As the house lights dim on Havana’s sold-out Teatro Mella, the crowd begins to vibrate. For those of us twitching in our seats, the night is a rare chance to see our music and dance heroes on a single stage—at the annual Havana Rhythm & Dance Festival.
When the curtain rises, the stage reveals sophisticated drum kits, hand-carved congas and glittering timbales—fuelling the expectation that something extraordinary is about to take place. As 25 of Cuba’s most-renowned superstars blast on to the stage, ripping up the air with duelling drum solos and wailing trumpets, the frenzied crowd of 1,500 swoops to its feet, dancing like wired Twyla Tharps.
Much of the talent we go mad over has been nurtured at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). Since 1961, ISA has served as an incubator for Cuban music, modern dance, ballet and drama, contributing to a steady rise in artistic excellence now seen across the island. The sprawling campus sits on what was once a country club where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are alleged to have golfed before converting it into the ISA.
Anyone who has spent a holiday at an all-inclusive resort in Cuba has likely seen the sandwich boards hawking excursions to Havana, where stunning architecture and cultural experiences permeate every city block. Live performances of music and dance pulse throughout the capital on any given night, all year long. But no single event does more to showcase Cuba’s collective artistic talents than the Rhythm & Dance Festival, which will mark its 11th year from March 3 to 10, 2013. Havana will roll out its welcome mat for the world, jamming its venues with virtually non-stop evening performances, daily workshops, conferences and competitions—all aimed at thrusting Cuba’s next generation of talented young performers into the spotlight.
Some of Cuba’s most prestigious dance companies, such as Habana Compás Dance, will also dazzle crowds with an upbeat fusion of flamenco and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Then there are all the surprise acts of salsa, rumba, jazz and more.
It’s no mean feat to bring this array of talent together. At the heart of the festival is a Montrealer—Aldo Mazza—whose commitment to blending innovative musical styles has helped grow the event to international heights. An accomplished performer and studio musician, Mazza fell in love with Cuban rhythms more than a decade ago when he helped create a jazz festival along with the Canadian owners of the former El Senador resort in Cayo Coco.
Through subsequent collaborations with various Cuban movers and shakers, the Havana Rhythm & Dance Festival has grown to encompass more than 1,600 artists, including dance companies, musical ensembles, folklore groups and some of the hottest percussionists on Earth. Every March, the festival’s star-studded galas unspool before some 30,000 spectators at venues including Teatro Mella, Casa de la Musica and the Hotel Habana Libre, while workshops, conferences and a national percussion competition run simultaneously throughout the city.
“Over the years, this event has morphed from a drum festival, known as the Fiesta del Tambor, into a rhythm and dance festival open to anyone interested in Cuban music and culture,” explains Mazza, whose studio and performance credits include gigs with Jon Bon Jovi, Céline Dion, Repercussion, James Brown and Chris de Burgh.
As founder of the KoSA Academy in Montreal, Mazza shares his passion for international music through a global series of percussion workshops held in Canada, the United States, Italy, China and Cuba, where the latter unfolds in conjunction with the Havana Rhythm & Dance Festival. The KoSA Cuba workshops are ideal for those interested in Cuban music and culture as they provide intimate interactions with the country’s top percussion masters during daily classes on conga, bongo, timbales, standard drums and more. A typical day might also include visits to Havana museums and cultural sites, as well as V.I.P. seating for evening galas and private transportation via the KoSA Cuba bus.
For the 20 KoSA participants at Teatro Mella on opening night, the chance to see the masters they’ve been studying under for the previous three days perform in their element is like witnessing Cuban music royalty.
“I had high expectations, but this far exceeds anything I could have imagined,” says Canadian Ellie DiRusso, whose introduction to KoSA Cuba 2012 was memorable. “It’s like being in New York City in terms of the world-class performances.”
Mazza has helped bridge the gap between struggling Cuban musicians on the island and the outside world by securing sponsorships and procuring badly needed equipment for Cuba’s tight-knit percussion community.
“I’ve always been excited by the musical relationships that exist between cultures, and I try to bring those experiences to the table as an educated musician,” he says.
Spend time with Mazza, who’s idolized at this festival, and you’ll discover a humble man who still fancies himself a student, ever keen to learn alongside Cuba’s greatest talents.
Which brings us back to opening night, where we are naming the talent on stage—Amadito Valdés (played with the Buena Vista Social Club), Adel González (toured with Afro-Cuban All Stars), Rodney Barreto (played with Omara Portuondo)—who bring the house down with their churning melodies. Amongst the musicians, we spot Mazza with a drum strapped around his neck and a smile that spans the theatre. The musicians are all spectacularly good, in the way that hereditary craftsmen can sometimes come close to genius. It’s as though it’s all they can do—their mastery is a gift from which they’ll never escape. In Cuba, la vida es la música—life is music—and so, the show and the all-too-often undiscovered talent goes on.
The Havana Rhythm & Dance Festival 2013 provides an ideal opportunity for a split Varadero/Havana vacation, beginning with a few days of relaxation on the beach, followed by a full-on cultural immersion in Havana. For more information on the festival, visit kosamusic.com. To book your all-inclusive stay at Varadero, visit westjetvacations.com.
More Keys to Cuban Arts
If you can’t make it to next year’s Havana Rhythm & Dance Festival, there are numerous other events and outlets that invite you to experience what few tropical countries have managed to do so well—produce a modern arts culture of its own.
In 2013, Cubalavida will offer tours of Havana for groups of 12 people, with a focus on Cuban dance and culture. The itinerary will feature dance classes in the morning, cultural visits in the afternoon and sizzling Cuban nights in some of the city’s hottest venues for live music and dance.
International Ballet Festival (October-November)
With more than 50 years of history behind it, Havana’s International Ballet Festival includes performances by the Cuban National Ballet and is overseen by Alicia Alonso, one of Cuba’s most accomplished prima ballerinas.
International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (December)
The Havana event is one of Latin America’s most prestigious film festivals, featuring daily screenings and seminars on a variety of film-related topics.
Havana International Jazz Festival (December)
Highlighting the best of Cuban and Latin jazz, this event features some of the most renowned artists in the business.
New Hotels, Long-Running Festivals and a Major Exhibit are On Our Radar This Fall
We're buzzing about new openings, events and festivals this fall. Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana opens as Cuba's first five-star luxury hotel, the world’s longest-running oyster festival is back for its 63rd year in Galway, Ireland, and the Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire exhibit opens in San Francisco.