Choir commemorates Cuba-Caribbean Center commencing

Twenty members of the SIUE choir travelled to perform a selection of songs in a series of concerts in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. This inaugural exchange between Cuba and the SIU system is part of the Cuban-Caribbean Center initiative.

The initiative stems from an idea that Aldemaro Romero, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), had when he learned that many SIUE faculty members had an interest in academic exchanges with Cuban universities.

SIUE's choir in Santiago, Cuba in front of the Sala Dolorosa. photo courtesy of Knapp.

“It got started when Romero came to campus. In his opening speech to the CAS faculty, he expressed the desire to get into Cuba and to start endearing ourselves and building relationships, anticipating that Obama would lift the embargo any day. Well, that didn’t happen, but that spawned the idea,” said Joel Knapp.

Romero stated that he believes that the current and future administrations will see the value in cultural exchanges. He said that there are positive signs that the exchanges are supported by the government.

“The fact that we sent the two faculty members and the eighteen students to the choir festival in Santiago with the support of the US government shows that it is something that they are much more flexible and open to,” said Romero.

Knapp, professor in the music department, lead and directed the 18 member choir in a series of concerts over nearly a week. Knapp said that the original trip was scheduled for last year but logistically just didn’t happen.

“We were supposed to take the choir last year but it didn’t work out and fortuitously so because I was able to travel to Havana by myself last October, and I established lots of good relationships with choir directors in the area, professional choir directors, as well as universities and the magnet high school,” said Knapp.

The SIUE choir that participated included a diverse range of students, according to Knapp.

“We had twenty total, two faculty members, Carolyn Minear the professor of choral music education and myself, the director of choral activities. We had eighteen students, sophomore to senior. We had instrumental majors and vocal majors, an engineering major, and anthropology major. We cross a wide spectrum in our choir. It’s made up of our best singers,” said Knapp.

The choir participated in the international choral festival with 20 other choirs, 16 from Cuba and one each from Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and Finland. The choir left for Miami, FL on Monday November 28, spent the night in a hotel and caught a flight to Holguin, Cuba early the next morning. From Holguin, Knapp said it was a 2-hour bus ride to Santiago de Cuba where the festival was held. The choir returned to SIUE on December 6th.

Knapp said that the choir was kept busy with many concerts and events held around the city. The concerts were generally three hours long but the crowd was very enthusiastic.

“The concerts were usually three hours long. It was so exciting because the main concert hall would seat about 600. Obviously the seats were full. People would pack the aisles, literally pack the aisles, and they would stay standing for the entire three hour concert. They just were so appreciative,” said Knapp.

Knapp stated that his experience directing traveling choirs helped him prepare a program of various American music he knows foreign audiences respond positively towards.

“We prepared a diverse program. I take choirs a lot to Europe and other places. I kind of know what people want. They want to hear American kinds of music from us. We did a set of classical type music from American composers at the beginning. Then we moved into a set of spirituals; we did a Billy Joel piece “And So It Goes;” one gospel piece, American folk songs, that kind of thing,” said Knapp. “Then, we finished up with a set of Latin choral tunes, including two that everyone in Cuba knows because we wanted to reach out and share with them songs that they know and like too.”

Aside from the evening concerts, Knapp stated that the program of events for the festival had the choir all over Santiago de Cuba.

“Our days were just packed. We would sing formal concerts at nights and listen to formal concerts at night. During the day, they would send us out to area schools and some choirs–we didn’t–went to the women’s prison. But, they would just send us out into the city to share the music,” said Knapp. “We just had a magical time. They gave us a place of honor–we did the Saturday night concert, the last concert before the finale–in the main concert hall. Then when we did the final event, we were the next to last choir. They really did treat us well.”

Knapp said the students performance was part of the reason that they were treated so well.

“The choir performed fantastically. They were incredible ambassadors for SIUE and the United States. We were the only American choir down there,” said Knapp.

Knapp said that the students gave him very positive feedback about the trip and the Cuban choirs they met.

The SIUE choir and the Universidad de Oriente choir called Fuego pause for a moment for a picture during the International Choral Festival in Santiago de Cuba. photo courtesy of Knapp.

“They loved the whole experience. They loved being in a country where English wasn’t everybody’s second language. And it took them a few days to get themselves brave enough to try the few Spanish words that they know. By the end of the trip they were ordering from the menu in Spanish,” said Knapp. “In terms of music, they really enjoyed working with the Universidad de Oriente choir called Fuego, rehearsing with them, and singing with them in the concert. They really enjoyed that. They made a lot of friends there.”

Plans for future exchanges were also on Knapp’s docket. He said he was able to have several conversations about plans for 2013 with choral directors and Cuban officials. Knapp stated that the plan will hopefully include both the Music Department and the Theater and Dance department.

“Cal Jarrell in the [Theater and] Dance Department here [at SIUE] is working towards–and I visited with several Cubanos about it because they are excited about it–2013 possibly having a joint concert down there of “Carmina Burana” by Orff that will have an orchestra and choir and choreographed dancers. I met the other choral director. I met Oscar Escalada. He’s the one spear-heading the effort in Santiago de Cuba,” said Knapp.

Knapp stated that he looks forward to participating in the exchanges between SIUE and the University of Havana. He said that the Cuban choirs perform at a very high level and that SIUE students will benefit greatly from working with the professors from Cuba.

“The Cuba choirs perform at an incredibly high level. We would greatly benefit from being able to bring up one of their conductors. And so I am hoping to inquire about that,” said Knapp. “It would certainly be a great thing to get them up here because they are very talented people.”

Knapp said that the most interesting moment happened when he was able to speak with the Venezuelan choir.

“The Venezuelan choir was there. I don’t know if you know but Al Romero’s dad is a famous Venezuelan composer and conductor. So, I went to the choir and explained to them that he was my ‘jefe’, my boss, and they wanted pictures and pictures and pictures. They got pictures of me, and the choir, and the Venezuelan flag. Then they presented me a choral tune that his father’s wrote that they sang in the concert,” said Knapp. “So that was kind of a magic little moment.”

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