This morning, our delegation made a visit to the Hemingway Museum — the home and Caribbean influence of the iconic author.
In the afternoon, we completed what was one of the cultural highlights of this tour. We performed with the gay Cuban chorus, Mano a Mano for CENESEX (the National Center for Sexual Education, the government organization for sex education in Cuba.) First, CENESEX:
Prior to the performance, we had an hour-long discussion with who I understood to be the #2 at CENESEX. During the conversation, there were one or two admissions of things that need improvement in Cuba (namely adoption rights for LGBT people and family-based discrimination.) Many questions were asked about HIV/AIDS, discrimination and gender identity. A relatively rosy picture was portrayed on the state of LGBT rights in Cuba. I’ll have more time to process and accurately write more on this topic from home, so please stay tuned for that in the coming days.
The performance with Mano a Mano was a highlight of the week. Mano a Mano is a five-member group that looks more like the Backstreet Boys than a chorus. We took turns singing. The Cuban group, all very young, attractive and musically talented (if not a bit green,) sang with a combination of live band and recorded track accompaniment. We’ve learned that many performers in Cuba rely on what tracks and music are available in Cuba to determine their programming. Fortunately for Mano a Mano, they have a great production team behind them and are able to sing mostly original works. At the end of the performance, both groups combined to sing two songs. Sondheim’s “Our Time” translated into Spanish has become a bit of an anthem for Mano a Mano. And of course “Make Them Hear You,” sung in Cuba’s native language, takes on precient meaning when being performed for the heads of the Cuban government’s de-facto LGBT rights group.
Amazingly, the day didn’t end there. When we returned to the hotel (again state-run,) the lobby was decked out in rainbow flags hung next to Cuban flags, and there was a stage set up with our banner hung behind it. With TV celebrities and politicians drinking mojitos, GMCW performed a near hour-long set for some of Cuba’s elite. It was one of our most energetic performances thus far, and I don’t think we know yet the impact it will have.
Later at night, GMCW was invited to a house party given by the director of Mano a Mano. With actors, well-known singers and members of the local gay community, it was one of the more authentic and eclectic experiences of the week. Among many surprises and learning experiences that occurred, the producer of Mano a Mano (who has three Latin Grammy’s by the way,) was shocked to learn that the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is all volunteer. That would never happen in Cuba.
I was surprised, and very pleased, to learn that artists are among the better paid people in Cuba. José Martí, the poet-revolutionary whose status as a national hero means his statue can be found on every block in Cuba, left a legacy of personal and political expression through art. Cuba, not known for it’s tolerance of free speech, does not seem to censor music and art nearly to the extent that it censors other types of political dissidence. I suppose even the tightly controlled government of Cuba can’t turn its back on the artistic roots that sparked its founding.
Chase Maggiano is the executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. He is posting periodic posts from Cuba on his blog ChasingTheArt that he is allowing the Washington Blade to repost.