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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

UTSA Guitar Ensemble Catches Cuban Beat

A UTSA quartet that went to Cuba to perform made a connection that went beyond performing. For the students and their professor, Matthew Dunne, music became the universal language.

Cuban street scene

The students spent a week in Havana, Cienfuegos and Pinar Del Rio, playing concerts in each. Besides their formal appearances, the group also played in several schools. Before performing for students though, the students would perform for them.

"A pretty emotional moment for me was seeing the kids play.”

That’s Abram Fernandez. He speaks the most Spanish and would introduce the UTSA students to the Cubans.

“l think that was my favorite part of the trip. We went to this elementary school--young kids, young, young kids, 12 years old--and there was some raw talent there."  

Ashley Lucero.

"They would play this instrument called the Tres. So it has six strings but they're grouped into twos. And there were 8 year-olds, 7 year-old playing this instrument so well.  The musical culture there--they value it.

UTSA Guitar Ensemble with Cuban hosts

Dan Schumacher says the Cuban students and teachers treated them like rock stars.

"And we just like walked in the room and all of the students just stood up and applauded. It was really heartwarming, and everybody just wanted to cry, and when we all played for one another it was just amazing."

"It was so exciting to see these young kids so involved in music and have a great understanding of rhythm.   They played some really complicated music."

Ashley says she will always remember their graciousness.

UTSA Guitar Ensemble with Cuban teachers and students

"We were given all sorts of things after performances. We were always given flowers; it was so nice."  

One of the trip's high points — for All the UTSA students — was playing for Cuban guitar master Leo Brouwer.   

"That I got a positive reaction and walked away with a lot of advice and material from such a great mind--I was elated."  

Here's Dan.

"Ashley and me--we both played original compositions. He just really liked them. He didn't try to get us to write in a different style. It seemed like he really understood what we were working for."

Dan Schumacher, Matthew Dunne, Leo Brouwer, Ashley Lucero, Aaiden Witten, Abram Fernandez

Brouwer himself is just so funny, he's so laid back and he's such a really nice person.

Brouwer said something to Aaiden that shocked him.

"He called me a professional guitarist--I've never been called that before. When you hear a master tell you something like that you really...when you put so much time and passion...that really means a lot."

Each student's experience had different highlights. Ashley looks back fondly on Cuba's street art.  

"I think that my favorite part was just walking up and down the streets of Old Havana and getting to see all the buildings. Art was everywhere. The street art was, in itself, amazing."

street scene in Havana

One of Dan's favorite moments was trying to teach young Cubans how to whistle.

"And so it was a bunch of 6 year-olds going like (makes failed whistling sounds) like blowing into their hands trying to make...I dunno...I got a little teary-eyed."  

Because guitar strings are hard to find in Cuba, before going there, Dr. Dunne contacted the D'addario Guitar String company, which quickly donated a hundred set of strings to give away.

"Yeah, they went fast. That's for sure.  I wish it had been a thousand sets of strings."

Everybody thinks there may be a follow-up Cuban trip for the ensemble, and Abram says Dr. Dunne wants to take something else in addition to strings.

Galy Martin, Matthew Dunne, Aaiden Witten, Dan Schumacher, Abram Fernandez, Ashley Lucero on the oceanside walkway called El Malecon.

"He has this idea of donating wood so they could make classical guitars, because the big problem there is they don't have good wood."

"There is a good guitar-maker in Cuba that can build concert guitars but has no access to wood. So maybe what we should do is bring some wood, some tone wood for this luthier."

There was one thing about the Cuban trip Aaiden really didn't like.

"It was leaving. I wasn't ready. I don't think seven days was quite enough. We had all these amazing performances. And those were possibly the most emotional. I just wanted to stay so bad."

Havana street scene

Dunne says despite the stress and overwork, the students did San Antonio proud.

"They were first class ambassadors. And I think they're even closer, honestly, after this trip."

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii