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Berklee Musicians Break New Ground In Cuba

Students, and Prof. Neil Leonard, center with sax, from Berklee's Interarts Ensemble in Cuba (Courtesy of Berklee)

BOSTON — It’s a first. Students in the Berklee Interarts Ensemble are breaking new ground for their school by visiting the island nation of Cuba.

The musicians are in Havana on a cross-cultural exchange led by Neil Leonard, a professor in Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design Department.

Reached on a sketchy phone line Thursday, Leonard said one of the trip’s many objectives is to expose emerging Cuban musicians to something Berklee students use constantly — cutting-edge digital media.

“They’re delighted to see us come as musicians who work with technology in all of the arts, all day,” he said. “We’ll do performances for the first time in Havana with the iPad, and we’ll do laptop performances, which are rare in their music school.”

Their school is Cuba’s best — the Instituto Superior de Art (ISA). Leonard said the level of musicianship there is astounding, and it’s fascinating to see what these traditionally trained musicians can do with digital tools.

But what’s the takeaway for the visiting Berklee musicians?

Leonard said the immersive trip — which includes visits to concert halls, schools, homes and studios in Havana — will inevitably deepen their understanding of Cuba’s vibrant art scene. He also hopes it will jazz them up to pursue careers in cross-cultural exchange.

Leonard himself first visited Cuba in 1986 as a young musician just out of the New England Conservatory. This was decades before other American artists — including Wynton Marsalis and Ry Cooder — made trips to the island. Leonard’s been back at least a dozen times since the ’80s, and he marvels at the compelling work being produced by Cuban artists in all disciplines.

How unusual is it for American students to visit Cuba?

According to Gloria Berbena, the public affairs officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, “American students come to Cuba often as part of privately initiated study programs, normally for 10-week study periods or longer. The Berklee program seems to be particularly unusual and interesting given the electronic composing/performance focus.”

Throughout this week Leonard and the ensemble have been collaborating closely with the Cuban players to create a new musical composition. Friday night they’ll perform it in front of a live audience.

The group of American musicians returns to Boston on Monday.

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