by Jeff Torchon

Since I can remember, Cuba has always been off-limits – an island isolated from the United States by government, ideology and the embargo. To this day, Cuba remains a mystery to the vast majority of Americans.

Geographically, it is 90 short miles away from Key West, but in terms of its culture and way of life, it is thousands of miles away. In Cuba, there are no supermarkets, no advertising and no chains of any kind (Starbucks and McDonalds are nonexistent!). You won’t find people walking around with “to-go” containers for food or coffee.

Credit Cards are only used by foreigners, and Internet usage is at a premium. Cell phones are beginning to be commonplace, but nothing fancy like we have in America.

Most shockingly, there are three main problems in Cuba: a housing shortage, a food shortage and a job shortage. Until very recently, Cubans were not even allowed to own their cars or homes.

Regardless of occupation, doctors, lawyers and trash collectors are all paid the same salary: $20-$25 CUCs a month (equivalent to the same in USD). Cuban citizens working in the tourism industry make more money through tips and external resources, but these are the lucky ones.

The Cuban government controls all aspects of everyday life, and the simplest things that Americans take for granted are rare commodities. It is truly a third-world country in all respects, with a first-world culture and a population full of the friendliest people on the planet.

My interest in Cuba began many years ago when I first heard the music of this beautiful island in a documentary entitled “Buena Vista Social Club.” This film tells the story of older Cuban musicians who were forgotten about for many years after the Cuban Revolution and chronicles their work to revitalize Cuban music on the world stage during the mid 1990’s.

The music presented resonated with me in such a way that no music had ever done before. It was infectious, intriguing, innovative and – most of all – magical. The sounds contained a melting pot of West African, European and Spanish cultures, and this piqued my curiosity – I just had to know more.

Shortly after viewing the film, I made the decision that I wanted to travel to Cuba to study the music and the culture that I had fallen so in love with. I had no clue of how to make a trip like this happen, or even if it was possible, but I started the long process of discovering the possibilities.

I spent months investigating and researching how an American citizen could travel to Cuba legally, and what I found was an incredibly intricate and complex process, which I outline below.

Penalties for illegal travel

For many Americans, the impossibility of legal travel to Cuba equates to intrigue and desire. Many Americans have made the trip through either Canada or Mexico, but it is very much illegal. An American citizen can be fined and/or imprisoned for this illegal activity. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is under the auspices of the United States Treasury Department, regulates these restrictions.

The law does not say that it is illegal to travel to Cuba, but rather that it is illegal to spend money on anything related to Cuba (travel, lodging, etc.). OFAC does, however, grant travel licenses to US citizens who qualify for certain religious activities, humanitarian activities and/or educational activities. Each category has strict regulations dictating exactly who can and cannot travel (a 50-page PDF on the OFAC website outlines these guidelines).

These regulations have constantly changed, depending on which president is currently in the White House. When President Obama took office in 2008, he added another category known as “people-to-people activities,” which allow for U.S. travel agencies to apply for licenses to offer legal trips to Cuba for American citizens.

These trips are strictly regulated by OFAC and are not meant to be tourist excursions, but are explicitly for the purpose of promoting cultural and educational exchanges with the Cuban people. It is through these trips that I have been fortunate enough to travel to Cuba three times in the past year and a half.

As one can probably imagine, traveling to Cuba as an American can be exciting, but also very different. It is a place full of dichotomies and a place that requires a great deal of preparation prior to travel. I was overwhelmed by all of the logistical details: bringing enough cash to cover my costs (access to U.S. bank accounts is impossible), bringing medical supplies that are not easily obtainable in Cuba (Tylenol, Band-Aids, Tums, Neosporin), and the process of flying on a charter flight from Miami to Havana.

The check-in process is all done by hand and takes about four hours to complete prior to going through security. Regardless of all of these obstacles, traveling to Cuba is a magical experience that one does not soon forget.

Finally, after years of preparation and work, I was able to take my first trip to Cuba in June 2012. I participated in a people-to-people trip run by Insight Cuba, a travel company that runs these types of trips for American citizens. The trip was entitled the “Havana Jazz Experience” and included a full itinerary of educational and cultural activities that heavily revolved around Cuban music (both traditional and jazz).

The trip’s itinerary included excursions to Cuban-Jazz concerts each night, as well as people-to-people contact during the day. These daytime activities included visiting: Habana Vieja (Old Havana), artist studios, the neighboring province of Matanzas to attend a private presentation of Afro-Cuban music and dance, as well as performances and interactions with neighborhood children at the local community center.

