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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

March 14: Habana Compas Dance, Tour of Universidad de Artes, Masterclass with Aisar

Every day in Havana we are extremely fortunate to hear and witness incredible performances by talented musicians and dancers. We started our day with a performance by Habana Compas Dance, a dance company whose work is a fusion of Afro-Cuban percussion and flamenco dance styles. Visual art, too, is everywhere: The performance took place in a small space that is filled with murals, framed paintings, and sculptures, made by the ensemble’s leader. 

This ensemble is unique in blending the Spanish and the African elements, which are both parts of Cuban culture. Dancers in the troupe have extensive training in flamenco and are also cross-trained as percussionists, often switching between dancing and percussion in a single piece. Colorful chairs became percussion instruments as part of the performance. Our group enjoyed the show immensely and asked the performers thoughtful questions during the Q&A session. The dancers said that learning percussion has helped with the dancing and that they create new routines almost daily, as each performance features different dancers and much of the dance is improvised. 

After the performance, we took a tour of the Havana branch of ISA Universidad de Artes, Cuba’s foremost conservatory for the arts, where students pursue a highly specialized program in their chosen field. Music students arrive at the university after attending a specialized high school and receiving professional training, such as at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory we had visited earlier in the week. We were welcomed by the dean of the music department before enjoying a special performance by a jazz band of university students, playing mostly original compositions. They explained the background behind some of the pieces. One of them, “agoraphobia,” was composed during COVID. We also learned that, at the moment, there is no formal program of study for jazz at the conservatory; students study mostly classical technique and practice jazz on their own time. However, the school is in the process of adding a jazz specialty. 

We had another delicious Cuban lunch and then headed to our master class with Aisar, a composer, arranger, and singer. Aisar’s band, El Expresso de Cuba, is an orchestra focused on the performance of popular Cuban dance music. Aisar emphasized the importance of seeing music as something universal—not as “American jazz” or “Cuban music,” but universal. “I want you to know where Cuban rhythms are present and why you play what you do,” Aisar said. He also shared that Cuban popular music is intended to be danced, and composers have this in mind when writing music. A few students sat in on percussion during the master class portion, then a very big band assembled outside on a terrace to play together.  

Tomorrow we perform with the students from Amadeo Roldán Conservatory!


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