April 5, 1999
I recently had the opportunity to participate in the "Music Bridges" event in Cuba. This event brought together Cuban and American musicians in a songwriting collaboration culminating in a concert March 28 at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. I'm sure you must be wondering by now how I fit into this event. The fact is that the event organizer, Alan Scott, was given a tape of some music I recorded recently and liked it enough to invite me along.
I felt privileged to be a part of this collaboration, which included many of the greatest musicians in Cuba as well as Bonnie Raitt, Andy Summers, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Montell Jordan, Michael Franti, the Indigo Girls and Don Was, to name a few from the American side. I was jazzed, no pun intended, to be a part of this trip, not only to hang out with so many musicians I admire, but also to get a sense of what Cuba is about.
What I discovered was that the economy there is fragile; the people survive on very little. I watched construction workers doing backbreaking work and somebody told me they make $10 a month. I also discovered that the Cuban people are among the happiest people I have ever met. They are open, friendly and full of life in spite of the economic gloom. And the vast majority love Castro. Their music has a rich, vibrant power, inciting dance and celebration. Their music is a celebration of life in spite of economic hardship.
The week was a blast. I got to collaborate with Bonnie Raitt and two Cuban musicians who were phenomenal. One night, a few of us went to the bars that Hemingway used to frequent. In one of them, three Cuban musicians played, and before long the tiny bar was jammed. Then Andy Summers was handed a guitar and played a few Police songs with everybody singing along.
>There were Cubans, tourists from around the world and several Americans there, but nationality and cultural differences vanished as we all belted out "Message in a Bottle" together, singing and dancing, united in music.
The concert at the Karl Marx Theater carried that spirit as well. The people there were well aware that this musical collaboration was something of a historic landmark. Earlier in the day, the Baltimore Orioles had played a Cuban team. Something important was happening in U.S.-Cuban relations. All of us felt like we were part of something special.
I left Cuba full of hope--not just about U.S-Cuban relations, but about the ability of people to move beyond a troubled past, beyond politics and nationalism to forge a relationship that is uniquely "of the people."
When I got back to L.A., I read an article in the Calendar section written by a woman I shared a taxi ride with in Havana ("An Accidental Island Tour," by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, March 30).
She described Cuba as a gigantic stage production of "Lord of the Flies" where all the men have gone insane, painted a picture of my Cuban journalist friend, Jorge Smith Mesa, as a whimpering, Cameron Diaz-obsessed >simpleton (which seems a more apt description of me), and described me as a pipsqueak in yellowed knee socks and stained T-shirt, thinner and balder than she would imagine, eating fistfuls of peanuts, mouth open, my teeth yellow and snaggled like a dinosaur's, spitting peanut paste on my Cuban friend who was too polite to wipe it off and mentioned my soft white underbelly and exposed butt crack as well as my overall lack of athleticism. In short, she described me to a T.
After I read it, I was still bathed in that warm afterglow that any good writing gives you, when Michael Franti called. He had just read her article from the previous day ("U.S., Cuban Musicians Jam in Havana," March 29), which described a song he had written and performed at the concert, "Can't Stop This Bus," as a condemnation of the Cuban political and social>systems (particularly the transportation system), when in fact it was a song about reconciliation. She even misquoted the lyrics. We agreed that her interpretation was miles better than the original intent.
However, her interpretation and failure to feel the warmth of the Cuban people was what I really missed in her writing. I politely suggest a return trip with maybe a more open heart.
Woody Harrelson has starred in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "The Hi-Lo Country" and "EDtv" and is currently working on a project with Ron Shelton.
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