Crossing Musical and Cultural Boundaries

Interdisciplinary exchanges between Cuban artists and members of the Berklee community have yielded transformative experiences.

  Members of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (seated on floor) and members of the InterArts Ensemble (with laptops) work together during a rehearsal.
  Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

During its pilot year, Berklee's InterArts Ensemble offered students and recent alumni unprecedented opportunities to collaborate with professional choreographers, dancers, visual artists, and other musicians in Cuba. The project is the brainchild of professor Neil Leonard, the artistic director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute, whose goal is to immerse students in an intellectually rigorous, multidisciplinary environment that focuses on artistic production. "We want to bring students out of their cultural milieu and put them in situations with different artists and have them create new work together," Leonard says. "Ultimately, our students will learn new creative strategies for wherever they may go."

At the heart of Leonard's vision is the understanding that today's audiences experience a lot of music through mediated contexts: film, video, dance, theater, and other artistic forms where music isn't the principal element. Leonard contends that musical innovation is often born from experimental cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural work.

Cuba in Focus

The decision to expose the students in the InterArts Ensemble to the cultural richness of Cuba in the inaugural year was intentional. Cuba's folkloric tradition is fundamentally interdisciplinary and involves music, dance, spoken work, textile arts, installation, and cuisine. "Folkloric tradition informs a very rigorous practice in all of the contemporary arts," Leonard says. "This culture within the arts community proudly embraces intellectual rigor, cutting-edge modernism, technical innovation, and high-level education. I wanted to create a dialogue among our students about our own values in these areas."

Cuban artist Arkana (left) and Berklee student Shea Rose perform Rose's original piece "Transformation."  
Janet Chwalibog  

Of course, this immersion is intended to have lifelong repercussions. The hope is that the ensemble participants will process their experience in Cuba for years to come. Interactions with Cuban musicians and artists will serve as models for future collaborations with other artists from various cultures. And because of Cuba's geographic proximity to America and the influence of its cultural heritage, the exchange will broaden participants' understanding of key trends in contemporary American music.

Cuba offers music of the African diaspora in environments that are unique to the island. Because Cuba was a former colony of Spain and one of the first stops on the slave trade, it was possible for African slaves to find people from their tribe and to preserve aspects of their native cultures. Despite the ban imposed by the Spanish colonizers, for example, the religion of the Yoruban people has been preserved through music, dance, and ritual. Exposing students to the ensemble Los Hermanos Arango (performers of Yoruba, Abakua, and other folkloric traditions) provides a visceral experience in which one can witness and hear the foundational rituals of dance and musical motifs in American music today. Rhythmic complexities, the importance of call and response, and the unique role of solos in jazz are all immediately recognizable in the traditional music of the folkloric rituals. The mix of religion, dance, music, and ritual are at the root of contemporary Cuban cultures.

Although this was the pilot year for the InterArts Ensemble, the concept has been in the making for decades. Without Leonard's 25 years of international collaborations, the global network of musicians, artists, writers, historians, choreographers, and institutions willing to work with the students would have been impossible to assemble. The sessions included a private master class with celebrated jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, an evening with renowned ethnologist (and descendant of Simón Bolívar) Natalia Bolívar, and a dialogue with Mario Rivera, the lead singer of Los Van Van.

The Voyages

In preparation for the inaugural trip in December 2010, Leonard mentored his charges about aspects of cultural communication that would demonstrate respect for their Cuban hosts.

  From the left: Enmanuel Blanco, director, LNME; Sigried Macías Lastre, composer and professor at ISA; and Berklee Professor Neil Leonard
  Daniel Cevallos
  International Connections

With more than 25 years of interdisciplinary art collaborations in multiple countries, Professor Neil Leonard has performed with and composed for fellow musicians, sculptors, painters, and philosophers in Italy, Germany, China, and Cuba. Because his career has focused on site-specific, historically informed interdisciplinary art, he has built a network of leading international artists in music, visual art, sound design, and dance on which this learning experiment relies.

As a young musician, Leonard was deeply influenced by Cuban music, particularly by that of Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. During the late 1980s, despite the embargo, Leonard lived and studied in Cuba for a year and traveled to the island frequently, developing deep relationships with musicians and artists there. Through these relationships, Leonard has introduced students to the most innovative and pivotal artists and musicians in Cuba today.

Twenty-one years ago, Leonard met Enmannuel Blanco when Leonard was studying and working with Juan Blanco, the creator of Cuban Electro-Acoustic Music. Twenty-one years after their first meeting, Leonard and Blanco began producing musical events together and created the Cuban residencies for the InterArts Ensemble. In addition to the collaborations with ISA that included Latin Jazz, hip-hop, and electronica performances, Blanco also facilitated the connection between Cubadisco and Berklee. Blanco and Sigried Macías Lastre, composition professor at ISA, have been instrumental in sponsoring and producing Berklee residencies in Cuba.

