Sunday, July 29, 2012


Los Primos and beyond!

Belkys de la Paz Portal (right end of the picture) is the Director of the National School of Music --part of the National School of Art (ENA in Spanish) specializing in teaching  music, dance, theatre, ballet and plastic art in Cuba.  Belkys came in charge of a delegation of 12 students, nine from her school and three from elementary school level, participants in the project Los Primos.  They group toured Nova Scotia performing at the Black Cultural Centre (Darmouth), Kings Theatre (Annapolis Royal), St Marks´ Church (La Have), Wallace Community Hall (Wallace), Roadside Willies restaurant (Bible Hill),  Memberton (Sidney), Mic Mac Aquatic Club (Darmouth), Mosaiq Multicultural Festival (Moncton) and Stayners Wharf (Halifax).  Augusto Enriquez and his wife Yami were present accompanying their daughter, a violin player from the National School of Music.   

                                                            Belkys de la Paz Portal

The National School of Music has 438 enrolled students, 171 of them residents of Havana and the rest from everywhere in Cuba. The School provides residential accommodation for those 267 students who come from outside Havana –there are between six and eight bedrooms per floor, in their four floors building, some bedrooms accommodate female students while others accommodate male students, providing room for 65 to 70 students per floor and meeting their needs. The school has a large dinning room and chefs cooking the required meals. The school employs 290 people in total, 211 of them are teachers; they are all under the direction of Belkys de la Paz Portal and her team –a council of eight administrators and sub-directors who manage the school with an annual budget provided by the Cuban state.

Most students at the School have completed elementary level education and have some knowledge of music, in the case of piano, violin and violoncello, for example, the selection of students takes place when they are about 9 years old and have completed grade three. Part of the selection process, the students undergo a physical examination and are evaluated for their musical capacities. There are between 400 and 600 students applying annually at the School of Music and only between 200 and 250 will be selected.  In the case of wind and percussion instruments, as in the case of choral singing and directing, there is a second round of exams after those first ones.     

The students of the National School of Music have to comply with a number of goals regarding their formal education, that is, they have to complete the educational requirements of any other student s well.  They study music and history of music and their musical education takes place on a one to one setting because the goal is to achieve high musical quality, and to this end each student has his/her teacher. The other aspects of their education takes place in a group setting, generally in groups of 18 to 20 students, and sometimes, when required, there are also smaller study groups. Exams are public and take place in front of evaluating teams or tribunals, this mainly to ensure transparency and accountability.  

The National School of Music has a focus on classic music, its general objective, but it offers workshops on specialized music like jazz, Cuban popular music and so on. It is in this area that Los Primos found its space. Belkys identified the Los Primos experience as very valuable: it has favoured an exchange that enriches students’ practical formation, contributes to the development of capacities and facilitates the confidence of participating students in performing in front of an international audience.  

Annually, we receive delegations from many countries who visit our National School of Music in Havana with a number of projects in mind, the director explained, but few of these projects include travelling outside of Cuba and exposing students to musical experiences in other countries. Personalities from Telesur for instance, showed an interest in the work of the School but travelling expenses proved to be a challenge that made exchanges difficult in practice.  Los Primos, however, has succeeded in making this possible, exchanges have proven to be very enriching to both parties and there are also donations of instruments that benefit the School and individual students. A viola and a French horn was donated to the School and the group is taking them to Cuba upon their return, and some students have received instruments too, for example a trumpet and two trombones were donated for students own use. Important direct connections between musicians and students have also been made, music workshops have been implemented, in all a very positive musical exchange, a success.  

Due to the blockade, the School has faced challenges in developing links with the rest of the world, and connections are crucial in ensuring enriching experiences outside of Cuba for the students. Sometimes the formats used in music can become a challenge too, the director explained. For instance, it has been particularly difficult to ensure experiences outside of Cuba for the symphonic school in part because of costs involved in transporting such a large group of students, the School is now experimenting with smaller groups like sextets, quartets and so on, to make exchanges easier. The focus of the School in classical music, the desire of most its students, can also contribute to the challenge because popular music seems to have greater initial appeal.   

There is awareness about challenges and such awareness has contributed to the understanding of Los Primos project as a valuable unique experience. One that emerged in a context of solidarity and friendship; Cubans participate with great love and enthusiasm, aware that Los Primos is the result of love and good will too. Both parties have benefited greatly from the exchange: valuable connections have been made and the learning has enriched both sides. It seems the project is at a point were extending these connections of friendship to create new ones is almost a must. There seems to be agreement that expanding “Los Primos” beyond Nova Scotia could be the challenge for the future. Exploring ways to expand the project’s focus on popular music to include classical music specializing students may also be part of the emerging expansion. The successes of the past, and present, seem to be announcing that the sky is the limit!    

Nora Fernández

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