Ramapo Chorale Sings with National Chorale of Cuba

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Watson

During winter break the Ramapo College Chorale embarked on a weeklong cruise tour of Cuba, performing on the ship and participating in a performance with the Cuban National Choir in Havana, as well as in Cienfuegos.

The tour was put together and run by Dr. Lisa Lutter, the director of the Ramapo College Chorale and an associate professor of vocal music performance at Ramapo College.

“Ramapo Chorale always looks for international performing opportunities that have relevance to current events or serve a special cause,” Lutter said. “Our performance tour to Cuba provided a very rare opportunity – the chance to experience Cuba at this historic time, just after President Obama has begun to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century. We were able to be pioneers – as far as we know, the first New Jersey choir to sing in Cuba.”

The tour was announced to the choir at the very beginning of the Fall 2015 semester, giving students the opportunity to begin fundraising. The tour was opened up to anyone in the chorale.

“The chorale is open to all majors and all musical ability. So we have people who can’t read any music that sing in the chorale because they learn by being in it, and we did open it to everyone, so anyone could have came,” said Heather Howell, chorale president.

“The Ramapo College Foundation provided vital support with a grant that generously supported the students. The students' strong desire to be a part of the Ramapo Chorale experience in Cuba provided the necessary inspiration to raise most of the money themselves. The tremendous dedication, the efforts and sacrifices that families and students make in order to make these choir tours ­– is amazing,” Lutter said.

The students also ran a fundraiser to reduce the financial burden of the tour, including selling Christmas wrapping paper and chocolates.

“I know Lisa put in a lot of work making sure that it was still affordable for us, because that was a huge challenge,” said junior Hannah Reasoner, who attended the trip.

One of the more trying aspects of the trip was the amount of time spent at sea.

“There were some nights where you could really feel the boat rocking all night long, which was a little rough,” Reasoner said.

Howell and Reasoner agreed that their favorite experience on the trip was getting the opportunity to workshop with the director of Cuba’s National Chorale in Havana.

“We actually got to perform with them. We went to one of their shows and we sang a song together, and it was just really cool, like star-struck,” Howell said.

Lutter also expressed her excitement in collaborating with the National Chorale of Cuba.

“Our biggest performance day was in Havana, which began with a private workshop by celebrated conductor Digna Guerra, director of the Nacional Coro de Cuba. That evening, we performed a shared concert with the National Chorale of Cuba, who were out of this world,” Lutter said. “They had just returned from a 17-state tour in the U.S.A professional ensemble; this group is polished to perfection but also sings with such heart. We joined both Chorale and the Coro de Cuba in a finale, singing the Cuban song, 'Chan-Chan,' made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club.”

One notable part of the trip was how “untouched” Cuba appeared to the students on the tour.

“I felt like I was on a movie set the whole time. There were cars from the fifties, and they were really kept up nicely and beautifully,” Howell said. She remembers cobblestone streets and old-school European style buildings.

Lutter had a similar impression.

“We had two days in Havana and, with all that city's important history – and blocks and blocks of Spanish Colonial squares and buildings – it was tremendous to soak in all that culture. And to see Havana much as it's always been, before Starbucks and McDonald's arrive, as all expect they will when U.S. tourism increases,” she said.

According to Lutter, the chorale has been on eight tours over the past 11 years, including a trip to Vienna and Prague, Costa Rica, Estonia and Russia, the Philippines and four trips to the Pacific Summer Music Festival with Cantate Guam, their sister choir.

“I’ve been to Russia before, been to Guam and a few other places, but it was so obviously Communistic [in Cuba],” Howell said. “It was interesting to see firsthand. We went to a museum, and the woman who was giving us a tour kept saying like, ‘Castro our savior, Castro our savior,’ but then later if you would talk to people, they would tell you a little bit different of a story, so it was interesting, to say the least.”

Reasoner also noticed the difference in government, but went away touched to see that there was still ample room for the arts.

“I think all of us came back home realizing that music is truly universal,” Reasoner said.

Additional reporting by Samantha Sproviero.