When Maria Isa and Muja Messiah of Villa Rosa got the chance to travel to Cuba last November to teach a series of workshops and work with some of the country’s innovative musicians, they never imagined they would witness a key moment in Cuban history, the death of longtime leader Fidel Castro.
Villa Rosa arrived in Cuba as part of the US Cuba Artist Exchange — a nonprofit organization that facilitates exchanges between people of the two countries centering around art, technology and education. There they joined Cuban rapper Yrak Saenz, also known as “Vitalicio,” and for the two Minneapolis-based musicians, those first couple of days traveling from the touristy, beach towns of Varadero and Guanabo to the capital city of Havana felt like a comfort zone where they could relax and really focus on working with Saenz and the other Cuban musicians on the AmeriCuba project.
Things were going so well that they decided to start recording songs and began filming music videos while exploring Havana — but, as Isa remembers, on the third day of their trip, the busy capital city completely shut down.
“What was heavy honks and traffic and people outside, just became really silent,” she said. “Muja thought it was because we got a show in Santiago, because we got a phone call, but then we were like ‘Everybody quiet.’ Yrak was like ‘I think Fidel has passed,’ and then an announcement on the radio of Raul Castro went live and we all heard it.”
While some in the United States saw the controversial leader’s death as a cause for celebration, many Cubans, like Vitalicio, were devastated by his passing. After ruling Cuba for half a century, Castro was the only leader much of the population had ever known, referred to as “El Comandante.”
“More than a record”
Fidel Castro was a hero to many for his efforts to overthrow Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and for his years of opposition to the United States, a giant to the north.
That was something Messiah said he never realized until that day.
“When Yrak looked at everyone and said, ‘That is my papi,’ and the way he felt it and the way everybody took it to heart, [it was clear Castro] was a larger-than-life character,” he said. “People actually thought he would always be there and they weren’t necessarily prepared for this moment.”
Immediately following the announcement of Fidel Castro’s death on Nov. 25, 2016, the country shut down for nine days of required mourning as his ashes were transported from Havana to the birthplace of the Cuban revolution, Santiago de Cuba. During that time it was illegal to listen to, play, or record music of any kind, but the AmeriCuba musicians knew they had no time to waste in documenting history.
“With Obama’s trip down there and then Trump’s presidency, and then Fidel’s passing, it was really a momentum of releasing and reflecting and recognizing that [we] as artists are the fuel to continue relations between these two countries,” Isa said.
But trying to record an entire album during a period when music was completely banned proved to be a challenge. Many of the city’s recording studios had shut down out of fear for their own safety. Even when the artists did manage to find a studio, just walking there became a risk — and, after seeing another person arrested by the government for playing music, they questioned whether or not they should continue on with the recording process.
“People were concerned for us too, because we were recording…because it was illegal to be listening to music, to be performing and be in any celebration and not showcasing mourning,” Isa said. “We didn’t recognize how serious it was until we left Havana and went to Santiago, which was very disconnected from anything else in the world… It was strictly everything about Fidel. Everything shut down.”
Despite the challenges they faced, Saenz is glad they continued and hopes there will be more collaborations, like the AmeriCuba Project. It didn’t matter that they came from different countries, when it came to down to the music, all of the artists, he said, come from the same tribe.
“What I like most about this experience is that everything happened in a short time. We did a lot of work in a few days and were a team. We were like a family,” said Saenz, the Cuban rapper (in comments translated from Spanish).
“We laugh about it now because we’re celebrating. We recorded an album when it wasn’t permitted to celebrate, it wasn’t permitted to record. When it wasn’t possible to do. And now we’re enjoying it. We’re making a record that for me is more than a record. It’s essentially a look [at Cuba]. Respect. It’s friendship. It’s cultural exchange.”
The album they created, entitled Mamá Me Lo Dijo (Mama Told Me So), is the only album that is known to have been recorded during the nine days of mourning that followed Castro’s death, and consists of nine songs representing each of those days.
Although Mamá Me Lo Dijo was released in the United States this past summer, the AmeriCuba Project is not promoting the album publicly in Cuba, to protect the musicians who are still living there. While Isa and Messiah have performed some of the songs in Minneapolis, they hope to one day reunite and perform the music live in countries where all of the musicians involved in the project will be allowed to join in. But getting to that point won’t be easy.
An uncertain future
After diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were severed in 1961, what was once an open door for artists to travel between the two countries was closed, bringing an end to years of collaborations among the two countries’ musicians.
For decades, Cold War politics largely kept Cuban musicians out of the United States. Although musicians from the United States have occasionally traveled to Cuba for cultural exchanges in the last few decades, arranging the trips was often a complicated process for many artists to navigate.
When the Obama administration began to normalize U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, many were hopeful that the door would again reopen, but the future remains uncertain as Cuba-watchers wait for governments in both countries to make more changes. In Cuba, Raul Castro (who succeeded his brother in 2008, when Fidel’s health failed) is expected to step down as president next year and a new person will take his place. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s new travel policy, which imposes more restrictions on traveling to Cuba, will go into effect.
Despite the barriers U.S. and Cuban artists face trying to travel between the two countries, many are working hard to get around the closed door so that they can collaborate and learn from each other. Mariesa Sun-Saenz, director and co-founder of US Cuba Artist Exchange, says the program will continue to facilitate cultural exchanges between Cubans and people in the United States.
Looking back on his trip to Cuba, Muja Messiah is glad he got to experience what life is like on the island, but he wishes the people he met had access to the same rights he does: many Cubans complain that they are not able to travel abroad.
“We can go there and come and go as we please and meet all these beautiful people, and when it’s time to go you see the look on their faces. They never know if they’ll be able to leave or if their visa is pending,” he said. “Cuba is a very beautiful place, but anything is beautiful until you’re told you can’t leave there. Then it’s not beautiful anymore. It’s very hard to go and meet people when you never know if you’ll see them again.”
Saenz believes that everyone, not just Cubans, are negatively affected by the tensions that still lie between the two governments.
“I can tell you this,” he said. “This relationship between Cuba and the United States is like a game of chess … and we are the pieces. The only ones who are affected by this history are the people. People always talk about the Cuban people, but they don’t realize that when you limit the ability of [U.S. residents to go to Cuba], you’re also limiting and affecting people in the United States.”
Regardless of everything that is going on between the two countries, Saenz also wants to encourage people to visit Cuba before making assumptions about the people who live there.
“When people ask me to talk to them about Cuba, I tell them, ‘I can talk to you from my point of view. But it’s better that you go and find out for yourself what Cuba is like. You won’t get it from the news. You won’t get it from television. Go there and get to know people personally. You’ll be able to live like Muja and Maria Isa did.'”
Simone Cazares is a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas, majoring in communication and journalism. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.