Letter from Havana: Leo Brouwer, the Rolling Stones, and the Cuban Guitar Scene

Classical Guitar Cuba Havana Leo Brouwer Rolling Stones Obama Tres Cuba
From the Fall 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY KATHLEEN A. BERGERON

I’m sitting in a wicker chair on the back veranda of the lovely old Hotel Nacional in Havana, sipping a mojito, staring out into the deep-blue Gulf of Mexico, while a four-piece combo plays Afro-Cuban music in the background. Below the bluff on which the hotel sits is the Malecón, the city’s major boulevard that separates it from the Gulf of Mexico. Traffic is light, as usual, much of it consisting of colorfully restored American cars that date from before 1963, when the US declared an embargo of its products to the communist island country. One might assume—or perhaps hope—that this peaceful pace will last forever. It will not.

When I initially booked my trip six months earlier, I did not realize that this 500-year-old city—as well as the country as a whole—is about to undergo dramatic changes. Cuba is about to be hit by a tidal wave of American visitors for the first time in more than half a century, thanks to President Obama easing restrictions on Americans’ travel to Cuba.

In fact, change is already underway. American-flagged cruise ships, such as Carnival’s 700-passenger Adonis, have begun making tours of the island. Last year, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba jumped by nearly 80 percent, and it will get even more intense: One report suggests that the number of daily US flights into the country will leap from a handful to well over a hundred. It’s no surprise that President Obama was accompanied on his trip to Cuba by hoteliers, investment specialists, and other business people eager to have a role in the coming surge of tourism and cultural exchange.

The same week as the Obama visit, the Rolling Stones put on a free concert near Havana’s sports stadium that reportedly drew half a million Cubans. Such an event would not have been allowed in previous years, when the government discouraged Cubans from listening to British or American rock music. Now, from both sides of the 90 miles of separation between Cuba and the Florida Keys, decades of bottled-up curiosity is finally getting released.

What does this have to do with classical guitar? Cuba is already known to have a fine national conservatory of music, with a strong classical guitar program. The Cuban educational system is such that even the poorest children who show sufficient talent can receive specialized education in their area of proficiency, whether it’s in dance, fine art, or music. Through the decades, Cuba has produced many noteworthy classical guitarists, including Manuel Barrueco, Carlos Molina, Isaac Nicola, Ali Arango, Rene Izquierdo, Albert Valdes Blain and his younger brother Roland, Hector Garcia, Ricardo Iznaola, Jesus Ortega, Mario Abril, and Rey de la Torre, to name several. Of those who lived during the Fidel Castro-led revolution, many exited their country in the early ’60s, and now perform and/or teach in a variety of places throughout the world.

One who did not leave, and who perhaps has had more impact on classical guitar music than any other Cuban, is Leo Brouwer. For starters, the 77-year-old Brouwer began with a musical family heritage that few could match: His great uncle, Ernesto Lecuona (1895–1963), wrote one of the most famous Spanish guitar compositions, La Malaguena; and his second cousin, Margarita Lecuona (1910–1981), wrote “Babalú,” the song made famous by Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, of I Love Lucy television fame.

Brouwer is recognized because the range of his talent is so broad. His first recognition came as a player, and he performed for many years in concert halls and at guitar festivals around the globe. Soon he was also conducting orchestras in Great Britain, Germany, and Italy. For the past several decades, however, he has concentrated more on composition than performance. His works have included pieces for guitar, percussion, piano, orchestra, and more. In a 1985 interview with Classical Guitar editor Colin Cooper, Brouwer noted that he admired English composers because “Your composers know all the instruments so well. Because I play them myself—I studied cello, clarinet, trombone, double-bass, percussion and piano. So when I compose, I can put in the fingering. I don’t do crazy things that are impossible to play…”

Many of Brouwer’s compositions, especially those for guitar, relate specifically to his beloved Cuba. Listen, for example, to La Ciudad de las Columnas (“The City of the Columns”) about Havana, or Cuban Landscape with Rain, or the beautiful Afro-Cuban lullaby, Cancion de Cuna. He also has tastefully adapted popular hits to the classical guitar, including seven Lennon-McCartney Beatles tunes, and he composed the music for the movie Like Water for Chocolate.

Here’s a clip of Brouwer performing Danza Del Altiplano


Brouwer is also a teacher of the first order. In addition to leading master classes in conjunction with his performances throughout the world, he personally taught several noteworthy performers of today. One in particular, Carlos Molina, now living in Miami, recalls the exact date when they met: December 24, 1961. “This happened at a private party where he and I played together with Cuban pianist Zenaida Manfugas. From then on, we shared a great friendship, to the point that he dedicated Canticum to me on the occasion of my graduation in 1968.”

Molina, in turn, did his part to promote Brouwer’s reputation. “At a time not many played nor liked his music in Cuba nor elsewhere,” he states, “I did the world premiere of several of his works, including the second series of his Simple Studies—Tarantos—and I was the first guitarist to play a full concert of his works, in 1972.”

