CANMORE – A local music group has found a new harmonious melody after an “eye-opening” trip to Cuba.
A group of more than 60 Valley Winds Music Association members participated in a week-long trip to Cuba in May to celebrate the group's 25th anniversary, choir singer Deb Nettesheim said.
They spent the week in Havana going on new adventures every day, she said, adding that it was an incredibly eye-opening trip that exposed them to the music of Cuba.
“For me what was so uplifting was the spontaneity of it,” Nettesheim said. “Cuba is such a musical culture – it’s in their soul, it’s in their hearts.”
The association collaborated with the Canada Cuba Sports and Cultural Festivals travel agency for the excursion, trip coordinator Heather Reese said, explaining that its goal was to exchange musical experiences with Cubans who have similar interests.
The trip was special because it was not the typical tourist experience, choir co-director Lee Ann DeCoteau said, adding they had the privilege of accessing incredible clinics, workshops, performances and culture experiences.
“We were learning about the culture and the life of Cuba – outside of what a tourist might see. We got the introspective opportunity to see in the countryside,” DeCoteau said. “We were off the beaten track so to speak.”
Every day was full of surprises, Nettesheim said, and they knew they were in for a special trip their very first day in Havana.
“There were people playing guitars on the streets … and suddenly we were in a flash mob,” Nettesheim exclaimed. “We’re singing along because they started singing a song that we knew. They were shocked. We were dancing and singing. It was great and that was just the beginning.”
It was a beautiful experience and set the tone for the week, choir co-director Sue Chick Denton said. She added that it helped to unify the group and remind them why it were there – to celebrate and drink in the musical culture of Cuba.
“Music is as natural to a Cuban as breathing,” DeCoteau said.
One of the most powerful experiences to resonate with DeCoteau was seeing first-hand how the people of Cuba live.
“We come from a 'have society' and they have more or less a 'have-not society,' ” DeCoteau said. “But, it didn’t really matter because the thing that bonded us together was music.”
The music they played allowed association members to bond with the Cubans they met during the trip, she said, explaining that they used music to express themselves – even when language was a barrier.
“Music is international and worldly. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a pauper or whatever you are we were all there as musicians coming together for the love of music,” DeCoteau said. “All the other stuff was sort of icing on the cake. We were all just people.”
Highlighting the stark cultural differences between the countries, the group had the opportunity to visit a biosphere near Havana called Los Terrazas, Reese said, describing it as a very poor section of Havana.
“The [Los Terrazas] children all greeted us at the bus and each one of them took our hands one-by-one and walked us over [to the community centre],” Nettesheim said. “They performed for us, we performed for them – it was really moving.”
They played songs on the guitar together and the Valley Winds were able to share charitable donations, including hard to find items in the country like instruments and guitar strings.
Chick Denton said she had an especially powerful experience with a guitar player busking on Havana’s city wall the last night of the trip.
Several members went for a walk along the Malecón, the city's sea wall, she said, explaining that some had been aching to explore the area.
“We were just wandering down, it was late it was probably 2 [in the morning]. This guy came with his guitar and he was playing songs looking for tips. [Someone cried] ‘give Sue the guitar,' ” Chick Denton said with a laugh. “We traded songs probably for about 45 minutes. I would play a song and then he would play a song – it was just lovely.”
One of the more challenging aspects of the trip was that they had to bring their musical equipment, Reese said, which is especially daunting given the size of the keyboards, amps and drum kits.
“They are such a poor society that if a musician has an instrument it is really difficult to replace it or repair it, so they don’t want to rent them out,” Reese said. “There’s no rentals, so that was difficult.”
Their biggest takeaway from the trip was a drive to engage the Canmore community as much as possible with their music, DeCoteau said. She added that now more than ever they understand the benefits of music and its ability to bring people together.
“We were humbled a bit,” DeCoteau said. “We’re kind of like ambassadors and we need to remember that. We need to try and do our best to engage in the community as much as possible.”
The Valley Winds Music Association will be hosting their 2019 Winter Concert of Dec. 1 at the Malcolm Hotel at 2 p.m. Tickets and information are available at valleywindsmusic.org.