Jazz band makes cross-cultural exchange through music

Recently, St. Olaf’s premiere jazz band, Jazz I, became the first musical ensemble in the school’s history to travel to Cuba. The tour was organized by Classical Movements, the same organization that brought the Minnesota Orchestra to Cuba in mid-May last year, and focused on an exchange of cultures, particularly through musical collaboration.

The tour took place from March 20-25 and was comprised of the Jazz I ensemble and a group of patrons who helped fund the trip and accompanied the band. It began with a flight from Miami to the Cuban capital Havana. Jazz director Dave Hagedorn said their experience clearly showed the impact of President Obama’s historic visit, which coincided with the trip. According to Hagedorn, the streets were mostly clear at their arrival because of the visit, but many people took pictures with a display of President Obama and Raul Castro.

After a brief stay in Havana, the tour group left to Matanzas, a Cuban city known for its Afro-Cuban drumming as a result of its usage as a hub during the slave trade. After a day in Matanzas, the group returned to Havana for more exchange concerts and tours.

Multiple band members remarked on the excitement of being a tourist in Cuba, which has a strict tourism policy in connection to the U.S.

“[The experience] was extremely fulfilling and enriching,” Drew Larson ’17 said. “[The Cuban people’s] hospitality was incredible.”

St. Olaf travelers participated in various tours in Havana, including a guided tour of a cigar factory and Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban house.

Students were also were given the time to explore Havana.

“We had time to walk around Old Havana,” Olav Serres ’19 said.

On the tours, Hagedorn noted that guides focused on history in a non-political way. Students noted signs that still read, “Revolution or Die.”

“The tour guides didn’t talk politics, they talked the Revolution,” Hagedorn said.

At its core, however, the trip was fundamentally about musical collaboration, and both sides made an effort to exchange cultural styles and offer different perspectives.

“They enjoyed hearing our music as much as we enjoyed hearing theirs,” Serres said.

Others noted the presence of an initial barrier between the St. Olaf students and the Cubans.

“We’d have joint rehearsals with groups and style-wise we wouldn’t have the words we wanted,” Larson said. He explained that the two groups would play excerpts back and forth to demonstrate the style. “The language barriers were broken down.”

The cultural exchange was most powerful through the music, as evident in a joint concert experience that Hagedorn described, where two St. Olaf musicians were struggling to play a rhythm in the Cuban style. Some of the other musicians “knew right away we needed help so they just dove in.” Hagedorn remarked on their friendliness, adding that they invited the St. Olaf musicians for a jam session at their house the next day.

St. Olaf Jazz also made an effort to share American culture, with Hagedorn emphasizing the importance of the program.

“I wanted to really present the current state of American jazz,” Hagedorn said.

This decision was apparent in the choice to commission the piece “Thaw” from St. Olaf alumnus Dan Cavanagh.

On April 29, Jazz I will play a Cuban tour concert in the Pause, where they will perform the songs from the trip.