Art in Translation

Leah LeMoineDecember 20, 2019
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Ballet Folklórico Nacional de Cuba; Photo by Rick Giase
Ballet Folklórico Nacional de Cuba; Photo by Rick Giase

Cuba Rhythm and Views provides a humanizing peek into Cuban culture through arts-focused excursions to the island nation.

Diplomatic relations with Cuba may be deteriorating politically, but they’re thriving culturally – at least where Woody Wilson and Neil Birnbaum are concerned. The two are founders and principals of Cuba Rhythm and Views (CRV), a cultural exchange program that brings American musicians and patrons to Cuba and Cuban musicians to America.

“We’ve always felt that we’re in the cultural diplomacy business with Cuba,” says Wilson, a retired journalist and writer for syndicated cartoons. He and Birnbaum, a retired arts executive and musician, first collaborated on a trip to Cuba in 2012 and began offering sanctioned People-to-People trips in 2014. They primarily draw arts patrons who want to see the real Cuba, but who also want to stay in a nice hotel.

“They’d like to interact with the Cubans and see what’s going on so they can make up their own mind,” Birnbaum says. “But at least they’re comfortable at the end of the day.” The cultural activities are bucket list worthy: private dinners and concerts with esteemed musicians, often in their own homes. “It would be like if we brought a group of 25 people into Yo-Yo Ma’s house and he did a little private concert for us. That level.”

CRV’s fate became uncertain this June, when President Donald Trump’s administration enacted new regulations limiting travel to Cuba.

“I’m being facetious, but the law is you’re not allowed to have fun in Cuba if you’re an American,” Birnbaum says. “You have no business being on a beach, you have no business doing anything that’s fun. You’re there to be engaged in a full-time program of activities ‘in support of the Cuban people,’ which is specifically defined.” Luckily, after reading the new rules, he says “it was almost as if they were describing our program as the poster program for what an acceptable trip would be.”

This month, CRV is taking a group to Havana with famed conductor Stefan Sanders, who will lead the prestigious Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba. In April, Wilson’s Lakeshore Music jazz concert series will bring Cuban jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa to Tempe for a performance. And in May, Birnbaum and Wilson will lead a “Havana For Your Eyes Only” tour (spots still available; cubarhythmandviews.com).

“People need to see this and need to understand that art and music and culture is what brings us together,” Wilson says. “That’s not just a platitude. That really is the thing that we try to bring home.”

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