Arts and Entertainment

School of Music faculty, students to embark on historic Cuba trip

Jazz faculty and students are embarking on a musical odyssey, culminating in a cultural exchange of American and Cuban student musicians, the first of its kind since the United States imposed its embargo on Cuba in 1962.

Street musicians in Santiago de Cuba, where a delegation of Penn State jazz students will visit in May. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On May 2, two Penn State School of Music faculty members and six students will embark on a trip that will undoubtedly change their lives and their music-making forever.

Professors Mark Lusk (trombone) and Dan Yoder (jazz studies) will lead a delegation of Penn State jazz students on a musical and cultural exploration of Cuba where they will perform, study and experience a rich musical culture that has long been veiled by politics to the outside world but is steeped in a tradition that has influenced countless American jazz idioms.

The faculty members, along with graduate students Jaren Angud (percussion), John Maurer (trumpet), Sean Durkin, David Kraus and Wes Thompson (trombone), and undergraduate student Kate Anderson (saxophone) will join with faculty and students from the University of Richmond in Virginia for the 10-day “Cuba Spectacular” excursion.

The idea of a combined Cuban trip was the brain child of Lusk and professor Michael Davison of the University of Richmond, friends who work together at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. Davison, a trumpet professor and an expert in Cuban music and culture, will lead the American jazz ambassadors throughout their itinerary, which begins in Santiago de Cuba and ends in Havana. While in Cuba, they will be assisted by Maestro Daniel Guzmán, conductor emeritus of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba, and Peter Loman, a musician and author who has produced a documentary on the blending of Cuban rhythms with American jazz.

The highlight of the tour will be a cultural and musical exchange between the 16 American jazz musicians and 13 students and faculty members of the Conservatorio Esteban Salas in Santiago de Cuba. The exchange will culminate in a concert combining faculty and students from all three institutions into one big band. This concert including both American and Cuban student musicians will be the first of its kind since the United States imposed its embargo on Cuba in 1962, and will be filmed and audio-recorded by a documentary team housed at the University of Richmond. The program will feature American jazz arrangements of “Summertime” and “Autumn Leaves,” as well as music written in the vernacular son cubano and guaguanco styles.

Yoder says he is looking forward to this opportunity to play alongside the Cuban musicians.

"The interaction, especially rhythmically, will be really exciting for our students and, frankly, for the faculty members as well. Some of the Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban jazz rhythms are distinctly unique and, although we play that music here occasionally, it will be great to hear it interpreted by musicians who live with it every day," he said.

Other performances of the Penn State jazz musicians include a formal concert at the ornate Sala de Conciertos Dolores, a concert hall re-built from a burned-out church located in Santiago’s Plaza de Dolores, as well as a late-night primetime performance at the Iris Jazz Club, the new home of Afro-Cuban jazz in Santiago. After stops at historic Trinidad de Cuba and a day at the beach in Ancón, the Penn State students and faculty will end their trip in Havana during its annual salsa festival. A visit to the famous Tropicana Club in Havana will complete the Americans' Cuban experience.

The Penn State music students are excited about this amazing and rare opportunity, and they became even more energized when Michael Davison visited Penn State in January to discuss the musical banquet that awaits them. To prepare for the trip, they studied course materials that Davison created for his University of Richmond class titled “Salsa Meets Jazz.” They also prepared approximately 30 Cuban jazz standards, many introduced to the U.S. by the Buena Vista Social Club, so that they can interact musically with the Cuban jazz players they meet along their journey.

Lusk says he is eager about the possibilities for future cultural exchange as a result of this inaugural trip and is grateful for the support the “Cuba Spectacular” trip has received.

"The arts, music and especially jazz music, have always exemplified the notion of international collegiality," he noted. "This is the first time that the School of Music and the College of Arts and Architecture have investigated the possibility of making a connection with the Cuban artistic community. The school, college and Penn State Global Programs, have not just come through with financial support. Most important, the positive spirit and well-wishes from our colleagues here has been tremendously encouraging."

Last Updated May 15, 2014