Molina’s friendship with Brouwer goes beyond merely that of student and teacher. “My second daughter walked her first steps in one of his houses,” he says, “and my youngest one has a rubber duck in her bathroom that he brought her 37 years ago.”

Although the two men live close to each other geographically—Havana and Miami—they have not seen each other for some time because of the political situation. “I will never return there until the dictatorship ends completely,” says Molina. But they have been able to reunite elsewhere. “I have been able to share with him at festivals in Spain [Cordoba] and Italy [Bisceglie and Fiuggi].” In the Fiuggi festival, the two men, as well as Alirio Diaz, were given lifetime achievement awards. Nonetheless, says Molina, “I still keep his friendship and admiration for his music, as I did the first day I heard him play Danza Caracteristica.”

The opening up of Cuba will also mean that classical-guitar lovers in the US will finally be able to attend (and perhaps participate in) the biennial Havana International Guitar Competition and Festival, which, since its inception in 1981, has been partially sponsored by native son Bouwer.

I visited Brouwer’s office, but as luck would have it, he was unavailable at the time. So I spoke with Yamina Valdes Maqueira, who works on public relations and production for the maestro. She revealed that Brouwer pours much of his own money into the festival to ensure its success. She notes, “When the government sponsors an activity, one can count on a high degree of commitment of funding. But here in Cuba, when one has to do without such government assistance, it can become very difficult.” Therefore, to ensure the festival’s success, Brouwer puts his money where his heart is.

Also, with more accessibility to Cuba by Americans, including American media, there is a lot more potential publicity about up-and-coming guitarists in the country. And there are a lot of young Cubans who are very much into the guitar, whether it’s classical, rock, jazz, or the country’s unique Afro-Cuban music. Much of the country’s music—whatever category non-Cubans may wish to place it in—is heavily flavored with the Afro-Cuban sound that has been embedded in the society for hundreds of years.

Guitar is hugely popular in Cuba, whether it’s the steel-string or nylon-string, acoustic, electric, or the Cuban-developed tres, a guitar-like instrument, with six strings set up in three pairs, much like a 12-string guitar has six sets of pairs. But unlike a 12-string guitar, the tres is tuned quite differently from a typical Spanish guitar. [Ed. note: The typical tres tuning is gG cC Ee] I had read about the tres before my trip, and I looked for a tres each time I heard or saw a Cuban music combo. I heard six or seven groups over several days—three or four at the Nacional hotel, a few on the streets of Old Town Havana—but none had a tres.

Finally, toward the end of the trip, our group took a bus to a tobacco farm in the Valle de Viñales (Valley of the Vines), and on the return trip, we made a rest stop for bathrooms, souvenirs and refreshments. Across the parking lot, I spied a young man with a guitar and thought I’d try once more. It turned out that he was playing a typical 6-string, but sitting on the table next to him in the open-air plaza was—finally!—a tres. I pointed to it and asked, “Yours?” He called over a friend who smiled at me, picked up the instrument, and handed it to me. “No, no,” I said, pointing to the guitarist. “You play it.” So he did, accompanied by his friend. But the man with the tres was insistent: He put the tres’ guitar strap over my head and encouraged me to play. He even showed me some chords on it, and his friend accompanied me as I stumbled through several arpeggios.

Letter from Cuba Classical Guitar Nylon Strings D'Addario Tres

Photos (except car at top) by Kathleen Bergeron

Prior to my trip to Cuba, I read a suggestion that one should take along a few things that are not easy to find in Cuba, to hand out as gifts to the locals—travel-size hand soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, etc. It also listed “guitar strings,” so I took three sets of D’Addario nylon strings. At one point I was on a bus tour with a group, and we stopped to visit a modern dance troupe. After their performance, the young dancers joined us for lunch, with each of us Americans sitting across from one or more of the dancers. Across from me were two young men, each 19 years old, and their enthusiasm for dance—as well as life itself—was clear. Knowing I was going to be writing an article for Classical Guitar, I asked the young man across from me if he knew of Leo Brouwer. “Oh yes,” he responded reverently, “the Maestro. He’s the best!” I asked him if he played guitar, and his friend next to him answered for him, “Oh, he loves to play his guitar. He’s always playing it.”

Further questioning revealed that he had taken only a semester of formal guitar lessons in school before switching to the modern dance curriculum, but has continued playing guitar, too. He said he loved all kinds of music—classical, jazz, and he loved rock. Did he get to see the Rolling Stones perform when they were in Havana a few days earlier? “Oh yes!” he said. “If I live to be 100, and I forget all about modern dance, if I am married and I forget my wife, I will always remember seeing the Rolling Stones!” With such enthusiasm already on display, imagine my anticipation as I reached into my bag to pull out a new set of strings for him.

His reaction was the high point of the trip.