Jazz Students Travel to Cuba for Cultural Immersion Tour

A group of jazz percussion students from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) will travel to Cuba over spring break (February 25 – March 4) for a week of study and performance with Cuban musicians and students, as well as an immersive exploration of Cuban culture and history.

Funded by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, the trip will allow the 12 students to engage in a cultural exchange with professional Cuban musicians and college students in the cities of Havana and Matanzas. The trip will include hands-on sessions in which the SMTD students learn Cuban musical styles, in Havana and several other destinations, and they will share their own expertise in other styles of jazz. In depth introduction to Cuban culture will also take place through walking tours; visits to museums, street fairs, and heritage sites and a reception at the American Embassy.

Led by Professor Michael Gould (percussion) in the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, the students will also be accompanied by Professors Robert Hurst (bass), Jonathan Ovalle (percussion), and Ana Fernandez, who teaches art courses at the Residential College.

The students are enrolled in Gould’s jazz percussion studio class, which has focused on basic playing techniques for Cuban instruments including congas, bongos, timbales and the function of clave in Cuban music. All students have developed a working knowledge of these instruments as well as background on the culture, religion and history of Cuba.

“I think it is incredibly important for every undergraduate to leave the U.S. and experience another country and culture,” said Gould. “This is an amazing opportunity for the students to witness first hand the rich culture that Cuba has to offer. Some of the students have not had an opportunity to leave the U.S. and this will be an opportunity for them to hear the music they have been studying right from the masters, while gaining a much deeper understanding of the country itself.”

Musical highlights of the trip include a master class with Yissy Garcia, a young female percussionist considered at the vanguard of mixing jazz with rumba, reggae, funk and electronic music to create a fresh new approach to Cuban jazz. The week will conclude with a workshop and lunch with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, the most famous rumba group from Matanzas, and one of the most beloved rumba groups of all time; the artists have been recording music since 1956.

This is the first time in U-M history that SMTD student musicians will visit Cuba as part of an official trip. The closest precedent was 52 years ago, in 1965, when the U-M Jazz Band was sent on a 14-week tour of Latin America and the Caribbean, thanks to sponsorship by the U.S. State Department seeking to solidify relationships through cultural exchange The band toured 15 countries and performed 100 concerts. As it took place at the height of the Cold War, Cuba was not included.

That tour followed the 15-week 1961 University Symphony Band (USB) tour to the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, also sponsored by the State Department. More recently, the USB went on three-week tour of China (2011), and the U-M Chamber Choir went on a three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand (2014), both funded in part by the Global Tour Fund, launched by alumni of the 1961 USB Russian tour.