Skip to content
Without saying a word, teenager Yamile Cruz seats herself at the grand piano, places her slender fingers on the keyboard and, after a brief pause, unleashes a torrent of sound one might expect from a virtuoso twice her age and size.
Though the battered, perpetually out-of-tune instrument -- made ages ago in Moscow -- sounds as if its strings might pop at any moment, though the din of traffic outside rushes in through open windows on a sweltering afternoon, the 16-year-old has tuned everything out to turn in a masterful performance of Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2.
Similar scenes are unfolding in practically every chaotic corner of the sprawling Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, a fabled institution in Central Havana that has trained some of Cuba's most celebrated musicians. Guitarists, drummers, flutists, percussionists, pianists, you name it, they're making music well beyond their years in the classrooms and hallways and sun-drenched courtyard of a three-story walk-up that looks as if it hasn't had a new coat of paint since Fidel Castro took power, at the end of 1959.
Yet in this decaying building, and others like it scattered across this impoverished city, Cuba is producing musicians of Herculean technique, many of whom have applied their intensive classical training to the art of jazz -- and thus have come to tower over their counterparts around the world. Though the roots of Afro-Cuban music run deep in Havana, to the slave trade of centuries past, the last two generations have yielded larger-than-life jazz players whose mastery of their instruments and exalted level of musicianship enables them to conquer audiences wherever jazz is played.
Exactly why Cuban jazz musicians sound consistently brilliant may be a mystery to the outside world, but in Havana it is no secret: After Castro forged his alliance with the former Soviet Union in the early 1960s, the island quickly saw an influx of Russian and Soviet-bloc music teachers. They brought with them techniques that had been producing monumental classical virtuosos since the 19th Century. And though the fall of the USSR in the 1990s meant that financial support from Moscow virtually vanished, the Russian methods had become integral to Cuban music education and remain so to this day.
The merger of Cuban musical tradition and rigorous Soviet teaching has produced some of the greatest jazz players of the past 40 years. Yet for every Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who have broken through the United States' long-running embargo of Cuba to win acclaim in the U.S. and beyond, uncounted others feel doomed to a lifetime of obscurity. Unable to bring their gifts to the international marketplace because they have great difficulty getting into the States, where most of the world's musical stars are merchandised, the Cuban giants languish well outside the spotlight.
These musicians -- some old and tired of battling against the effects of the embargo, others young, poor and frustrated by their inability to make contact with U.S. listeners -- are creating a music as complex and profound as anything available in jazz today. But they were not featured in the "Buena Vista Social Club" film, which in 1999 popularized a small group of aged Cuban musicians, and few listeners outside Cuba get to hear today's exceptional players.
With political tensions between Washington and Havana on the rise during the past couple of years, and with the U.S. granting entry visas only sparingly to Cuban musicians, the Cuban jazz artists realize that their prospects are getting worse.
"If Cuban musicians would have a chance to enter the great distribution of the United States, we could show everyone that some of the most important music in the world is being made here, in Havana," says the esteemed Cuban bandleader Jorge Gomez. Gomez has toiled for 30 years in the Cuban music industry but was allowed into the United States to perform just once, in 1986.
"Without us, the world is losing one of the most important roots of music."
As well as some of the most formidable jazz artists working today.
Coming of age
Ernan Lopez-Nussa, a 44-year-old jazz pianist revered in Havana but virtually unknown in the U.S. (despite a brief tour in 1999), can see himself in the faces of the gifted youngsters making music at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory.
It was in this building, near the intersection of two dusty, noisy roads in Central Havana, that Lopez-Nussa spent more than a decade studying the harmonic intricacies of Bartok, the technical idiosyncrasies of Liszt and the keyboard poetry of Chopin. Though Lopez-Nussa, like the students today, spent mornings studying math, science and literature, in the afternoons he pored over musical scores, practiced ear-training exercises and polished his technique at the piano.
He didn't realize it at the time, but Lopez-Nussa was coming of age at an extraordinary moment in Cuban culture, the mid-1960s and '70s, when the ancient traditions of folkloric Cuban music were being galvanized by the techniques of Soviet musicians who had been sent to the island by the Kremlin. Suddenly, students who attended the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory were being taught not only the noble works of Cuban composers such as Roldan and Ernesto Lecouna but also drilled in the ferociously difficult keyboard exercises of Anton Rubinstein, Nikolai Rubinstein and other giant Russian pedagogues. To Lopez-Nussa, this Cuban-Soviet training seemed the most natural thing in the world, but it was unprecedented in Cuban history and laid the groundwork for a musical revolution yet to come.
