During spring break in March 2024, the Nobles and Rivers Jazz Bands loaded their instruments onto an airplane and flew to Havana, Cuba, to learn about Afro-Cuban history, culture, and music and to rehearse, perform, and record alongside students from Cuba’s National Music School. This free public high school draws the top talent from the island’s population of eleven million.

Cuba is fascinatingly unique in many ways. Its public health system has famously exported its healthcare professionals worldwide as a powerful tool of health diplomacy. Cuba also punches way above its weight on the world music scene as a result of the Russian-style conservatory system it inherited and the rich African culturalinfluence resulting from the slave trade on the island. Additionally, the strong ties between Havana and New Orleans, facilitated by twice-daily ferry service for over half a century, have significantly shaped Cuba’s (and America’s) vibrant musical landscapes.

Despite their historically tough economic situation, the Cubans welcomed us warmly and joyfully. After learning about Santeria and Rumba at the famous Hamel Alley, going on a walking tour of Old Havana, and taking our first masterclass in Afro-Cuban music with flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, we met our Cuban bandmates and their distinguished director Javier Zalba, an alumnus of the Buena Vista Social Club. They welcomed us with awe-inspiring performances, and the chemistry among the students was great from the start. Many Cuban students joined us for lunch and our first rehearsal and performance at Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Even outside of rehearsals, Cuban students joined us in activities whenever possible. During our first rehearsal with them, the proverbial power of music as the universal language was evident, and the friendships took root, which could be seen in all of the students’ big smiles and shining eyes during and after our joint concert, a true career highlight for me.

While documenting this exchange on day six in a joint recording session at Abdala, Havana’s iconic recording studio, we were thrilled to receive an official visit from the head of Cuba’s entire system of arts education, who honored our students’ flawless conduct by issuing an official invitation to join them in an ongoing exchange program.

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