Photographing A Musical Exchange Between New Orleans And Havana

Jan 30, 2020

Last week, the New Orleans bands Tank and the Bangas and The Soul Rebels traveled to Havana to participate in a cultural exchange; it was meant to acknowledge the past by celebrating the present.

New Orleans and Havana are connected through history. Spain ruled both during a four-decade period in the late 1700s, and the two port cities traded more than commerce on the maritime route.

Members of The Soul Rebels, Tank and the Bangas and Trombone Shorty play music through the streets of Old Havana.
Eliana Aponte for NPR
Cuban singer Erik Iglesias Rodriguez (left), who performs as Cimafunk, talks with women on the street in Havana.
Eliana Aponte for NPR

An indomitable musical culture survived the tragedy of the international slave trade, as enslaved people clung to the familiar in the face of immorality and unspeakable violence. Those traditions influenced the music in both cities and made a lasting connection.

At the invitation of the Cuban artist Cimafunk, musicians from two seemingly different cultures, many of whom were previously unaware of this connection, did a deep dive into these musical bonds.

And it was physically impossible to not be picturesque.

Cherice Harrison-Nelson, the Big Queen of the Mardi Gras Indians group the Guardians of the Flame, sits in traffic on a taxi bike.
Eliana Aponte for NPR
In the streets of Old Havana, Cuban dancers perform to a conga played by New Orleans musicians during a jazz festival.
Eliana Aponte for NPR
American musicians Darnell Simms and Jason Williams (left) from the Trombone Shorty Foundation teach at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory as Cuban students Landi Peña Gonzalez and Jonathan Mendoza Valle (right) play along.
Eliana Aponte for NPR

Havana recently celebrated its 500-year anniversary, so this cultural exchange took place amid the same grand buildings and narrow streets that once accommodated horses and carriages. It was also celebrated on stages that birthed more than one Cuban musical revolution.

Members of the ballet and dance company Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba perform on the streets of Old Havana.
Eliana Aponte for NPR
Cuban musicians from the Trombone Shorty Foundation play at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory.
Eliana Aponte for NPR

The centerpiece of the events was a massive New Orleans second line parade through the streets of Havana Vieja, the oldest part of this historic city. Cubans jammed the doorways and balconies along the route to take in the visual spectacle; many others joined the celebration while adapting Cuban dance steps to fit the second line shuffle.

Music in these two cities serves the dual function of celebration and spiritual connector, giving the people a way to embrace life and the search for the divine.

The faces in this photo essay were taken by Eliana Aponte and edited by Laura Beltrán Villamizar to capture the magic that was a week in Havana.

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