"I cannot say that we students loved being here -- we certainly never loved this building," says Lopez-Nussa, who's greeted with hugs and kisses from students and teachers alike as he makes an impromptu visit to the conservatory, which trains pre-university students.
"Even now, the conditions are terrible, the pianos are terrible, the noise from outside is terrible, the practice rooms are filled with distractions.
"To tell you the truth, I do not understand how the kids here learn to make music in such a difficult place.
"Yet somehow we forget about everything else and concentrate on the music."
In truth, the children have no choice, their teachers placing the same demands upon them as had been made on such earlier Russian supervirtuosos as Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich and scores more.
"Something incredible happened in this building, and it continues to happen today," says Roberto Catala de la Hoz, director of the conservatory, which opened on Oct. 2, 1903.
"When we got the great professors from Russia, and they joined with the great Cuban professors, the students started to play at an incredible level, unimaginable.
"The Russians have a tradition of tremendous technique -- speed and accuracy and power on their instruments. And the Russian method became our method.
"It is very strict, very disciplined, and it is at the center of what happens here."
Adds Mayra Torralba, assistant director of the conservatory, "The Russians brought us the knowledge on how to study music, all the experience they had acquired in more than a century. "And we adapted their methods into our reality."
That much is obvious in every studio in the conservatory, where young Cuban musicians still play from Soviet scores, the titles of works and the composers' names written in a Cyrillic alphabet that is impenetrable to the students. Moreover, the youngsters make music on grand pianos bearing the names not of Steinway or Baldwin but of Moscba (or Moscow) and Estonia. Compared with modern-day American and German instruments, the Soviet models sound dull, metallic and poorly constructed.
Yet on these wrecks, as in Lopez-Nussa's youth, the students fire off scales with phenomenal speed and accuracy, meanwhile playing melodic phrases with a degree of sensitivity and introspection one does not associate with Russian-school training. In effect, the young Cuban musicians are reaping the best of two worlds: monumental Soviet technique and ardent Afro-Caribbean melodicism.
As Lopez-Nussa strolls through hallways of the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, he knocks on individual practice-room doors, sticking in his head to hear one young musician bringing demonic rhythmic drive to a Bartok dance, another finding sublime lyricism in a Chopin ballade.
But these youngsters are practically beginners compared with the university-level students preparing to play on the international stage -- should they ever get the chance.
Before Castro's revolution, the lush acreage along Calle 120, in an upscale neighborhood, was a country club, its rolling hills a golfer's paradise, its spacious main building a posh restaurant and plush hotel.
But after 1959 it was nationalized and transformed into the Instituto Superior de Arte (Institute of Superior Arts), the place where Lopez-Nussa obtained his artist's diploma and new waves of great Cuban musicians have been trained.
Here, the students -- who play on instruments not much better than the ones at Amadeo Roldan -- are old enough to have found their calling in jazz. You can hear it by strolling past some of the practice rooms, where swing rhythms and blue-note scales intermingle with Beethoven's trills and Liszt's arpeggios.
In one practice room, two young marimba players are firing off syncopated riffs so complex and fast-moving you might guess that American vibes masters Bobby Hutcherson and Stefon Harris were wielding the mallets. In another room, a group of percussionists is laying down gently swaying backbeats of the sort that could keep a mambo jam session going for hours.
And in yet another, a young pianist takes a pause from practicing a Chopin ballade to talk about his heroes -- jazz pianists Oscar Peterson and Chucho Valdes.
"I have one goal for after I graduate -- to have a jazz band of my own," says Alejandro Vargas, 21. "Everyone at the school knows it. My professor knows it, and he thinks it's great.
"But when I am in his studio, I am not supposed to play jazz. I am to play only classical -- Beethoven and Chopin and Debussy."
Indeed, no one graduates without mastering the classical repertory, which means that aspiring jazz players like Vargas pick up the art of jazz improvisation in the same way that American jazz musicians long have done: by listening to records and repeating what they've heard on the bandstand.
Since the embargo prevents them from buying the CDs, the youngsters befriend professional musicians in the nightclubs, then go to their homes to listen to the American jazz CDs the musicians have picked up during European tours. Then the young Cubans try out the tunes in the streets.
When they play American jazz, however, they cannot help but redefine the music with the Cuban dance rhythms and song forms they have heard all their lives. Played by the young Cuban jazzmen, tunes such as Miles Davis' "So What" convey gorgeous layers of rhythm and counterpoint, as well as the fluid technique and sophisticated harmonic sense the youngsters have learned in the conservatory.
