Fifty years ago this month, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba, after Fidel Castro nationalized property and businesses owned by U.S. citizens. Eisenhower's successor, President John Kennedy, imposed a trade embargo on the island nation the following year. Since then, Americans have had little interaction with Cuba and most know little about the Caribbean country or its culture. But a group of seven Cuban musicians is trying to change that - one New England school at a time.
The band, Septeto Tipico Tivoli, is named after the Tivoli district in their home city, Santiago de Cuba. It's a Cuban neighborhood that's heavily influenced by Haiti and, according to bandmates, a place known for having fun and getting together with friends.
Several years ago, while performing at a music festival in Cuba, members of a Vermont-based women's chorus, the Feminine Tone, met the band. Maricel Lucero the founder of the women's chorus, grew up in Cuba, and says the two groups quickly became friends. Last spring the band emailed her about their plans to tour Canada. Since they'd be just across the border, Lucero saw it as a perfect opportunity to bring them to Vermont.
"I was thinking about what a great gift it would be for our kids in the schools to come in contact with these musicians because where else are they going to hear Cuban music in Vermont or New Hampshire or this whole New England area," says Lucero.
Lucero and many of the women in her chorus are teachers. To help finance the band's trip, they asked schools if they'd be willing to pay for Septeto Tipico Tivoli to to give demonstrations and teach master classes. They were, and the Cuban band's schedule quickly filled up. Since October, Septeto Tipico Tivoli has visited dozens of schools throughout New England, including Rutland Senior High.
"I really thought it would be a great opportunity. I really felt like introducing language, culture, tropical music to Rutland high school," says Patricia Alonzo-Shaft who teaches Spanish at Rutland. "It was something that had not been done and I thought that they would really gain a lot from hearing these sounds."
In Rutland, the band talked a lot about their sound and the cultural heritage it comes from. Speaking mostly Spanish, they described their instruments and the different rhythms they use.
Nina Salvatore, a member of the Feminine Tone chorus who teaches art at Woodstock Union High School, says the band spent three days working with their students.
"When they came to Woodstock we had an opening ceremony in the gym. And by the time it was done, almost every kid was off the bleachers down on the floor dancing around and I still have kids at the school asking how they are and if they're going to come back."
Salvatore and other members of the women's chorus have been hosting the musicians in their homes and says they've all become like family. As much as the band has taught people in New England about Cuba, she says the musicians have been equally wowed by all they've seen and done here.
Lucero says the cultural exchange she was hoping for exceeded everyone's expectations.
"Just to see the kids reaction to the band, and Americans filling a hall last weekend where there were over 200 people there and all of a sudden Cuban music is the hot thing. And to me that is worth everything. To expose this wonderful music and share my heritage."
The hard part, says Lucero, will be having to say goodbye to the band when they return home at the end of January.