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Havana Jazz Festival: Behind The Music

If you want to understand the true heartbeat of Cuba, you have to experience one of the country’s greatest passions: Jazz music. The measured tap-tap-tap of the drum, the wail of the sax, the deep undertones of the bass, the sweet sounds of sultry vocals floating on the air, and the swaying hips of dancers as they take in the scene and soak up the rhythm, all speak to the tumultuous history, the dynamic present, and the optimistic future of the Cuban people.

For the first time last year, we sent our travelers to face the music firsthand at the 33rd Annual Havana Jazz festival! And while the festival itself was a large part of the itinerary and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for music lovers, this tour wasn’t just about watching professional performances on a faraway stage. True to the people-to-people programs we operate on all of our Cuba tours, our travelers had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of Cuban jazz and, along the way, meet the people making it happen along the way. Here are five unique experiences that transported our travelers behind the music on our Havana International Jazz Festival 2018 small group tour.

And if you can already feel your toes tapping, this is your chance to ‘face the music’ too. We’ve officially opened our Havana International Jazz Festival tour for 2019, meaning this could be you come January!

Music School Alejandro Garcia Caturla

1.  Catch a Concert at Music School Alejandro Garcia Caturla

Located slightly west of Havana in a borough called Marianao, the Music School of Alejandro Garcia Caturla was founded in 1968. Many talented Cuban musicians begin their studies in this small school that accepts about 250 elementary students each year. You will visit this special place and get an up-close view of how music can truly be a language for all! The tour begins as administrators and teachers share information about the registration process and requirements that need to be met for students to attend including admissions and exams. Tuition, however, is free and instruments are provided to all students to allow youth of all socioeconomic backgrounds an opportunity to pursue their dream of a career in music.  Visitors are then treated to a classroom visit where the kids get a chance to play a mini concert for you.

La Zorra y el Cuervo

2. Private Performances at La Zorra y el Cuervo

Widely considered one of the best jazz venues in Havana, the basement bar and concert space at La Zorra y el Cuervo is a great stop on this comprehensive Jazz experience. You’ll sit in on a private performance by aspiring musicians and have the opportunity to hear from them about their lives, the history and roots of Latin jazz, and the island’s unique Cuban and Afro-Cuban rhythms! The artists are a lively bunch and are unbelievably passionate about the music. Finally, enjoy a private performance (and even join if you want!).

Project Clave Sol

3. Supporting Community Projects at Vocal Clave de Sol

Formed in 2009 as an after-school community safe space for students, Vocal Clave de Sol has exploded over the years from its 9 initial pupils to more than 250! Founders Nuria and Yamilé García started the program with a focus on Cuba’s musical traditions and have worked for almost a decade instilling values in the kids that go beyond their musical lessons: community, practice and hard work, cooperation and respect. Through the process of learning about music, the students develop life skills and self esteem that will help guide them through the next phases of their education and career. While a lot of Vocal Clave de Sol students go on to study music at university, some have gone on to be entrepreneurs, teachers, and even doctors!  You will visit the classrooms and hear from the students and teachers about their work, listen in on masterclasses, and watch a performance by the budding musicians.

Abdala Recording Studio

4. Tour the famous Abdala Recording Studio

You also have the opportunity to tour one of Cuba’s most prestigious recording studios, Abdala Productions. Founded in 1998, this prolific recording company has helped some of the island-nation’s most prominent artists record and master their music. The space offers services ranging from recording, mastering, and production to restoration and editing and is equipped with state of the art music technology. The studio’s most well known record labels, Unicorn and Presto, have accrued 87 Cubadisco awards, 36 Lucas awards, two Espacio awards granted by The Association of Social Communicators of Cuba and 14 Grammy Latino nominations! Enjoy this chance to explore the studio where Omara Portoundo (one of the stars of the Buenavista Social Club) recorded, and hear authentic Cuban music recreated in different genres preformed by young talents.

Cuban Dance Party, images by Peter Tea/Flickr

Cuban Dance Party, images by Peter Tea/Flickr

5. Party with local Cubans

And last (but definitely not least!) you’ll get the chance to show off your moves and enjoy the groove by attending performances that are part of the festival. Held in concert halls, clubs, and stages across the city, you’ll get a chance to attend dance parties, jam sessions, and concerts put on by some of the hottest names in jazz–alongside local Cubans and foreign tourist alike. New for this year: take your Havana International Jazz Festival 2019 experience to the next level by getting the upgraded premium pass that offers preferential seating within the concert venues, event swag, and access to the Jam session at the Hotel Nacional!

BONUS – check out this video created by CGTN including interviews with jazz students and footage from the last Havana International Jazz Festival. While this isn’t a video from our tour, it’s a great representation of  the experience, and what the festival and music mean to the people of Cuba.

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