Cuban Symphony Changes Tune

The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba has made the transition from a virtually all-white, male group to one featuring a number of black and female musicians.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, Clarice Bean's creator. But first, Cuba boasts dozens of top-notch symphony orchestras and chamber groups. And for decades, those ensembles, like many others all over the world, were mainly staffed by white men. Over the years, the island's classical scene has changed and now features large numbers of black Cubans and women. Reese Erlich visited the National Symphony Orchestra in Havana and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA OF CUBA REHEARSING)

REESE ERLICH: A guest conductor from Italy rehearses the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba for a performance in Havana. The ensemble has toured Europe and Latin America numerous times, and it puts a different vision of an orchestra on stage. Nearly 40 percent of the musicians are black and mixed-race, including the pianist featured on this Beethoven concerto.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA OF CUBA PERFORMING BEETHOVEN CONCERTO)

ERLICH: The National Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1930 by Domingo Aragu. Today, his son Luis(ph) remembers that before the Cuban revolution of 1959, the orchestra was overwhelmingly white and male.

SIMON: (Through Translator) Before, there was discrimination against black Cubans and women. Women only played piano, harp and violin. Those were the feminine instruments. Not now. There are trumpet, flute and oboe players.

ELRICH: Now, almost 45 percent of the musicians in the orchestra are women.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA OF CUBA PERFORMING BEETHOVEN CONCERTO)

ELRICH: After 1959, Cuba developed a nationwide music-education system that identifies talented children in grade school and channels them into specialized music academies. The government didn't promote affirmative action for either women or Afro-Cubans, but Luis Aragu says it did target poor families.

SIMON: (Through Translator) The music education system is massive. Everyone has more access and a possibility of studying music. The music conservatories used to be private and cost a lot of money. Now, it costs nothing to study music.

ERLICH: Under this system, large numbers of black Cubans and women entered the music universities in the 1960s and '70s. Those students went on to become today's professors and orchestra musicians. They, in turn, have encouraged a new generation of musicians. Yvonne Fernandez(ph) is a black Cuban who graduated from the Superior Art Institute, Havana's top music university. Now she plays bassoon with the National Symphony.

SIMON: (Through Translator) When I got to the music university, I studied guitar, which was more traditional for women. The bassoon wasn't a traditional instrument for women during my time in music school. I was the only one studying it.

ERLICH: Fernandez, like many black Cubans, says the country's cultural institutions have largely overcome racism. But that doesn't mean the country has. Esteban Morales, a sociologist and professor at the University of Havana, says black Cubans complain that some institutions, especially the police, are prejudiced.

D: Certain institutions in general consider the black less cultural.

ERLICH: They consider they're not as educated. They don't have as high a culture?

D: As I told, they're considered not highly educated, considered not smart.

ERLICH: The economic situation in Cuba makes the problem worse. The economy tanked after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and still hasn't completely recovered. Today, a first violinist or a tenured music professor makes less than an unemployed mechanic who gets $100 a month from relatives in Miami. The advantage this money conveys has made racial tensions worse because in most cases, those who left Cuba in the 1960s were white. Devyn Spence is finishing her Ph.D. on Cuban race relations at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

SIMON: Once you hit economic disaster and resources became scarce, racism crept back in. And maybe the lingering aspects of things that weren't necessarily dealt with at the start of the revolution have come back.

ERLICH: Still, Spence says, black Cubans have far greater opportunities today than they did before 1959. While a professor or an orchestra musician may not make a lot of money, those jobs are prestigious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

ERLICH: Being a classical musician in Cuba is not easy. Twenty-year-old Lester Benavidez(ph) is a violinist and violist. He says he had many black professors who encouraged him, and all but one member of his chamber orchestra are black. Still, he says, they face stiff competition.

SIMON: (Through Translator) We must be dedicated because classical music is not easy. You have to study and work 20 out of 24 hours a day. Otherwise, you won't achieve what the public demands.

ERLICH: And audiences demand a lot because they can choose from among dozens of professional symphonies, string quartets and chamber ensembles, where the only color that matters is tone color. For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

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