Monday, February 14, 2011

March 2011 DownBeat article on my work in Cuba

Berklee Students Connect with Cuban Counterparts During Havana Visit 

Berklee College of Music professor NeilLeonard and four students in his electronic production and design department have broken new ground, not on the Boston campus, but in theCaribbean. Cuban-American relations have loosened up on the cultural front so it’s not as difficult for American artists to travel to the island. The Berklee students and professor landed in Havana last December, not long after Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra made the trip.

Leonard wanted the pupils in his Interarts Ensemble — bassist Kate Bilinski, guitarist JohnHull, singer Julia Easterlin, pianist Enrico de Trizio — to be exposed to what he called “manifestations of interdisciplinary art and those wonderful Cuban artists who work across disciplines.”

The Cuban trip, which Leonard planned with help from the Laboratorio Nacional deMusic Electroacústica, turned out to be successful beyond his expectations.

“I’ve been to Cuba a number of times and had amazing experiences,” he said upon his return to Berklee. “But this was the highlight of my 25 years of encounters with Cubans, all packed into one week, sharing it with young musicians who were making their first contact with Cuba.”

Going in, Leonard was concerned about how well his students would collaborate with students at the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte(ISA) on pieces intended for a concert, but ultimately, he said there was no problem: “They were ambassadors for the arts and did everything possible to be welcoming and appreciative of the Cubans.” 

Under the Havana moon, the students mixed music, dance, poetry and spirituality. A highlight of the ISA show was Bilinski and Hull on iPads manipulating and incorporating samples from the Cubans into the electronic music tradition,especially as ISA has just a fraction of the technology available at Berklee. Hull said, “It was cool to see how interested the ISA students were in the live performance software and controllers we were using.”

Days before a final concert at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Leonard had request•ed of his crew that they become aware of the artistic milieu in Havana. 

“I didn’t want them to try to become amateur specialists in Cuban music so much,” Leonard said. “I wanted them to allow themselves to be open to and partially inspired and influenced by the city of Havana.”

Toward that end, de Trizio went to a ceremony held at a castle and taped the shouts of a soldier leading a procession of marchers.

“As a composer, I’m always fascinated by paradoxes,” de Trizio said. “In this case, it’s a march, but the guy screamed a very nice melody then ‘silencio!’ and I ended up writing a lullaby.” As for lyrics, he and Easterlin adapted an Eliseo Diego poem about Havana’s impressive old architecture. “Silencio” turned up as one of the short vignettes written by the students for the Museo concert’s feature piece “Nuestro Tiempo” (“Our Times”).

After that show, the Berklee gang went to thehome of master percussionists the Arango brothers, who were hosting a Yoruban holiday celebration in honor of the deity Chango. “I had chills when the entire patio of musicians erupted in a ritual chorus complete with beautiful harmonies,” Bilinski said.

Of other activities during the hectic week,there was a memorable visit with Chucho Valdés. Ge Trizio tried out his Steinway, with Easterlin singing. Thrilled by their music, Valdés took over on the keys and unleashed his own “Chucho’s Steps.” “We were in his parlor,” Leonard recalled, “listening to Chucho do his thing from three feet away. There’s nothing like that!” 

—Frank-John Hadley 

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