Dr. Kenneth Broadway first thought of the program after visiting Cuba on a mission trip. He said he was struck by how deeply music was integrated into the culture.
A friend, Elio Piedra, he made on the trip connected him with two master percussionists, Benicio Lezcano and Hector Alonzo, and after gauging his students’ interest, he started examining the possibilities.
This summer, University of Florida percussion students and alumni had the opportunity to visit Havana, Cuba, with Broadway, exploring the culture and learning from masters of their craft as part of the UF Drumming in Havana program. This was the program’s first year and provided attendees with a wide range of experiences and unique learning opportunities.
“It really came from a love of the music and a love of the people,” Broadway said.
Broadway believes learning from a distance is inherently limited, so he relished being able to provide students and graduates with the opportunity to experience the culture firsthand.
“It doesn’t matter how many videos you watch,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many lessons people teach. It doesn’t matter how many things I’ve learned. I can’t communicate those ideas to my students the way that they can communicate those ideas to my students. It was very wonderful for me to step back and watch them learn, and for me to learn as well.”
Josh Berlin, a junior music education student at UF, attended the trip and glowed about how valuable the experience was.
“Despite having the language barrier, I feel like they were able to teach all of us so much,” Berlin said. “I don’t think I could have gotten as good of an education on Cuban music from anyone here in the U.S.”
The lessons were not standard classroom lectures, either. The travelers not only got to work with Lezcano and Alonzo, but they even got to perform.
Berlin recalled going to a nightclub called Submarino Amarillo (the Yellow Submarine), which unsurprisingly had Beatles decorations everywhere.
“We were told there would be a live band coming out to play,” he said. “So this band gets on stage, and they start playing Hotel California, and I’m sitting there thinking ‘I’m in a Beatles themed club with a band playing Hotel California in Havana, Cuba’ and it was amazing.”
The band covered all sorts of classic American rock songs, then realized they had a small troupe of drummers in their midst. The band invited one attendee, Patrick Bain, to come up and perform Guns ‘n’ Roses’s Sweet Child O’ Mine with them.
“It was the most amazing night, and I had such a fantastic time singing along to this Cuban cover band that loves the same American music as I do,” Berlin said.
Broadway remembered going to a cultural center to watch a performance. Despite the obvious language barrier, the people at the center welcomed the group as if they were family.
Austin DeVito, an undergraduate percussion student, was invited to come up to play and got an impromptu lesson.
“The way they teach is very different—very hands on—if you did it wrong, they’d slap you on the hands,” Broadway said. “So he’s playing, and they’re slapping him on the hands and holding his arms. It was very different but so refreshing to see the joy in it. It wasn’t done in a way that was violent or mean, but it was just so funny. It reminds me of the old school way, like slapping hands with a ruler but all smiles and laughter.”
One of the biggest takeaways Broadway had from the trip was appreciation for the little things. He recalled visiting conservatories, homes and restaurants that lacked air conditioning and things many Americans would consider basic necessities.
“The passion for musicians and the music they were making was amazing,” he said. “I think it struck all of us that we were very fortunate to have all the things we have, but sometimes we put too much stock in how fancy our equipment is. If we’re not careful, we lose the passion.”
Broadway will organize another trip next year, but he hopes instead of visiting Havana, they will visit Pinar del Rio—a city that is less of a tourist destination but more convenient for the teachers.
Berlin at first was not sure about going, but decided it would be worth the money when he found it would count for three credits. What he ended up coming home with was a lot more than class credit.
“It felt like a week long vacation, but we were still learning the entire time,” he said. “It’s still the only time I’ve been outside the United States, and it was just such an incredible experience. I honestly can’t say enough great things about it. It was one of the best weeks of my entire life.”
To learn more about the program, visit www.abroad.ufic.ufl.edu.