WWU assistant music professor part of historic trip to Cuba

Western Washington University assistant professor Gustavo Camacho and other members of a visiting brass quintet saw Chevrolets from the 1950s virtually everywhere on the city streets of Cuba.
Western Washington University assistant professor Gustavo Camacho and other members of a visiting brass quintet saw Chevrolets from the 1950s virtually everywhere on the city streets of Cuba. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

When Gustavo Camacho stepped off an airplane that had just landed in Cuba, a mob of greeters welcomed him and his fellow musicians.

“It almost seemed like they were waiting for a rock star to emerge from the airport,” he said.

Neither Camacho, an assistant professor at Western Washington University, nor any of the other musicians he traveled with from the U.S. are rock stars. The crowd was greeting anyone landing in Cuba.

However, their musical tour did have its place in history: It was the first time an outside professional brass quintet had toured Cuba in at least 50 years, maybe ever.

Camacho and music faculty from three other universities in the U.S. toured Cuba the first week of May. They were billed as “The Brass Quintet of the Americas,” and performed in Havana, Sancti Spiritus, and Santiago de Cuba.

Brass quintets, which consist of two trumpets, a trombone, a horn and a tuba, did not become popular in the U.S. until the 1960s, when Cuba was already established in a socialist system. Since then, brass quintets have become a common brass chamber ensemble in the rest of the world.

Camacho plays horn and is an assistant professor of brass at WWU. He was born in Mexico and has spent time in Russia and China, but said, “I’ve never been in such an alien place such as Cuba.” Everywhere he went on the trip, Camacho said he was reminded how different the culture is.

“It was like you had been transported back in time,” Camacho said. “It was a surreal experience.”

He said the streets were dominated by Chevrolets from the 1950s and Soviet Union cars from the 1960s and ’70s.

He noted that many buildings hadn’t been renovated in at least half a century. He remembers seeing one building that looked like “a bomb had gone off” — metal beams had collapsed, and rubble cluttered the floor. Then, a little girl walked out holding a stick, and he realized the broken-down building was her home.

Most citizens had no access to the Internet at home and must pay for public Internet access. Because of that, musicians have trouble printing their own music. Camacho said he met only one trombonist in Cuba with a computer and a printer, but he didn’t have any ink, and a new ink cartridge would cost more than his monthly wage.

Yet for Camacho, it was equally as surprising that there were no brass quintets.

“It was just an astounding thing to realize that the brass quintet didn’t exist in Cuba because it’s such a popular chamber ensemble in the rest of the world,” he said.

The tour was organized by Mike Davison, a music professor at the University of Richmond. It was the 29th time he has visited Cuba in the last two decades.

Davison was finally able to bring along an American brass quintet to perform this year. He doubts the improved relationship between the U.S. and Cuban governments had to do with the success in bringing the quintet along with him, however. It had more to do with meeting “the right people,” including prominent Cuban composer Daniel Guzman, Davison said.

Davison keeps returning to Cuba because he said it’s one of the most musically rich countries in the world. Yet there are certain musical concepts that have not translated from the outside world into Cuba. When Davison told Guzman he wanted to bring a brass quintet, Guzman told him he had never seen one in Cuba.

Davison and Camacho and some of the other members of the quintet met while working at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. After the quintet performed in Santiago de Cuba for a music festival called Concierto Santiago 2015, people came up to them stunned that only five instruments created what sounded like an orchestra.

“They hadn’t heard anything like it before,” Camacho said.

Though the two cultures have been separated, the disparity between the two, musically, is not as wide as people might think, Camacho said.

“It’s not that different,” he said. “And maybe what that says is that our cultures are more connected than we think.”

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.