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Cuba is famous for its music. A lot of people have heard of artists like the Buena Vista Social Club and Celia Cruz. But the country also has a long history of cultivating classical composers and performers. On a recent trip to Cuba, I met one group that stands out.
In a country as stereotyped for its machismo as it is for its mambos, you might think an all-female classical ensemble would face an uphill struggle. But Cuban conductor Zenaida Romeu says that's not so.
"Everybody thinks that Cuban music is just guitar, bass and guiro," she says. "But we have more examples for large orchestras, for ensembles, for choir — we have a very big, intense musical life here."
Romeu founded her group, Camerata Romeu, 23 years ago. She wanted to show off the parity between men and women she saw in her native country.
"Even in the 20th century, women had formed orchestras, and had been involved in the culture," she says. "At that time, I was in Spain, and I felt that the woman was not involved in society as we had had here, in spite that we are third world, and a tiny country. I felt that we had something to share with the world."
Romeu was the first Cuban woman to graduate from Havana's conservatory as an orchestral conductor, a fact about which she is very proud. And that conservatory helps feed her orchestra. Young women generally join her group when they're about 20 years old, and they say that they love collaborating together.
Yadira Cobo Rodriguez is the leader of the second violins and a composer herself. She's been playing with the orchestra for 14 years. She says there's a special energy to it.
"Men have more strength, and women, you have a different feeling," Cobo says. "It's more angelic, more comfortable."
Camerata Romeu is a string orchestra — made up of violins, violas, cellos and basses. And it plays the standard repertoire, like Vivaldi, Mozart and Grieg. But Romeu says some of the best composers from Cuba and beyond have written for her group, including Brazil's Egberto Gismonti (with whom they have recorded for ECM) and Cubans like Leo Brouwer and Guido López-Gavilán, who heads the organization of the contemporary music festival for which I had traveled to Havana in the first place, and whose Camerata en Guaguanco has become a signature piece for the Camerata Romeu.
"So this is a privilege, because they work a lot in silence, in solitude, and they have a destiny: our orchestra," Romeu says. "Now, the literature of a string orchestra is bigger than when I founded the orchestra. So any orchestra now could be interested. If they are interested in playing Cuban music, I have music to share with them."
Camerata Romeu hasn't had a chance to share with listeners in the United States, though, since 2001.
"Well, I have a dream to return to the U.S. We have been four times there ... but before the year the towers fell down," Romeu says.
"After that, we had a silent time in between our countries," she continues. "So it's a dream to renew the relationships, the cultural relationships, and we can go again. We want to open again those spaces for our orchestra. We have been working hard all this time. I would like to share this music, and the happiness of doing music."
With any luck, Camerata Romeu will be one of the groups to benefit from the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.