Copperbridge festival of Cuban culture in Miami offers engagement with island artists

 

Weeklong festival of Cuban culture is as much about breadth and depth as it is music and dance

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By Jordan Levin | jlevin@miamiherald.com

The Copperbridge “Cultural Evolution” festival, opening Thursday, promises a weeklong smorgasbord of Cuban culture — with concerts by renowned Afro-Cuban-rock band Sintesis and modern dance troupe Danzabierta, visual art exhibits, film screenings, lectures, panel discussions and workshops.

Cuban cultural advocates in Miami have been presenting artists from the island with the aim of fostering exchange and understanding since the mid-’90s. What is new about the Copperbridge festival — the fledgling organization’s first public event — is the breadth of offerings and the sense of immersion in Cuban culture, and a focus on fostering one-on-one dialogue. The festival is full of free workshops, lectures and discussions.

Geo Darder, the group’s founder and director, is building on increasing travel to and from the island enabled by the loosening of rules for Cubans, who can now legally travel outside the island, and five-year visas available from the U.S. government that enable them to come here for an extended time. MalPaso, the Cuban contemporary dance troupe that Darder presented in Miami in June after its highly successful debut in New York in May, will return for a U.S. tour next spring.

“With five-year visas you can come every weekend,” says Darder, a Miami-born Cuban-American who has been organizing cultural trips to the island since the ’90s and travels to Cuba several times a month. “The next wave will be the youth meeting youth. When people meet Cubans here, they want to go see Cuba there.”

Darder is engaging a growing number of Miami groups and individuals with Copperbridge. They include pioneers such as the Miami Light Project, which has frequently presented Cuban groups such as Muñequitos de Matanzas and whose Wynwood space The Light Box will be the venue for most of the festival’s events; and Hugo Cancio, who presented some of the first concerts of Cuban music in Miami in the ’90s and now publishes an arts magazine from an office in Havana (he sponsored a Copperbridge art exhibit this summer). But they also include Swampspace, a quirky Design District independent gallery and creative space run by artist Oliver Sanchez, a Miami-raised Cuban-American who has never participated in such a program before, and Donna Freeman, an African-American jewelry designer and Santeria initiate.

“At the heart of this festival is an open embrace of all of Cuban culture,” says Miami Light executive director Beth Boone, a longtime advocate of open travel and exchange between the United States and Cuba. She says changes in both countries make this a fertile time for Copperbridge’s efforts. “More Cubans — intellectuals, artists — are traveling and going back and forth,” she says. “And people here see they have a right to go to Cuba and formulate their own opinions.”

A relatively new player on Miami’s Cuban cultural scene is the Vedado Social Club, which presents monthly Cuban art events at the Miami News Café that draw several hundred people. Organizers Juan Shamizo, 39, a DJ and radio producer who came from Cuba in 2000, and Monica Hernandez, 23, who was studying art history when she left Cuba three years ago, are publicizing the Copperbridge festival to their audience of mostly Cuban 20- and 30-somethings.

“We are really in love with developing Cuban youth culture,” Shamizo says. “The traditional Cuban culture is being mixed with that of new generations, and Cubans have more access to the exterior than in the past. What we’re seeing is an explosion of these new tendencies, and we want to bring it here.”

Darder is eager to expose what he says is a vital but still raw and nascent youth culture in Havana to its counterpart in Miami.

“There’s a whole movement [in Havana], and the more people travel, the more they want to do things,” he says. “They’re recreating Havana bit by bit. They go away and come back with little crumbs. This is just the beginning.”

Cultural Evolution is focused on Afro-Cuban art and on La Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, whose Santeria counterpart is Oshun, the goddess of love. La Caridad is a powerful universal symbol of Cuban identity, making her a potent emblem for Copperbridge’s mission of uniting people from the island. (The traditional Saint’s Day honoring La Caridad is this Sunday, and Darder will celebrate with a private party at his home.)

“For Cubans all over the world she is one,” he says. “There is no division.”

The exhibit Madre de todos los Cubanos, opening Friday at the Wynwood gallery House of Art, will show works representing La Caridad, including contemporary pieces by Noel Morera, and more traditional images by Nicomedes Diaz Gijon — who specializes in restoring and replicating religious imagery and was commissioned by the Church of Barajagua, the home of the original shrine of La Caridad. Both men will also speak at a lecture Monday afternoon.

But most of the festival events showcase Afro-Cuban culture, and the way the traditions, symbols and rituals of Santeria are adapted into music, dance and visual art. Danzabierta — whom Darder brought to Miami a year ago for a large but private Copperbridge kickoff party — returns with two works by choreographer Susana Pous. Malson (Nightmare) mixes images of Havana with choreography inspired by the dancers’ accounts of their fears and nightmares. Showroom is a surreal portrayal of an elaborate nightclub-style cabaret show, mixed with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the dancers’ preparations and psyche. There will be lectures on Santeria and Yoruba religious traditions, Afro-Cuban dance and music workshops with Danzabierta and Sintesis, and another on jewelry-making incorporating Santeria colors and symbols with designer Freeman.

The most famous guest will be Sintesis, renowned in Cuba and among fans of the island’s music for its mix of Santeria ritual rhythms and melodies with rock and jazz. (The group performed at Miami-Dade County Auditorium in 2012.) Carlos Alfonso, who has led the band since 1978, was raised on classical music but fell in love with Afro-Cuban music when he attended a ceremony as a teenager.

“It gave me goosebumps, just like Beethoven and Bach,” says Alfonso, now 75. An early member of Irakere, another seminal group that fused jazz with Cuban styles, Alfonso brought his knowledge of harmony and musical structure to the powerful rhythms and evocative melodies of Santeria and Afro-Cuban traditions.

“African music and Afro-Cuban music are the most important root of Cuban music,” says Alfonso, who with wife Ele Valdes has led a changing slate of younger musicians in Sintesis. But he says you don’t need to be Cuban to be moved by their music.

“This music reaches everyone because it’s part of almost all music,” he says. “When you look at rock, rap, R&B, blues — all these have roots in Africa. We’ve played for African Americans in L.A., and their first reaction is to stop and look at you, like ‘What’s that you’re playing?!’ They can’t believe it. They’re dancing almost exactly the way they dance in Cuba.”

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