Back in September, American Songwriter joined Rufus Wainwright for a week in Havana, Cuba, as part of a special cultural exchange between the Canadian-American artist and the Havana music and arts community. More than 100 Wainwright fans and music lovers convened in the Cuban capital for a one-of-a-kind experience, which was put on by Music Arts Live. Here, Wainwright greets fans at the Hotel Meliá in the Miramar section of Havana.
Wainwright first visited the island five years ago. At the time he wanted to see Cuba while Fidel Castro, who died in 2016, was still at the helm. Read our extended feature about the trip on americansongwriter.com or in the November/December digital edition. All photos by Caine O’Rear.
Cuban dancers welcome Wainwright fans at the Melia Habana Hotel.
Early in the week, Wainwright and his fans visited the National School of Arts, a division of the Instituto Superior de Arte. The students represented some of the most promising young musical talents in Cuba, and the school’s list of alumni is long and distinguished. A student by the name of Brayan Alvarez (pictured here) dazzled us with his gifts on piano. His music incorporated elements of classical, ragtime and native Cuban influences.
Sixteen-year-old NSA student Javier Mendez volunteers his talents to the crowd, performing Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way.”
Later, Wainwright participated in a Q&A session. He was joined by an alumnus of the school, Giovanni Duarte (pictured far right), who now directs the symphony orchestra for the Gran Teatro de la Habana. Duarte told the students he lived outside of Havana as a student and had to rise at 4 a.m. every morning to make it to school on time. “The only thing that saved us all [in those days] was music,” he told the students, speaking of the more difficult days of Cuba’s past.
A group of students from NSA.
NSA students receive general education courses, but the focus here is on the music. The students are tested at the pre-kindergarten level, and those who score high in music aptitude are placed on a music-centric educational track.
The view of El Capitolio from Calle Barcelona in Central Havana. The building ceased to be the center of government operations after the 1959 revolution. It is scheduled to reopen as the home of the Cuban National Assembly in 2018.
Along Calle 23, a street also known as La Rampa, in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
At the Sia-Kara Cafe in Central Havana. This charming locale turns into a piano bar in the evening hours.
Two patrons at the Sia-Kara.
A toast of Havana Club rum at the Bembe Tapas Bar in Central Havana.
The entrance to the University of Havana, in the Vedado neighborhood. The university was founded in 1728 and is the oldest school in Cuba.
A view from the front steps of the University.
A tank commemorating the Fidel Castro-led 1959 revolution. Castro studied law at the University in the 1940s.
A street in Central Havana.
The Cuban group Anacaona performing at the restaurant Paparazzi. This all-female trans-generational orchestra was originally formed in the 1930s.
A marble statue of Jose Marti in Old Havana’s Central Park. A poet, journalist, political philosopher and freedom fighter, Marti is often referred to as the “Apostle of Cuban Independence” for his efforts to achieve independence from Spain in the late 19th century.
A dance academy in Old Havana.
Wainwright performing a private, stripped-down concert at the Teatro de Belles Artes in Old Havana.
Wainwright alternated on a Steinway and Sons piano and a Martin acoustic during the performance. He played two Leonard Cohen covers, the requisite “Hallelujah” as well as “So Long, Marianne.”
A typical lunch for the photographer.
The gallery of artist Kamyl Bullaudy Rodriguez in Old Havana. Rodriguez, who works primarily in watercolor, is one of Cuba’s most celebrated visual artists. Much of his work concerns Jose Marti, who is represented in this painting. Rodriguez is also heavily involved in Havana’s theatre scene.
Ariadne, our tour guide with San Cristobal travel agency, explains which Cuban fruit is also a dirty word. Can you guess it?
At the “Eye Of The Hurricane” art gallery in Old Havana. Artist Rogelio Rodriguez is pictured in the middle.
Photos of the monument to Che Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba.
More work from the “Eye Of The Hurricane” gallery.
Young kids on the block, somewhere in the suburbs of Miramar.
Two young fishermen take time for a photo.
Yoruba Adabo performing at the Palacia de la Rumba. One of Cuba’s best known rumba bands, the group is named after the West African religion that is often incorporated into Santeria, which is practiced widely in Cuba.
Rumba music and dance originated in Cuba in the late 19th century.
The dance continues …
Interactivo, a jazz collective that has collaborated with many world class artists, including Wynton Marsalis, peforming at the Palacia de la Rumba. The group is led by Roberto Carcassés (pictured far left), who graduated from the National School of Arts in the early ‘90s. The group draws on traditional Cuban influences but incorporates a multitude of new sounds as well.
A concert poster for the big event.
Two Cuban patrons before the show, outside of the Gran Teatro de la Habana.
The Gran Teatro de La Habana at night. In March 2016, President Obama delivered an historic address here that was broadcast throughout the island. It marked the first time a sitting U.S. president had visited Cuba since Calvin Coolidge came here in 1928.
Cuban folk-rocker Carlos Varela opens the show. Varela’s band recalled Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at times.
Wainwright performed in the Federico Garcia Lorca Auditorium, one of several theatres within the Gran Teatro complex. The 1,500 seat theatre was sold out for the show.
Wainwright said he hoped his trip might help keep U.S-Cuban relations intact.
“We were seduced by the architecture and climate [the first time here], but it was really the people who brought us back,” Wainwright said of Cuba.
The ceiling of the Lorca auditorium.
Wainwright’s performance came weeks after Hurricane Irma had menaced the country, leaving 10 Cubans dead, massive flooding in the streets, and much of the island without electricity for more than a week.
“I do feel that at the start of the Obama years that things started to look more positive between Cuba and the United States,” Wainwright told the crowd. “And now the cat’s been let out of the bag, and we must come together as people, no matter what the Orange Monster says.”
In early October, shortly after Wainwright’s performance at the Gran Teatro, the U.S. State Department expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. Shortly before that, the Trump administration announced it was sending home 60 percent of its embassy staff in Havana, citing a series of “sonic attacks” against American diplomats living there. The attacks, most of which allegedly happened in 2016, reportedly caused brain swelling and permanent hearing loss in some of the victims. Cuban diplomats, in turn, were kicked out of D.C. for not protecting Americans on Cuban soil. The State Department also issued a travel warning to Americans saying they could be attacked if they visited the island.
Wainwright performing the darkly foreboding “Going To A Town,” a stirring lament that was one of the high-water marks of the night.
Wainwright’s set included his old hit “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” a paean to former indulgences.
The proscenium of the Lorca auditorium.
Wainwright performed a selection from his 2010 debut opera, Prima Donna.
Wainwright’s performance at the Gran Teatro seemed especially poignant because of the delicate situation between the two countries, even before the brouhaha over the alleged attacks. And there was the tacit understanding among audience and performer that an event like this might not happen again for some time.
Varela comes out for a number.
Wainwight takes a bow with conductor Giovanni Duarte (far left) and Carlos Varela.
The crowd goes wild.
At the house of Havana artist Damian Aquiles. Aquiles’s home also serves as a “paladar,” a restaurant that is operated out of one’s place of residence.
Another scene from the paladar.
More art from Aquiles.
An election sign along a Cuban highway. Cuban president Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018. Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, one of Castro’s current vice presidents, is said to be the logical successor.
Terms & Conditions
Gain Access to the American Songwriter Vault of Resources with a Free Membership
Sign up to gain access to exclusive aticles, members-only contests, archived interviews, and more.