Afro Cubans Abound at Kennedy Center Festival

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By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO

A two-week festival at the Kennedy Center highlighting Cuba’s vibrant cultural arts scene in music, dance, visual arts, cinema, theater, fashion and other disciplines includes Cuban artists of African descent.

“Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World” will showcase more than 400 Cuban and Cuban-American artists spanning 50 performances between May 8 through May 20.

Yissy Garcia, a Cuban drummer and composer who fuses R&B, funk, Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban music and electronic music. (Photo by Eric Politzer)

Center officials don’t have an exact count on the number of Afro Cubans appearing during the two-week stretch, because it mostly depends on who self identifies as such, they said. But a look at the program shows there will be a significant representation of Cubans with African heritage.

For example, the opening-night performance will include the legendary singer Omara Portuondo, the only woman on the “Buena Vista Social Club” album, Cubadisco Award-winning pianist Rolando Luna, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and Grammy-nominated singer Aymée Nuviola.

Other Cubans of African descent featured include visual artists Manuel Mendive and Roberto Diago, noted drummer Yissy Garcia and saxophonists Luis Faife and Yosvany Terry.

When she was selecting participants for the festival, Alicia B. Adams, the Center’s vice president of international programming and dance, said she wasn’t paying attention to color. She was more focused on talent.

Legendary singer Omara Portuondo, who has won a Latin Grammy Award. (Photo by Carlos Pericaas)

“I was looking for the best that there are.” Adams told the AFRO.

The festival touches on links between African Americans and Afro Cubans.

One of the installations honors Jackie Robinson. He trained with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Havana where he was treated like family, and became a hero in Cuba after he integrated major league baseball in 1947. Many Afro-Cuban players, rejected from the major leagues because of the color of their skin color, joined African American players in the Negro Leagues.

As another example, the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience, helmed by Gillespie’s bassist John Lee, will play Cuban bebop. It’s a style the jazz legend developed with Chano Pozo, a Black Cuban jazz percussionist in the 1940s and 50s.

“There’s a whole history on how the Afro Cubans and the African Americans came together and began to know each other and support each other in ways,” Adams said.

The festival is three years in the making and started soon after former President Barack Obama announced he was normalizing the icy relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, Adams said.

“I’ve been bringing artists from Cuba for the last 20 years and have always had my eye on doing a festival that was only about Cuba,” said Adams, who has visited the island nation of 11 million people, six times. “…And with Cuba, because there was so much investment in culture and the arts in Cuba by the government, you just have a country that produces artists way beyond what they should for such a small nation.”

Visitors can expect a taste of Cuba’s traditional and contemporary culture and art.

Other highlights include performances from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and The López-Nussa Family; a 40-year retrospective of award-winning movies from the Havana Film Festival (Festival President Ivan Giroud selected six films); a play performed by the acclaimed Teatro El Público; a display of classic 1950s American cars; and Cuban food and cocktails.

There will also be free performances on the center’s millennium stage at 6 p.m. starting May 9. Activities are also available for children.

“I try to look at these festivals holistically so people have many doors or windows through which they can enter and be engaged in the culture,” Adams said.