All of our events were opportunities to learn about Cuban culture, while also giving the Cuban people an opportunity to learn about America and the American people. Our itinerary was carefully crafted to limit our interaction with the Cuban government and devote most of our time to interactive cultural activities.

One of the main reasons I traveled to Cuba was to go to the source of the music that has become a passion in my life. Music is everywhere in Cuba, and you can hear it whether you expect to or not.

The streets of Havana Vieja have roving musical groups singing and playing guitar, the restaurants have similar groups performing, and the hotel lobbies have musical groups performing each night. There is nothing like traveling to the origin of musical traditions, and I gained a great deal of insight into the history and performance practice of Cuban music.

Jazz popular in Cuba

In addition to listening to music, I was also given multiple opportunities to perform with Cuban musicians. Something very ironic is that I had my heart set on playing traditional Cuban music with these musicians, yet the Cuban musicians had their hearts set on playing American Jazz.

We compromised and played a little bit of both. These musical interactions were simply magnificent because music is a universal language. I am certainly able to communicate by speaking Spanish, but to be able to sit down at the piano, say the name of a song and play it with the band without saying anything else, is truly magical.

In traditional Cuban music, as with American jazz, there are many different ways to play the same song. Nobody knew which version would be performed when we joined together, but the power of listening and teamwork made this uncertainty go away and allowed the music to prevail. These interactions are experiences I will never forget.

During my second trip in December 2013, I traveled to Havana on a trip run by PlazaCuba, a wonderful organization based in California. This was also a people-to-people trip, planned around the Havana International Jazz Festival, which is held each December in Havana.

It is a phenomenal mixture of Cuban music, jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz and other musical styles that involve musicians from all over the world, including the United States and Europe. The level of musical talent was incredible; something I have never experienced before in my life. The festival was held in the evening at four separate venues, each with four or five bands performing each night.

In July 2013, I returned to Cuba for my third trip. I spent two weeks traveling across the entire island by way of bus. This trip was again organized by Insight Cuba and was entitled “Undiscovered Cuba.” By all accounts, this trip truly explored areas of Cuba that many people do not get to see.

My journey began in Havana, and moved eastward, traveling to a new city every two or three days. This was a wonderful opportunity to explore the entirety of Cuba and allowed me to see the many different ways that Cubans live, both in the cities and in the countryside.

Each city has a vibrant history and culture unique to that particular location. One of the cities that we visited was on the eastern tip of the island; a city named Baracoa. It is a remote city that takes five hours to travel to from the nearest town.

This is due to the windy mountain roads that lead to the city. Supposedly, this was the first place Christopher Columbus landed during his travels in 1492 and the only location in Cuba where you can still find remnants of the indigenous people who lived on the island prior to Spanish settlement.

This recent trip gave me a true holistic view of Cuban society and allowed me to see what is beyond the seemingly normal life of Cubans living in Havana. Life is a great deal more difficult in the smaller and more remote parts of the island, but I was still amazed at the ingenuity of the Cubans that we did meet. These people may not have much, but they make the best of their difficult situation. Cuba is full of so much beauty, and I feel that this trip allowed me to explore this beauty on all levels.

Trips like these change a person. They have shown me how enduring the human spirit is and the incredible wealth of experience that traveling to another country can provide. I feel it is vitally important to share these experiences with as many people as possible, including the Germantown Friends School community.

I have brought back field recordings from the streets of Cuba, authentic instruments, pictures, videos, and stories. I am able to share all of these media with my students in the sixth-grade music curriculum. We cover an entire unit on Cuban music, studying different styles of the music, history, famous musicians, rhythms, and traditional music.

It is one thing to teach about a culture that you have read about and from which you have heard recordings of music, but it is quite another to teach about the culture by actually experiencing it firsthand.

My overall goal for this article is simple: to provide a clear picture of Cuba to as many people as possible. So much of what we know as a nation about Cuba is rooted in the Cuban Embargo, Fidel Castro, Communism, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the overarching political issues surrounding the country.

Few people know about the rest of Cuba: the people, the music, the beauty and the culture. I hope that when you are finished reading this article, you can at least say to yourself: “Now I understand. Cuba is much more than meets the eye.” It would be even better if you ask the question: “How can I learn more about this island that is truly lost in time?” If either of these things happens, my job is done.

Jeff Torchon teaches music at Germantown Friends School. For any questions about Cuba or if you have an interest in traveling to the island for cultural, educational, religious or humanitarian purposes, contact him at jtorchon@gfsnet.org or 215-450-1349.