Rivers Jazz Ensembles Tour Cuba: International Partnerships through Music

The Rivers Big Band, joined by members of Honors Big Band and Select 2 Combo, recently returned from a whirlwind cultural, historical, and musical tour of Cuba. While Rivers has offered travel programs with a music focus in the past, this is the first year a Rivers group has traveled to Cuba, with 21 students from the Rivers Honors Big Band participating in the trip, along with around 15 students from the Noble and Greenough School’s jazz band. Students took in the vibrant arts scene of music and art, playing and recording Cuban music with local conservatory students, learning and playing with master teachers and recording artists, visiting important cultural sites, and creating lasting intercultural friendships and partnerships.

The idea for the joint trip arose a few years ago. Rivers Jazz Director Philippe Crettien visited Cuba in June 2022 at the invitation of Roberto Fonseca, artistic director of the Havana Jazz Festival and “The Alliance Francaise” to perform music from Crettien’s latest CD, “The North African Suite” with Cuban musicians, aided by the support of a Rivers faculty enrichment grant. There, Crettien said he was “blown away by the richness of the culture, the amazing people, the marriage of all the influences on the music.” Paul Lieberman, who directs the ensembles at Nobles, had also recently been to Cuba, and the two directors and friends started planning a joint trip together, born out of a mutual love for the rich musical culture and the people of Cuba and a desire to share that with their students. The two bands played together for the first time at November’s Jazz Festival before playing and traveling together in and around Havana.

Add in a third school—the jazz students of the Escuela Nacional de Música de Cuba, Havana’s premier arts high school, who became partners and musical collaborators throughout the week in Havana. Led by director Javier Zalba, the Cuban students became fast friends with the Rivers cohort, swapping improvised solos, playing and recording together, and bringing joyful energy to the exchange. Said Crettien of the experience, “The immediate and joyful connection the students and I were able to make with Javier Zalba and his students was incredible. It made for an amazing joint concert at the National School for the Arts and an outstanding recording session at Abdala Studios.” 

The musical environment was immersive. Students alternated between days of music-making and visits to cultural sites, but the music was everywhere—on the streets, in the restaurants, in the buses. “There are so many elements that make Cuba such a rich experience for music in particular,” said Crettien. “You have this mix of African cultural, Cuban, and Latin influences that all come together in the musical style.” Rivers students started preparing the music for the concerts last summer, mastering a program nearly entirely made up of Latin American and Cuban music. 

This musical knowledge was enhanced by master classes and jam sessions led by legendary Cuban musicians Orlando “Maraca” Valle and Aisar Hernandez. Rivers and Nobles also participated in a pre-departure masterclass in November by Oscar Stagnaro, bassist and composer, whose piece “Mariella’s Dream” was featured in both joint concerts in Havana and was recorded at the Abdala Studios session. There were also less formal opportunities to jump in, with a few students sitting in with local bands playing at lunchtime restaurants. 

In addition to the master classes and the concerts/recordings, the groups visited important cultural sites and learned key elements of Cuban and Afro-Cuban art, music, and history. The  Callejon de Hamel, a street alley filled with art, serves as a cultural activities center for Afro-Cuban culture and the site of a Rumba performance with the combined cohort. The group also visited the UNESCO sites of Old Havana and San Severino Castle, the city of Matanzas, and Fábrica de Arte Cubano; attended a performance by the group Habana Compas Dance, a fusion of Spanish flamenco and African dance/rhythmic elements; and visited the San José markets, where some came away with paintings by local artists. 

The logistics of bringing a group to Cuba under the current travel restrictions between Cuba and the U.S. are not easy. Director of Global Education Andrea Villagrán who oversees logistics for all Rivers trips and also served as a chaperone in Cuba, shared, “All new trips have hurdles, but getting all documents together to visit a country where the U.S. has an embargo, and doing so carrying musical instruments, made this experience a bit more challenging than other trips. Thankfully, our partners in Cuba and our travel agent in Spain did a phenomenal job supporting us all the way.” Also serving as chaperones were Sequoyah Reynoso and Andrea Diaz, who ensured the safety, health, and well-being of all student participants. Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem, as well as Robin Sallie and Alexandra Ghiz, also joined the group. 

With such a strong start, Rivers is already looking toward the future of this trip, which Villagrán says will definitely run again. Future opportunities abound in the way of a reciprocal exchange, broadening the relationship between Rivers and the Escuela Nacional de Música in Havana. Says Villagrán, “By fostering ongoing communication and collaboration, we can build a sustainable bridge that connects our two countries and promotes mutual understanding.” 

Crettien echoed this sentiment: “Since returning to Boston, I have been in contact with Javier Zalba, exchanging music and course ideas. This relationship with Zalba and his students is just starting, but it is already so rich and promising. We will continue this exchange between our schools and continue building friendships between Cuba and Boston.” 

Says Villagrán, “Cuba is an eye-opening destination for our students. It's unlike anything most of our kids have access to, and I firmly believe that there is much to learn from people who have a life experience much different from our own. Cuba and its people help us better understand the complexities of the human experience.” 

333 Winter Street Weston, MA 02493
P: 781.235.9300 F: 781.239.3614