It’s hard to know what to say at the end of an adventure like this. The concerts were incredible, but I don’t really want to talk about the concerts. If you heard them on the radio or online, you already know about the energy in the room, the swelling pride of the Cuban people as we performed first their national anthem and then our own on Saturday night, and the immense outpouring of emotion at the end of both evenings. I saw more than one audience member in tears, and in truth, there were some red eyes on the stage of the Teatro Nacional as well.
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But this morning, having breakfast with a handful of colleagues before heading to the airport, it struck me that most of the memories we’ll take away from this tour won’t be of our own performances. No one in the orchestra is talking about the concerts today. Instead, we’re talking about the people we’ve met here, from students to shopkeepers to cab drivers. We’re talking about the bands that played for us and with us, the kids who came to our final rehearsal and applauded wildly at our awkward first attempt playing a famous Cuban dance tune, the artists at the central market who talked excitedly to us about their lives and work.
One of the little differences between our musical cultures that surprised us a bit at first is the idea of “backstage access.” From rehearsals to concerts, there always seemed to be a million people wandering around with us both backstage and on stage. It was slightly unsettling at first, since we’re carrying around (and frequently leaving alone) instruments that are worth a tremendous amount of money, and we’re used to them being well guarded at concert facilities. But by the end of the week, the sight of students jumping up on stage at intermission to say hello to the musicians who play the same instrument they do was bringing smiles to all our faces. One young cellist came backstage to hug every member of our cello section both before and after the Saturday concert. And I saw several tearful exchanges between musicians and new Cuban friends as they tried to work out a way to stay in touch after we leave.
A word about politics, which is a subject we’ve been told to avoid on this trip. We’re not blind to the wider discussion going on regarding the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and personally, I’ve received some strong objections to our trip from a small number of individuals on social media this week. And I do understand the anger and hurt felt by those whose lives have been impacted by the actions of both governments over the past half-century and more.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t meet any governments this week. I just met people. Strong, proud, creative, energetic, and grateful people. And I tried—we all tried—to be strong, proud, energetic, and grateful back to them. It was a week of coming together, of finding common ground and mutual understanding through a shared love of music. It’s easy to overstate the broader impact of an experience like that, of course, but I can’t for the life of me see how it could be a bad thing.
None of us can truly say that we know Cuba, or the Cuban people, after this short visit. Like most travelers who come to this island, we’ve been sheltered, pampered, and given access to countless amenities that remain far out of reach for average Cubans. And none of us can truly say that we know what the impact of our visit (if any) will be in the long run. But we know how Cuba, and the Cuban people, have impacted us. It’s cliché to say so, but we learned more than we taught this week, and received far more than we gave away. And this morning, everyone I talked to said the same thing:
We have to come back.