In New Documentary, Two Musical Brothers Bridge The Divide Between The U.S. And Cuba

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Ilmar Gavilán (playing the violin) and Aldo López-Gavilán. (Courtesy)
Ilmar Gavilán (playing the violin) and Aldo López-Gavilán. (Courtesy)

A new documentary looks at the difficult relationship between the U.S. and Cuba through the eyes of two brothers who happen to be incredibly talented musicians.

Violinist Imar Gavilán grew up in Cuba but left as a teenager to study music in the Soviet Union. He never returned. Instead, he built an international career as a teacher and a performer who eventually settled in the United States.

Pianist and composer Aldo López-Gavilán stayed and made a name for himself in Cuba for decades.

The two musicians were never able to perform or record together. But as international politics shifted over time, “Los Hermanos/The Brothers” documents how the two reunited to achieve a dream they’ve been pursuing their entire lives. The film opens in theaters Friday.

At 14 years old, Imar Gavilán’s music teacher told his parents that he was as good as he could get at violin in Cuba. To continue growing as a musician, the teacher recommended he leave and develop his talent elsewhere, he recalls.

“It's not like, you know, a little kid chooses to do it. It was just a commitment to my craft and to my family and myself,” he says.

But for younger brother Aldo López-Gavilán, he says the change was “terrible.” He was only 8 years old at the time and remembers feeling sad without his beloved sibling by his side.

“It was just like a part of you is somewhere else,” Ilmar Gavilán says.

Ilmar Gavilán (right) and Aldo López-Gavilán. (Courtesy)
Ilmar Gavilán (right) and Aldo López-Gavilán. (Courtesy)

Aldo López-Gavilán would mail his older brother audio tapes from Cuba, complete with background noise from the house and neighborhood, such as his grandpa’s footsteps or the ocean waves crashing on the beach.

“All of these sounds gave me the taste of home,” Imar Gavilán says.

After being separated by thousands of miles and by complicated U.S.-Cuba political conflicts, the two were able to record an album together, aptly titled “Brothers.” Aldo López-Gavilán says the album — a “dream come true” — was much needed, both professionally and emotionally.

Recording an album can be laborious, but for the brothers, “the process was so joyful” because of their comfortability around each other and their instinctive musical connection, lmar Gavilán says.

“We have basically a lifetime of understanding each other's music,” he says, adding they could anticipate what each other were going to play. “We just feel it at the same time.”

Former President Barack Obama ushered in a new era of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2016. Tensions started to cool off. That's when they finally got the chance to tour together in the U.S. with Imar Gavilán’s ensemble, The Harlem Quartet.

But a little over a year later, former President Trump reversed course, announcing new restrictions on Cuban travel and business. The political whiplash was difficult to cope with, the brothers say.

“The whole country and the people in general in Cuba have suffered tremendously. And to be honest now, this moment is one of the biggest crises in so many, many years because of the pandemic,” Aldo López-Gavilán says. “So it's not been easy at all.”

While Imar Gavilán says it’s easy to complain about a piano being out of tune or general lack of good pianos in Cuba, the audience that comes out to listen to classical concerts on the island nation is much more diverse than in the U.S.

They are actively trying to change that by being “ambassadors for the music,” Imar Gavilán says. “Because the nature of Aldo's writing is particularly accessible, we feel very privileged to attract different types of audiences to regular venues” in the U.S.

The brothers believe there is power in art, and they strive to utilize their musical talents as an instrument to unite.

“Music itself is a phenomenon that unites peoples and makes you feel the common humanity in all of us,” Imar Gavilán says. “And music, in our case, is beyond politics.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on May 12, 2021.


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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


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Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



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