During that first visit, Katie Bilinski '10 and John Hull '10 designed sound and composed music for contemporary dance. Julia Easterlin '11 prepared and performed a text partially inspired by Cuban folkloric music and modern Cuban literature. Enrico de Trizio '10 created an interactive 3-D animation to accompany his electronic music. Through the sponsorship of Enmanuel Blanco, the director of the National Laboratory for Electroacoustic Music (LNME) and Berklee's Faculty Development Office, the InterArts Ensemble was invited to perform and collaborate with students from the esteemed University of the Arts of Cuba (ISA), LNME, and Los Hermanos Arango.

Following the success of the first excursion, a second incarnation of the InterArts Ensemble traveled to Cuba in May 2011. Current students Shea Rose, Christian Li, and Lillia Betz, as well as alumni Dione Tan '11 and Dean Capper '11, and video artist and trip documentarian Daniel Cevallos (from Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts) traveled with Leonard and company to Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Upon the group's arrival, experts at Casa de las Américas introduced the students to the history, music, and culture of Cuba. Created especially for Berklee by the historians and musicologists there, this orientation enabled students to learn about Cuban cultures on a deeper level. The group then began its immersion in workshops and rehearsals with Cuban artists, including choreographers and dancers at Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, composers and sound engineers from LNME, composers and performers from ISA, and members of Los Hermanos Arango. As part of each collaboration, each member of the InterArts ensemble premiered or performed original work.

Additionally, the group was invited to perform in Santiago de Cuba at the annual Festival del Son, an annual 14-day music festival sponsored by Cubadisco. A particularly exciting collaboration emerged between hip-hop musicians Shea Rose and local artist Arkana. They brought the crowd to its feet with interpretations of Rose's piece "Transformation." This followed Betz's contemporary classical composition, which was met with enthusiasm. Betz noted the challenges of cross-cultural teamwork as she collaborated with students from Conservatorio Esteban Salas who performed her composition. Her satisfaction with their performance was mirrored by the audience's enthusiastic response. Later in the festival, Leonard participated in a forum discussing the intersections of North American and Cuban music today.

Berklee was also part of the annual Cubadisco Awards while in Santiago. In addition to hosting the annual recording arts festival on the island, Cubadisco also presents the national awards for achievements in the recording arts. At this year's festival, Berklee's mtc cd: 10, a compilation of projects produced and engineered by students in Berklee's Music Technology Division, received a Cubadisco Award. Provost Larry Simpson and Senior Vice President Deborah Bieri accepted the award on behalf of the students, division, and college. It is the first such award granted to artists from Berklee.

Upon the ensemble's return to Havana, the group performed almost daily. At ISA, they premiered new works with fellow musicians. Tan closed the show with an electronic dance piece that left the audience yelling "Otra! Otra!"("Another one!"). Following the performance, the InterArts Ensemble and Danza Contemporánea premiered their collaborative work that incorporated computer-generated graphics, dance, and live musical performance with computers and proximity sensor interfaces. The performance explored the boundaries of space, movement, and sound as bodies came together, fell apart, confronted, and seduced one another, all while music pulsed and buzzed throughout the room.

The final concert, at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts), was a resounding success. Working with ISA students and professionals from LNME, the ensemble members produced a show that included projected images and video, live electronica, and human vocals combining to produce a remarkable series of connections and disconnections within the museum's theater. The concert prompted reflection on the excitement and complexities of working cross-culturally in any discipline.


Significantly, ensemble members took artistic risks. Tan performed electronica live for the first time, Rose improvised live for the first time (with Danza Contemporánea and then with Los Hermanos Arango), and Christian Li performed a fully improvised piece with original video for the first time. Betz's work for piano and strings was celebrated by Vice Minister of Culture Orlando Vistel, and her first modern dance piece was broadcast on international television. Capper's piece at the Cubadisco performance brought the audience to its feet immediately. Further, the Berklee ensemble's collaboration with a full dance company was a first. This was also the first time that Berklee collaborated with Boston's Museum of Fine Arts on an international project. Cuba's national newspaper cited the concert with Conservatorio Esteban Salas as one of several events that represented "quality and authenticity."

Cuba's musical traditions and modern scene are integral to the development of contemporary music across the globe. And while Cuba is only 90 miles from Miami's shores, it's rare for American musicians to have the privilege of living or studying there. During the three trips to the island nation, members of Berklee's InterArts Ensemble have had transformative experiences that could not have happened anywhere other than Cuba.