America's political relationship with Cuba has long been complicated and uncertain, but the two countries have always enjoyed a rich and mutually beneficial cultural exchange. The breadth of the island's contemporary artistic output will be spotlighted in Philadelphia over the next three weeks as the Annenberg Center hosts its Cuba Festival, featuring performances by Cuban musicians and dancers, along with film screenings.
"Cuba's a really hot topic right now nationally and internationally," says Christopher Gruits, the Annenberg's executive and artistic director. "We wanted to look at the arts in Cuba, with a particular focus on jazz and dance, because it's such an exciting area in terms of artistic output and one that a lot of American audiences aren't too familiar with."
The festival kicks off this week with the Philadelphia debut of the award-winning contemporary dance company DanzAbierta, which will perform its evening-length work "Malson" on Thursday and Friday. It culminates April 13 with a concert by pianist Chucho Valdés, founder of the group Irakere, multiple Grammy winner, and an elder statesman of the Cuban jazz scene.
In between, the festival becomes a survey of the younger generation of artists emerging from the country in recent decades, demonstrating the wide-ranging scope of sounds that happen when Cuban musicians arrive on American shores.
One of the biggest success stories to come out of that convergence is percussionist Pedrito Martinez, whose concert this Saturday is already sold out. Martinez became a sensation over his decade-long residency at the Manhattan club Guantanamera, where regulars included Eric Clapton and Derek Trucks. He's since gone on to perform with notables from Wynton Marsalis to Bruce Springsteen while taking his infectious show on the road in front of enthusiastic crowds.
"When I was little, I was so curious about all kinds of music, but in Cuba it was illegal to listen to American music," Martinez says. "I used to put my ear very close to the radio to listen to Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Simon, and now I've played with most of them. It's a dream come true."
A generation younger than Martinez, Alfredo Rodriguez is a conservatory-trained pianist mentored by Quincy Jones. His music is more introspective than Martinez's crowd-pleasing vibe, reflective of his classical and jazz studies and the poignant messages of his compositions.
Rodriguez's latest album, the elegant and moving The Little Dream, was inspired by the Dreamers whose future is held in limbo by political arguments over the DACA program.
"I didn't suffer the same as they are suffering," Rodriguez says. "It's brutal when kids are part of such strong political fights between countries. I'm an immigrant, and coming here to the United States is a topic that really touches my heart and inspires me to make music."
Despite their differences in approach, what Martinez and Rodriguez share is an open-minded stylistic approach born of the clash of cultures they found in the States.
"The only music we play in Cuba is Cuban music," Martinez says. "Here, you have different genres of music, especially in New York City. I've had the opportunity since I got here to see and learn and play Brazilian music, Argentinean music, jazz, hip-hop, R&B. I've been adding a lot of those elements to my music, which you cannot do in Cuba."
Rodriguez echoes those sentiments, saying, "Cuba has been a country isolated for so many years. Since I came here to the United States, I've incorporated so many cultures into my music. On my previous album, I worked with musicians from Lebanon, India, France, Spain, Cameroon, Cuba, and the States. But Cuba is my roots, so my goal is always to share with the world where I'm coming from, but also share a global message."
For those whose conception of Cuban music begins and ends with Buena Vista Social Club, the Annenberg's Cuba Festival offers an expansive overview in just a few deftly chosen concerts. From the traditional Afro-Cuban jazz of the septuagenarian Chucho Valdés to the soulful voice of twentysomething singer Daymé Arocena or the spectrum-spanning jazz directions taken by Martinez and Rodriguez, it's a vivid and eye-opening crash course built on surging rhythms and passionate artistry.