After a semi-sound sleep, we ate a quick breakfast and headed over to Abdala Studios. Having just found out that we would be interviewed by the National TV station, Cuba TV, the night before (Bob Lord, Parma’s CEO, had told me the good news over dinner), I went over a few staple lines about our Cuba trip. My favorite quote is inspired by a line from President John F Kennedy "Art knows no national boundaries", so we hope that our music transcends any political differences and speaks directly to the Cuban people.
We arrived at the studio, and went directly to Recording Room No. 1. It was similar to what I had expected from the pictures and descriptions...expansive, a little out-dated but fully equipped with modern technology. The control room was adorned with huge panels and equipment. However, the acoustics were much drier than we had anticipated. Shifting locations in the hall, though, we found a location that worked well. We could hear ourselves individually and collectively in this sweet spot, and in the end, it was a pleasant place to record.
The technicians set up and composer Art Gottschalk arrived. I’ll never forget seeing him for the first time in Cuba, holding a big plastic bag full of new printer paper. (Staples like paper, soap, toilet paper, etc. are very hard to come by in Cuba due to the government and embargo.) Art seemed like he was right at home.
As we set up, camera crews from Cuba TV arrived. The reporter, Maritsa Rodriguez, talked to Anabel and I about what to expect in the interview. Things were a bit hectic for a while, but eventually the crews set up and the interview began. Maritsa asked the questions in Spanish to Anabel, who then translated into English for me, after which I responded in English with Anabel providing the Spanish translation. The questions mainly had to do with why were in Cuba, what Apollo Chamber Players is all about, and details about the cross-cultural concert at the National Museum of Fine Arts later in that week. We literally had found out five minutes prior to the interview that this cultural exchange program included a Cuban string quartet as well! This makes complete sense as a true exchange, as it were, and we were excited for this collaboration. This turned out to be the first joint concert featuring American and Cuban chamber musicians in 50+ years - an honor to be a part of this historic event. Leonardo, the first violinist of Cuarteto Amadeo Roldan, was that ensemble’s spokesperson.
Click here or watch Cuba TV segment below, aired on 1/17/17 for a viewing audience of millions.
After the camera crews left, we finished setting up and began rehearsing with Adel Gonzales, our Cuban percussionist. He was short, dark skinned, and had curly brown hair with silver streaks. He was quite nice, and we could tell right away that he was going to be amazing to play with. However, it took some logistics to figure out exactly where he would set up in relation to the quartet. At first, he was in a sound booth about 10 feet away, but it felt weird not being able to hear or interact with him. Eventually, we had him set up right in front of us, which worked out MUCH better for ensemble. We rehearsed the third movement, Timba, of Imagenes de Cuba once or twice...Adel was seeing the music for the first time, but he caught on very quickly.
This was a recording session like no other we've experienced. The producer, Dayron, would come out and give Adel suggestions - where to enter, which instruments to use and even where to hit on the conga for the best color/timbre. Every one of his suggestions worked better. It was also very helpful to have composer Art Gottschalk present to provide direction and to be the ultimate authority on musical decisions. As a quartet, we knew the piece so well, having performed it (or sections of it) 40-50 times since the premiere in May 2016. This was SUPER helpful, as we were able to record larger sections of the piece at a time, followed by small section edits. It's optimal to be able to do this for musical continuity.
At one point, Dayron the Cuban producer came out of the control room, exasperated that we couldn't get the 'groove' of a particularly gnarly section of the piece (see below picture). He whipped out his guitar and started singing a Cuban song for us. We joined in, and after 5 minutes or so we got the idea. Our guests in the control room got a kick out of this!
The first session began at 11am and finished at the 4pm. Five hours straight with no break! We were getting tired, but also hitting our groove. Matt Dudzik, our cellist, had not been feeling well (and in fact had a temperature of 102 the night before we left for Havana), but he valiantly powered through the session. After one more run of the third movement, we took break for lunch.
Abdala Recording studio has a small restaurant and bar outside of the main room. We ate lunch here - chicken (very bland and overcooked), black beans and white rice (pretty good) and sparkling water. We chatted with Art about the session but also about Cuba in general...this was his 5th or so trip to Cuba and he is very much the expert. He explained why he had brought a shopping bag filled with reams of printer paper - commodities like this are in such short supply in Cuba. He told us that on every trip he brings paper, toilet paper, pens, etc. and gives to his friends and contacts here. We were able to connect to the internet, and Lydia (our publicist) and myself posted a couple quick pictures from the earlier session. I was not able to check my email, but all the better not to get sucked in that rabbit hole.
We finished lunch and Dayron encouraged us to begin again, pronto. I wondered how we were going to make it through the first and second movements of the piece, being 7 and 6 minutes respectively. (In fact, at the end of the previous session Dayron and Bob Lord, Parma's CEO, asked if we wanted to record the rest of the piece on Wednesday..we nixed that idea and I'm so glad we were able to power through the sessions in one day.) At 4pm we started again with the first movement, Manisero, and did two complete runs. These went fairly well, and we proceeded to do section work. We took another break at 5pm and listened to some of the takes in the control room with the engineers and producers. Mostly good takes, even listening to the audio in its 'rawest' form.
The control room was nothing like I've seen in an American recording studio. It had multiple screens towards the front, with one large and cavernous control panel below. The main audio engineer sat at the station in front of this large panel, with Dayron standing behind instructing. There was another cabinet-like panel in the middle of the room with older (and I presume retired) devices - screens, old equalizers, etc.
