I always thought the phrase “music unites people” was just one of those cliché things that people like to say. However, my perspective quickly changed over spring break when I went on an immersive trip to Cuba through Georgetown Music Ministry. I realized how ingrained music is in human nature, making it something that connects us both to each other and our historical roots.
The United States and Cuba’s rocky history started during the Cold War when the United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba. Parts of the embargo have since been either retracted or expanded under various presidents, but critics emphasize that, regardless, the embargo still has a negative economic and humanitarian impact on Cuba. This is highlighted by the fact that gaining access to food and medication remains a national issue due to the licensing requirements included in the embargo.
This historically fraught relationship tends to paint an overarching negative image of Cuba, and the difficulties that come with visiting the country create a sense of mystery as to what conditions are truly like. Thus, many Americans’ view of Cuba is based solely on what the media tells them.
Because it was a Campus Ministry-sponsored trip, I realize my time in Cuba in no way encompasses all facets of Cuban life and the aftershocks of US-Cuban history. However, I was able to see firsthand the incredible generosity and infectious, lively spirit of the locals. Despite our different backgrounds, connecting with them felt like second nature. Our ability to bond boiled down to our shared humanity, exemplified by our ability to enjoy universal things like music and dance.
Our Georgetown group spent the week in La Habana attending lectures on Cuban music, learning about Jesuit programs in the community, and visiting churches and museums. There was so much music all around us that created a sense of joy and appreciation for human life. Chopin played at the place we ate at every day and Bolero music blasted in the taxi en route to our next activity. The playground next to our hotel played cheerful beats all day long, bringing an energetic atmosphere as kids ran around.
Most of our trip, however, was centered around collaborating with a local choir named Vox Cordis to sing at mass and perform at a free public concert. Vox Cordis’ members come from all walks of life—some were attending Cuba’s National Art School while others were doctors or teachers. Unlike our Georgetown group, which is facilitated by the University and shared membership in Music Ministry, the members of Vox Cordis found each other through the communal joy of music. The formation of their choir reflects music’s reach beyond ages, careers, and places of birth.
During our collaboration with Vox Cordis, I got to hear about their respective music journeys. Alejandro, one of the close friends I made, sang me a few of the beautiful songs he composed and told me that he would love to record them, but doing so is too inaccessible and expensive. Still, he is studying music at school and plans to pursue a career in it, posting videos of his music on social media platforms for others to enjoy.
Emily, another Vox Cordis member, told me about her passion for opera music and how she juggles performing with her job as a physical therapist. She has a positive impact on her community whether that be by helping someone walk again or giving the gift of music. Emily even introduced me to her vocal coach who she views as part of her family, emphasizing how music creates so much love between people.
Vox Cordis truly is a group for the community, by the community. Members use rehearsals and performances as an outlet for their musical passions and offer their work to the public. They put on free concerts, sing at masses at a local church, and use Instagram and YouTube as ways of spreading their music further.
I loved asking the locals what their favorite type of music is. Some answers were relatively universal and expected, like Reggaeton, but I was surprised by the number of people who responded with artists like Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Ella Fitzgerald. The love for older but classic singers and songs was something that we could all relate to, indicating the power of these artists in creating music that transcends borders.
Their love for these English-speaking musicians, however, does not sideline their love for Cuban music. One of the most popular songs in Cuba is “Chan Chan,” which we had the honor of hearing different versions of live. Inspired by traditional folklore, it tells the story of Juanita and Chan Chan, two lovers who sift sand in search of gold to help themselves out of poverty. The composer of the song, Compay Segundo, said, “I play that music because it’s history,” and he knows that music can play a powerful role in teaching younger generations about their roots.
I asked Alejandro if he ever gets bored of singing and listening to “Chan Chan.” Without hesitation, he told me no because it is a song he can feel in his soul: How can you get sick of a song that always comes from the heart?
Within Vox Cordis, there was always at least one person with a guitar, ready to casually play “Bailando” or “Rolling in the Deep,” songs that we all recognized. During our beach day with Vox Cordis, one of the members brought a speaker to play some of his favorite songs. When the speaker died, there was no cause for concern: one of the guys just started playing his guitar and we supplied our own music, dancing, laughing, and singing together.
We also had the opportunity to meet with Síntesis, a Latin-Grammy-winning music group that sings Cuban contemporary music. The group is best known for its unique combinations of jazz, rock, and African music that had been brought to Cuba centuries ago. The blend of different aspects of Cuban history and culture in their music serves as a connection to the past. In that sense, music is timeless and reaches across generations.
Prior to this trip, it was hard for me to grasp that these moments could exist between people who are deemed to be so different, but the power of music is stronger than the political factors that try to divide us. Through my time with Vox Cordis and other Cuban musicians, I connected with those from entirely different backgrounds because of our shared love for music.
In today’s world full of hate and stigma, it was refreshing to be able to bond with people and focus on the things that bring us together, like music. The value of and love for music never falters in the lives of the people we meet, and I have a new understanding of music’s place at the core of humanity. It bridges us despite our differences. A Vox Cordis member told me that Cubans always have a smile on their face, and during my time in Cuba, a smile never left mine.