Musicians from New Orleans and Havana are exploring new collaborations. Artists in New Orleans and Cuba are exploring their shared heritage and similar sounds, and bringing high school musicians from both places together in a funky cultural exchange.

Musicians in New Orleans and Cuba explore their shared heritage and similar sounds

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Musicians from New Orleans and Cuba are exploring new collaborations that highlight similar sounds like this new song from the New Orleans funk band Galactic and Cuban singer Cimafunk.


CIMAFUNK: (Singing in non-English language).

KELLY: On a recent cultural exchange to Havana, high school musicians from both places discovered common ground, and NPR's Debbie Elliott followed along.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's a bit chaotic in the band room of the Guillermo Tomas music school on the outskirts of Havana. Scores of young players tune up their instruments and get ready to learn some new music.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ELLIOTT: Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, the New Orleans musician, sits on the front row to take in the performance.

TROY ANDREWS: They say - do you speak Spanish? I say, I’m from the Treme, so I speak Tremish (ph).

ELLIOTT: Andrews, who grew up in the historic Treme neighborhood, is here for a cultural exchange sponsored in part by his Trombone Shorty Foundation, a program that nurtures budding, young artists in his hometown. Eight of them are on this trip, and they're spending the day at this conservatory with Cuban students who have prepared a special song.


ELLIOTT: Andrews is moved to hear them play something that he's recorded - the famous Louis Armstrong song, "St. James Infirmary."


ELLIOTT: Troy Andrews first came to Cuba as a young teenager on a similar cultural exchange trip.

ANDREWS: I never forgot it, and that style of music has always stayed with me because I feel like New Orleans and Havana are like sisters and brothers, you know? The soul, the resilience of the people here is almost identical to what we experience in New Orleans. So that's why when I come here, I don't feel like I'm in a foreign place.

ELLIOTT: He feels those connections in the food, the architecture and in the way you might hear exuberant music playing in the streets. Now he wants these young musicians to pick up on that. They start to in a free-for-all, binational jam session. What started as a New Orleans-style, brass band second-line song morphed into something with Latin flair.

ANDREWS: And so we got (vocalizing) ba bum, boo ba dun dun dun da duh (ph).

And that's New Orleans. And then you'll go like (vocalizing) ba-nuh, ba-nuh, bump bump, ba-nuh ba-duh (ph).

So you got the (vocalizing).

There was no words exchanged. It was all music, so there was just one note that made it feel very different, very salsa-like instead of second line. And now it'll be ingrained in our head that we will make a arrangement based off of the way they played and bring it back to New Orleans, and then that will create a whole nother thing.


ELLIOTT: The students are into it, leaning in with their trumpets and clarinets, each showing the other something new yet familiar.

YORDI SANTIAGO-CORTEZ: Just one day of me being here - I've seen so much that I've never heard.

ELLIOTT: Yordi Santiago-Cortez, a clarinet player and high school senior from Kenner, La., says he feels an emotional pull. So does John Rhodes, a 16-year-old drummer from New Orleans. He says their sounds really meshed.

JOHN RHODES: The Latin groove and the big four out of brass band second line - it all coincides when it comes to us playing together - just the music culture, 'cause they, like - no matter where we come from, no matter what language you speak, no matter what race, it like - music is just a universal language.

ELLIOTT: These students share more than just a love for music, says Lilian Lombera Herrera, a cultural producer with Horns to Havana, one of the groups involved in this cultural exchange. She's Cuban but now lives in New Orleans.

LILIAN LOMBERA HERRERA: All of that is part of our same ancestors.

ELLIOTT: People of West African descent brought here during the Atlantic slave trade.

LOMBERA HERRERA: Some of the Latin tinge that they said about the flavor of the second lines and of the music come from the Caribbean, and it's a fact that it was a big migration from Haiti that came through Cuba and continued to New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: Those Afro-Cuban roots are what Erik Alejandro Iglesias Rodriguez is all about.

CIMAFUNK: I'm Cimafunk. I'm a Cuban artist, and I make Afro-Cuban music.

ELLIOTT: The name Cimafunk is a nod to his heritage. Cimarrons were African captives who escaped slavery. For several years, he's been spending time in New Orleans collaborating with artists there, including Tank and the Bangas, the Soul Rebels, and now Trombone Shorty.

CIMAFUNK: You feel that kind of crazy vibe around, and it's the same in New Orleans. At the same time, all the problems and all the situations - the economic, social, everything - but you feel that the people keep the soul.

ELLIOTT: The economic situation in Cuba is dire, with shortages of food and fuel and power blackouts. Record numbers of migrants are fleeing the communist-controlled island. The crisis is a culmination of several things, including the pandemic, U.S. sanctions and a tight grip on the economy by the one-party government that hasn't followed through on promised economic reforms. Frustrations boiled up in street demonstrations last year that were met with a severe government crackdown. New, harsher controls on freedom of expression were put in place. Some artists were jailed, and others were forced into exile. Cimafunk says the crackdown is wrong, but he doesn't think fleeing Cuba is the answer. He's hopeful exchanges like this one can open up possibility.

CIMAFUNK: All the political scenes and all the governmental scenes - it's always hard to talk about that without hurt or without being in one or other side. This interchange - people arriving here, playing for the people, collaborating with young musicians, going to the school to see the kids - that's good.


ELLIOTT: Back at Guillermo Tomas school, the students are working on songs they will perform together as the opening act for a Trombone Shorty concert in Havana. Fourteen-year-old Juan Licor Doreste has a wide grin as he weaves around the other musicians, snapping his fingers with the beat, a seeming bandleader in the making.

JUAN LICOR DORESTE: I play trumpet.


ELLIOTT: With the help of tour guide Frank Gonzales, Juan describes this experience.

LICOR DORESTE: (Through interpreter) Having the chance of, you know, exchanging with musicians from New Orleans...

FRANK GONZALES: He's a jazz lover, so imagine.

LICOR DORESTE: (Through interpreter) ...And being able to do this jam session with them has been amazing.

ELLIOTT: Juan is one of several Cuban students to get new instruments from this contingent from the United States, which included tourists who paid to come see concerts put on by both Cuban and New Orleans bands. Juan dreams of someday having his own jazz band.

LICOR DORESTE: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Oh, there you go. He would like to be a future Wynton Marsalis.

ELLIOTT: And perhaps one day be a headliner in New Orleans.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Havana.

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