Photos and video by Laura Carbone
Cuba is an enigmatic country that in has been frozen in time, a country of revolution, socialism, resistance and music—all shut off from modernizing influences, a cultural Galapagos. Cars from the ’50s cruise down the broad Malacon Avenue, touring between the sea and grandiose buildings with Grecian columns and crumbling facades. Traveling to Cuba from the US had been permitted only with governmental-monitored educational experience: group tours with a topic.
Sports announcer, Eric Nadel, arranged a music-based tour with U.S. musicians Ruthie Foster and Seth Walker. The mission was an exchange: to have these Amerian musicians play for the Cuban people, as well as to discover Cuban music. Our timing was unfortunate: scheduled in advance, the trip fell in the midst of nine days of mourning for Fidel Castro, the leader that led a social revolution and ruled the country for over 50 years.
The Cuban government enforced a no-music, no-alcohol and no-festivities rule during the nine-day national mourning period, a virtual sound embargo. The eerie quiet was as if a vacuum had sucked all the music out of the air. No salsa beat on the street, no rhumba emerged from the shuttered jazz clubs, car radios were silent, not even a tune was hummed. In this silence we discovered the people, the pride and the essence of Cuba. Luckily, our stay lasted one day longer the mourning period, and we were able to see live music return cautiously to the streets, along with a few re-opened bars.
A makeup concert with Ruthie Foster and Seth Walker was quietly arranged in a small private restaurant or “Paladares,” rather than the previously-planned large concert hall. Our group of Americans and a handful of Cuban friends shared an intimate meal before our departure, then pushed our chairs aside and Walker and Foster each pulled a chair into the middle and sang acoustic. Foster’s drummer, Samantha Banks, provided the beat, equipped only with a tambourine and a set of ten-dollar souvenir bongos.
Children came up from the street, the cook and the dishwasher left the kitchen and peeked into the small dining room. Foster and Walker sang passionately, releasing the emotion and struggle we had witnessed during the week. Cuban pop singer, Adrián Berazaín, joined in with a Latin romance. The highlights included Foster’s spine-chilling a capella version of “The Titanic,” a back-to-back “Ring of Fire” done first by Foster, then Walker, and a final chorus of what we all felt, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” sung by everyone in the room with a rousing chorus. After a week of silence, there was a unique, backdoor, transcultural musical exchange that transcended all expectations.
Eric Nadel: This is the second musical tour that Eric Nadel has arranged in conjunction with Cuba Tours and Travel. He is a beloved Baseball Hall of Fame radio announcer for the Texas Rangers, and had been the musical director of The Vagabond, a venue in Dallas, TX. He developed a love for Cuba over the years, after taking part in baseball broadcasts throughout Latin America. His first musical tour was with musicians Rhett Miller and Daphne Willis, taking them and 36 Americans not only across Cuba, but to the clubs and the cultural music complex in Havana, the Fábrica de Arte Cubano.
Walker just produced his 9th release, Gotta Get Back, returning to his family and place that first got him excited about music. His strongly lyrical songs blend blues with elements of country and Americana.
Ruthie Foster: Born in a small rural town in East Texas, Foster was musically raised by the gospel singers in her family and her small church. Her journey has taken her from fronting a Navy band to being signed by Atlantic records for a pop career, eventually returning to her family roots in Texas and getting back to her lineage of gospel and blues. Now one of the most successful and widely loved female roots singers, three times Grammy nominated, three time winner of Austin Music Best Female Vocalist as well as four times champion of the Blues Music Awards, Koko Taylor Award for the Best Traditional Female Vocalist, Foster’s delivery ranges from churchy blues, to soaring a capella.