CUBA AND MONTANA: MAKING MUSIC ACROSS CULTURES

BY EMILY STIFLER WOLFE

Doug Wales was still the marketing director at Bridger Bowl Ski Area when he was detained by the Cuban police. It was May Day, 2013, in Santiago de Cuba, where hundreds of thousands march for International Workers’ Day. Wales had packed up his recording equipment and drums after Bridger closed for the season, heading to Cuba on a “cultural research visa” to interview playwrights, artists and musicians about the effects of the U.S. embargo on their culture.

“I really just wanted to go down and play with Cuban street musicians,” he admits.

Two years earlier on his first trip to Cuba, Wales had met some of Santiago’s prominent musicians and artists, and they’d invited him to march in the parade. But when he showed up the morning of the event, a policeman approached. After a broken exchange about his business in Cuba and his visa, which he’d left in his room, Wales ended up in the emigration office, where he recognized the plainclothes officers sitting across from him.

“All this time I was aware I was being followed, that people were paying attention to me, but never really how much,” he said. The cops quizzed him about Cuban musicians and asked what Montanans thought of then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Finally, five hours after he was picked up, the captain asked Wales to describe the Cuban people in three words. His response was his ticket out: “Intelligent, passionate and traditional.”

Wales, 63, has now visited Cuba seven times, and what started as one man’s adventure has grown to something much larger. Bringing together dozens of musicians in both countries, the Montana-Havana Bridge Project has produced music in Cuba and Montana, and through remote digital recording sessions. KGLT Community Radio in Bozeman released the group’s first song on July 25, 2015, the day the Cuban Embassy opened in Washington, D.C.; they’ve since completed 10 songs and have 10 more in the works. The project speaks to friendships forged through music making, the human need for freedom of expression, and the capacity for art to bring us together during a time of great polarization. Because recording continues whether they’re in the same country or not—Cubans can- not legally travel to the U.S., and it’s not exactly easy for Americans to get to Cuba—this kind of social bridge feels all the more relevant in a world where physical distancing is part
of the lexicon.

“We are trying to generate new material that talks about the relationships between us … the traditions and the things we like about the other country,” says Jake Fleming, a prominent Bozeman musician who plays in and co-produces the group.

“We are trying to generate new material that talks about the relationships between us … the traditions and the things we like about the other country.”

They call the music Cubusa, a portmanteau of Cuba and USA pronounced “Koo-boo-sa.” The “genre,” if you can call it that, is wide ranging. Classical flamenco guitar curls into tantalizing Salsa rhythms and high-energy Reggaeton, which melds, in turn, with Native American singing and drumming, Hendrix-esque electric solos, and powerful female vocals from both Cuban and American singers. Their YouTube videos show how important music is to Cuban culture—that in fact it is the culture—from street and traditional dance to choreographed performances by the internationally renowned Cutumba folkloric troupe.

Cubusa works in part because of Cuban music’s pluralistic roots. The polyrhythmic percussion inherited from the Congo and other parts of West Africa, plus the melodies from Spain and Francophile Haiti fuse easily with many music genres. And Cubans, isolated for so long by Castro’s communist regime, are hungry for more cultural interactions with their U.S. neighbors. Tales of this connection weave through the Montana-Havana lyrics, sourced directly from the experience of getting to know one another through music.

There is the classical guitarist Aquiles Jorge, who facilitated many of Wales’s early interviews and subsequent introductions. Jorge, 53, played regularly for the Castros, but his heart is all rock and roll. In one Montana-Havana mu- sic video, he stands backward in the front seat of a red 1957 Chevy convertible taxi, playing the Stratocaster Fleming just gifted him. Jorge’s long hair whips out from under his black do-rag as he grins.

“ … When I was a young student they had forced me at school to listen to Cuban music because Rock is the music of the ‘imperialist enemy,’” Jorge wrote in an email, “but that Rock is what I love, because I am a Rebel and in the world Rock is the true music of Rebels and Revolutionaries.”

And there’s the Cuban reggaetón phenom Raynier “El Médico” Griñán, a performer whose story of abandoning his duty as State physician to play music was portrayed in an award-winning 2011 documentary. With his street style and catchy lyrics, Griñán, 42, joined the project in 2017, bringing sex appeal and his massive following in Cuba and Europe.

In 2019, they brought in Native American singer, drummer and activist Shane Doyle of the Crow tribe, as well as indigenous Cuban musicians descended from the pre-Columbian Taíno people. At this point, Wales had recently retired from Bridger Bowl after 28 years, and was headfirst into music. It was then, while working with Fleming to fuse some of the oldest known songs in North America with some of the world’s most influential music traditions, he realized this project had potential to carry a larger message. No longer just about bringing together two cultures, it was also a chance to use music to speak out about climate change.

Which is when Kali Armstrong appeared. The 30-year-old granddaughter of astronaut Neil Armstrong, she studied ecology at Montana State University and recently started singing with the Bozeman group Pinky and the Floyd. Wales and Fleming happened to be working on a song honoring an astronaut’s perspective looking back at Earth when they met her. Swept up in the energy of the project, Armstrong sang atop the dramatic orchestral strings, guitar, percussion and electric bass on “Sensual Blue Delight,” recording it in one session. In the music video, wearing a zip-up hoody, hair pulled back under her recording headphones, she comes across as so very Bozeman, and yet absolutely transcendent, her voice clear and powerful, as if she were speaking for Mother Earth herself.

After the inauspicious start, the project now has the blessing of Santiago’s Minister of Culture, and local group members recently showcased one of the Montana-Havana promo films as one of the major cultural undertakings coming out of the province.

“We’re all feeding from this common inspiration, and we’re artists because we want to share,” Armstrong said. “Collaborating with people from another culture is the cool- est thing in the world, especially if they’re speaking another language. You have to focus on the rhythm and the timbre and where they’re putting their heart.”

As humanity battles a pandemic and faces down climate change, we can learn from this kind of cross-cultural under- standing. Indeed, it may be the only thing that will allow us to survive.

Emily Stifler Wolfe is a writer, climber and skier who lives in Bozeman, Montana. She was the founding editor of Mountain Outlaw. Find more of her work at emilystiflerwolfe.com.