tour, this is also a nation vibrating with youthful energy, with artistic creativity, and with a newly emerging and exuberant sense of hope among young people who consider the recently announced political thaw an opportunity to begin revitalizing their long dormant homeland.
Make no mistake: This is a country where food is still carefully rationed, where consumer goods such as clothes and electronics are often impossible to get, and where even skilled physicians make less than $70 a month.
During our 12-day, 860-mile journey through the Pennsylvania-sized island nation, we found evidence everywhere of the high price Cuba has paid as a result of its half-century-long experiment with Soviet-style communism. Whether we were looking at dilapidated buildings in downtown Havana or driving on streets full of battered old Fords and Chevys from the pre-revolutionary world of the 1950s, the economic impact of a 55-year-old US embargo and 1989 collapse and withdrawal from Cuba of the Soviet Union was powerfully evident.
So, too, were signs of a revival.
At the Banda Municipal rehearsal hall in Villa Clara Province (about 300 miles from Havana), the aging but energetic conductor-trumpeter Marcos Antonio Urbay Serafin directed his teenage musicians through classics by Tchaikovsky, Sousa, and the Beatles. Their performance was a powerful display of the upbeat energy of Cuba’s youth.
Lean and intense, the no-nonsense conductor watched over his adolescent musicians like a hawk. Glaring intently at his charges, he lived up to his reputation as a strict disciplinarian who never stops underlining the importance of practice and self-discipline. And yet his students were also brimming with high spirits and cheerful laughter during every break in their high-octane concert.
Later, our impressively articulate tour guide (recently college-educated and only 26 herself) led a question-and-answer session in which we learned how the maestro had recruited these talented kids from around the coastal city of Caibarien. After teaching them to read music and play their instruments, Serafin spent several years building an accomplished orchestra.
The same playful but deeply serious attitude we witnessed in Villa Clara Province was evident during a rehearsal by the Endedans Modern Dance Company in the central-Cuba city of Camaguey, where we saw a troupe of talented ballet dancers glide through some impressive pirouettes. Like their fellow students at Camaguey’s Vicentina de la Torre Art School, the young dancers pay no tuition and work tirelessly to perfect their skills.
A few days earlier, in Cuba’s capital city we had watched the highly regarded Habana Compas Dance company (its members are age 20-24) cavort through an eclectic program built around Latin rhythms teased from a catchy flamenco theme. The dancers used canes, drumsticks, slippers, and even a platoon of brightly painted wooden chairs to knock out a series of pop dances that inspired toe-tapping and clapping.
These Cuban youngsters were having lots of fun, but when we talked to them later, we were surprised by their sharp focus on hard work and discipline. That same message resonated when we spoke with the youthful musical director, Eduardo Cordova, who loudly declared, “Work, work, and work — I always say that, because nobody can fight against work!”
As our visit continued, we heard that theme often. It was easy to understand why — given the terrific problems Cuba now faces. Cubans are burdened with a dangerously low birthrate (Cuban president Raul Castro calls it “one of the greatest challenges now facing our nation”), and a serious housing shortage. On top of that, the slowly lifting but still damaging economic blockade is forcing Cubans to confront a worn-out infrastructure and soaring black-market prices that put many of them on the edge of poverty.
But despite the hurdles, optimism is in the air, especially among the young. Everywhere we went, we heard about dreams of prosperity.
“We Cubans have suffered greatly during our conflict with the US,” said one of our tour guides, while talking freely during a bus ride to Santiago, our final stop. “But now we think a better day is coming, and we’re full of hope.”
Freelance journalist Douglas Volk lives in Maine.