Thus when emerging Cuban musicians take turns riffing with pros such as pianist Danilo Perez during the recent Havana International Jazz Festival, the Americans are startled by what they hear.
"These kids have accomplished so much with so little," says Perez, after leading a master class with a roomful of gifted young players. "Their passion for this music is unbelievable."
In essence, the nascent Cuban jazz players are following an artistic path established by artists such as Valdes and Rubalcaba and Lopez-Nussa before them.
Valdes, above all, proved that the merger of Soviet-style technique and Afro-Cuban jazz could create a cross-cultural music so brilliant and powerful that it could pierce the wall separating Cuba and the United States. By establishing the great Cuban band Irakere in the 1970s and touring it first on the island, then around the world, Valdes and his followers brought Cuban jazz musicians a prominence not seen since the days when artists such as percussionist Chano Pozo and bandleader Mario Bauza collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s.
But this time, the Cuban jazz revolution was homegrown, based in Havana and not dependent on the co-sponsorship of an American star like Gillespie. Moreover, emerging Cuban musicians in the '70s were blessed not only with conservatory training but with the deep vein of Cuban folkloric music that they grew up hearing. From fantastically accomplished congueros such as Tata Guines and Changuito they learned to hear and reproduce the multiple layers of rhythm that are at the heart of Cuban music. From elder pianists such as the late Frank Emilio -- whose tune "Mandinga, Mondonga, Sandunga" holds a place in Cuban culture roughly equivalent to George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" in the U.S. -- they learned that jazz and Cuban music were as compatible as rum and coke. Historic Cuban musical forms such as danzon, son, rumba and cha cha cha were easily integrated into American swing rhythm.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that so many of the classically trained Cuban jazz musicians who conquered the music world came from families already steeped in folkloric Cuban music and American jazz. Valdes' father, pianist Bebo, led the sensational dance band at the Tropicana nightclub, which from 1939 to this day stands as the most opulent showroom in Havana. Rubalcaba's father, Guillermo, was widely admired for the exquisite charanga dance bands he still leads around Cuba. And Lopez-Nussa was the fortunate son of a pianist mother who often traveled to Europe and brought back recordings of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Count Basie and John Coltrane.
When Lopez-Nussa tells the young Vargas of the populist backgrounds of so many of the best Cuban jazz pianists, the 21-year-old musician practically beams.
"My father plays in the jazz bands too," Vargas says. "Maybe I will be the next Lopez-Nussa."
He's not the only one who's nurturing big dreams. In a nearby practice room, a young musician is struggling with Cuban dance rhythm, slowly playing dance beats while counting aloud "One, two, three, four" in endless repetition. But this is no Cuban musician -- it's an American who has come to Havana to study with the masters.
"Havana is the heart of Latin music, and there's no better place on Earth to study rhythm," says Andrew Turpening, 28, of St. Paul.
"In a way, it's impossible to compete with the Cuban jazz musicians -- their folklore and their training gives them the edge.
"I was lucky. I got a license to come here. When I get back to the States, the other musicians are not going to believe the rhythms that I'll be able to play. Then I'll have the edge."
The most remarkable musicmaking at the institute takes place not inside the great conservatory but outdoors, where the wind and brass students are playing to the heavens.
This is the norm in Cuban music education, which encourages students to play outdoors so that they can sound big and as bold as possible.
Put these same players in a jazz club or concert hall, and they sound as if their lungs are twice normal size. Perhaps this is why Cuban trumpeters such as Arturo Sandoval and Jesus Alemany (of Cubanismo) sound as huge as all outdoors.
"When we're not in class, we're always out here, practicing, blowing, trying to make our sound big," says Kervin Barretto, a 20-year-old trumpeter.
Then Barretto puts his horn to his lips and begins a lightning-fast version of "A Night in Tunisia," a tip-of-the-hat to the great Gillespie, who wrote the tune.
Another young trumpeter a few feet away picks up the theme, the two quickly exchanging riffs as if having a conversation on the nature and meaning of jazz.
"This is the music that a lot of the students here want to play," says trumpeter Jorge Miguel Vistel Serrano, 20. "But sometimes we feel that everyone in the world is trying to stop us, that everything is against us."
But it won't be until later in the evening, when Serrano has left the school to play at a Havana jazz club, that the depth of his frustration and the hopelessness of his situation will become fully apparent.
Until then, he tilts his horn skyward and lets out a great blast of sound, a mighty horn call if ever there were one.
Lopez-Nussa listens admiringly, then shakes his head.
"Imagine what he could do if he could come to America."