At the very back was a worn but comfortable leather couch and some chairs where we and other guests sat to watch the magic happen.
We began the last recording segment at 5:15pm - we had only the second movement of the piece to finish up. We did two complete takes, with just a few comments (ensemble for pizzicatos, phrasing) and then worked a more elusive section towards the end of the piece. I wish we would have had a bit more direction from the producers and even Art the composer - the four of us worked out issues that we heard - but I think they were pleased with what they heard and perhaps we were being too finicky. This is usually the case with musicians. The final aspect to the session was to have Adel dub the conga part over the last section of the third movement. Since he's only one person, he could only play one (or two) instruments at a time during the session with us. We choose three of the best takes from that section, to give us options in post-production, and he laid down the takes in under 10 minutes. As he came out of the recording hall, we spotted a glass of what we thought was rum, but turned out to be whiskey! That's how musicians role in Cuba.
That's A Wrap! We finished up the session at 6:30pm and captured the moment with a few pictures and videos.
We celebrated with glasses of 7-year Havana rum at the studio bar and chatted about the experience, relieved and satisfied.
Notable quotations from the recording session:
"We need more cowbell!" composer Art Gottschalk, requesting more of this iconic instrument at the start of the third movement of Imagenes de Cuba.
"No quartet in Cuba could play this piece this well." Cuban producer Dayron Ortega, after the initial run of the first movement of Imagenes de Cuba.
"It is wonderful and an honor to hear the (famous) Cuban song Guantanamera used in such a creative and respectful way." Producer Dayron Ortega, on the incorporation of this song's motive into the second movement of Imagenes de Cuba.
We slept in a bit on Sunday, tired from traveling the previous day. However, we awoke to find breakfast prepared for us: eggs, ham, cheese, fresh bread and juice, and Cuban coffee. Our house included the services of two maids - one who cooked breakfast for us, and the other who cleaned and coordinated the schedule for the security guards. We had 24-hour security guards, working in 12-hour shifts. We were later told that this was only a precaution, that the chances of theft or crime were next to nothing. (This neighborhood was one of the safest, and like in Thailand, minor infractions come with steep penalties.)
After breakfast we headed to Old Havana to walk along the Obisbo, one of the main tourist attraction areas of Havana. Our driver for non-Parma related activities was named Ronnie. Ronnie drove a 1957 Chevy, sky blue and rigged with a sound system, sub-woofers, and an iPhone 6+ jury rigged into the cigarette lighter. Amazing to see this intersection of classic cars and modern technology! Classic cars are everywhere in Cuba - as a result of the embargo, these are the only American-made cars on the streets, from pre-1960. (The remaining automobiles are from Germany, China, Russia, or Korea.) It was not uncommon to see the classic cars broken down on the side of the road, their owners fashioning some sort of replacement part. However, the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’ was challenged at all times. Case in point: The van hired by Parma as our main means of transportation was a Mercedes, with over 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) on its odometer!
Our Cuba trip is upon us. With a mixture of excitement and nervousness, we head to Houston’s main airport, IAH. Our departure time is 12:30pm, but we arrive three hours early to take care of special paperwork for Cuba travel as well as any delays. For travel to Cuba, one must purchase a special tourist visa ($50-$75) as well as travel heath insurance. As musicians, we were also required to purchase a special ‘cultural visa’, which allowed us to legally perform in Cuba. (These were $100/each, $400 total for the four of us.)
Our flight was on-time, and we furiously sent last minute emails and text messages, not knowing when our next internet ‘fix’ would be. (As it turned out, we were able to procure internet access only once during the week, at Abdala Studios.) About 15 minutes after boarding and heading toward the runway, we were told there was a mechanical issue - back to the gate! We had to deplane, and then re-board another aircraft. I sent a complaint tweet to United Airlines about the situation, and they responded within minutes. The second attempt was successful, and we were off to Havana! After arriving at the Havana airport, we deplaned and were able to exit the aircraft through the back as well as the front. Quite efficient. We were greeted by airport technicians and escorted into the terminal.
We arrived at our casa, a beautiful and grand colonial home from the 1920’s, recently renovated (in 2003). This was our ‘humble’ abode for the week. It had three bedrooms, a large sitting room, living room, study, and back porch area. What looked like a pool was covered with a thin layer of concrete - we also later learned that private pools are illegal in Cuba due to water shortages. Apparently, a neighbor had snitched and told the authorities, and the owner of our house (an Austrian named Cristian, who rents via Airbnb) had to drain the water and fill with concrete.
After settling in to our new digs, we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Our first Cuban meal was one of the best - succulent and humongous grilled lobster, with black beans and rice, plantains, grilled pork, and Cuba Libre cocktails. The legend is true: Cuban rum is all its cracked up to be…smooth, flavorful, and delicious. After indulging in our Cuban cuisine, we paid our bill (on par with an American meal, perhaps a little cheaper) and headed back to the house.
On the way there, we saw flashing disco lights and heard music which became louder and louder as we got closer to home…turns out the house directly in front of ours was holding a ticketed music event in the backyard. Why not check out a house party in Cuba, we said? After paying the entrance fee (5 CUC’s) we were led to the back of the house, where a DG was spinning records and conducting a light show. Pretty fun stuff. We had a few drinks and chatted with fellow party-goers. Most spoke very good english, and were eager to learn about us and America. (We were the only Americans there.) One young 20-something male said that his dream was to study in the states to become a scuba-diver and marine biologist. At around midnight, we said goodbye to our newfound friends and headed back to the house for our first slumber.