Two years ago, President Obama began softening U.S. relations with Cuba, and earlier this year, more travel restrictions were eased, allowing educational travel to the island nation which had been cut off from America for six decades. Matt Dunne, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, saw an opportunity for him, and his students.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba. And I thought this would be a great way to go, and introduce some of my very favorite students to this beautiful country,” he explained.
An initial solo visit confirmed Dunne’s impressions of Cuba. “The music scene and the level of musicianship in Cuba is just fantastic,” Dunne said. “The students [there] are great, the pros are great, and there’s a lot of fantastic music that’s a blend of different styles and has influences from indigenous Cuban rhythms and African rhythms and so forth.” By working with members of the Cuban government, Dunne plans to take four of his best guitar students to Cuba in March, 2017, to soak up the culture and learn from the masters.
Ashley Lucero, a graduate student at UTSA, is one of the guitarists in the quartet that will be traveling to Cuba. She said she was inspired after hearing from Dunne about the value the Cuban people place on music. As part of the quartet, she and her colleagues will be playing both American and Cuban music for audiences abroad.
One of the pieces on their program will be “Cuba Libre” originally written by Dunne for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. It’s a beautiful work that alternates between a salsa melody and rhythm and beautiful harp-like glissandos. [Hear it in the link below, recorded in the TPR studios.]
“While it’s a challenging piece, it’s really fun to play,” Lucero said. “I think that what I really like about it is how colorful it is… and although I’ve never been to Cuba, I can definitely ‘see’ a lot of it in that piece.”
Guitarist Aaiden Whitten added that the music “has trained us to work on collaborating more, and to communicate. We’re constantly trading notes back and forth.” Dan Schumacher said the piece feels like “a big jigsaw puzzle, if we do it well!”
“I’m really proud of them,” Dunne said, noting the quartet—who have only been working together for four months—rehearse several times a week.
To help them on their journey, the group has a grant from UTSA, but there are still several thousand dollars needed to raise. “It’s surprisingly expensive to go to Cuba. There’s a different currency for tourists than there is for native Cubans. And the tourist currency is quite expensive,” Dunne noted.
The first of several concerts to raise funds for the student trip takes place at 3:00 on December 11 at Heart’s Home Acoustics in Boerne, Texas. There, the group will play some of the music they’re working on while attendees enjoy refreshments. Then, “I’ll ask people to help us get to Cuba. With money, not with a boat!” Dunne joked.
While some of the students will continue their careers by teaching or performing, others in the quartet say they may go into the business side of the music industry after graduation. “Life as a musician is not always a straight line,” Dunne explained. “[But] these students will all learn to to find their own way in music. They understand the value of music and what it means to other people.”
Finally, Dunne said he also had some practical wisdom for the young players before making their trip. "Don't get arrested... and don't end up married in Cuba, either!" Sound advice.
Get a preview of the UTSA Guitar Quartet's concerts and hear more from the students on Performance Saturday this Saturday night, December 3, at 7:00 p.m. on KPAC 88.3 FM.