I spent a week in Santiago, Cuba from May 23-30, 2011. The trip was organized by fellow LSF member Martin Nitsche. However, he was unable to go at that time , so I traveled alone. He did a wonderful job preparing the symphony for my arrival, taking care of paperwork for my work visa, and arranging a place for me to stay.
I flew in through the Dominican Republic, and had no problems at all entering Cuba. They did not look at any of the paperwork I had prepared, or search any of my bags, for which I was extremely grateful. (It seems that there can be difficulty entering the country with tools and such) I was met at the airport by a local string bassist named Merlin. He is a wonderful young man who, in addition to playing bass with the symphony, has studied lutherie at the LSF workshop in Havana.
Merlin arranged for me to rent a room in a house, and after spending the next day arranging my work visa, we settled in to repairs. The work that we are doing is for the Santiago Orchestra and several of the local high schools and middle schools. The workshop is set up in the concert hall where the Orchestra rehearses every day. It is a small room with a sink , table and chairs. This time of year, the weather is oppressive and the walk to the concert hall is a haze of heat, exhaust and people rushing to work. I loved every minute of it!
On our first day, when we arrived at the school, Merlin went to find out which room we were working in and within 15 minutes, I was spreading out my tools and taking in my first bow. Ahhh…I cannot tell you how good that felt! Don’t get me wrong…there is nothing wrong with just being a tourist and having a good old-fashioned vacation! But I have been focused on coming here and doing some good for a long time and the last couple of days have made me somewhat antsy! Two clips of the scissors….old horse hair falls to the ground, and I heave a sigh of relief. This is what I came here for.
The first hour went be so nicely….I had three bows come in and I was leisurely putting a thumb leather on one while listening to the symphony rehearsal next door. It probably should have occurred to me that the majority of the bows were actually over there being played!! Sure enough….rehearsal ended and bows started flying through the door!! And just when they slowed to a trickle, here came the students from the local middle and high schools!
I quickly realized that the amount of work to be done was much greater than the time I had to spend in this city, so I got down to business. I spent the next two hours rehairing like mad! When Merlin asked me if I wanted to go to his house for lunch, I just shook my head wearily. I couldn’t go anywhere, and told him so. I had a bag of nuts and a protein bar in my bag…if I could find time to eat them. The afternoon sped by with Merlin dropping in from time to time to help. He is actually quite good at faceplates, so as soon as I got them all glued on, I gave them to him to cut out, which worked great cause I was still rehairing like crazy. Merlin tried to explain that I didn’t need to clean and lubricate the bows…just put hair into them. No way! I tried explaining that you have to do this….the bow will last a lot longer and perform better if all of the parts work well together and aren’t gunked up with the residue of 10 years of hard playing in the heat and humidity of Cuba. I don’t think he really understood me…it did lose something in the translation, but being respectful of my place there as the guest and his teacher, (his words, not mine), he let it go.
Later in the day we were joined by a man named Rasier, who I later learned is the local woodwind and brass luthier. He ended up spending the week working with us much of the time and was a huge help!
As the week went on, each day was much like the first….bows flying in and out and us working until the light faded too much to see anymore. The musicians that we worked for were true professionals and were very appreciative of our work. I did teach a little bow repair to Merlin and Rasier while we worked, and found them to be easy and receptive to most instruction…..especially Rasier. Between travel time and visa delays, we ended up working five days. I think that the final count is 53-ish rehairs, 12 faceplates, 2 stick cracks, one stamp protector and five thumb leathers, in those five days.
When I was finished with my work, I left a great deal of tools, almost two pounds of hair and assorted supplies. My goal was for the guys to be able to keep working, as it seems there are still a hundred more bows that need rehairing! All in all, I feel like the trip was very productive and I am so glad that I was able to have the opportunity to do it.
My thoughts on the future of LSF in Santiago? There is a very real need for a continued LSF presence here! LSF has a large, wonderful workshop in Havana, but that is a ten hour drive away and most musicians can in no way afford to get there. Also, luthier students cannot afford to travel there to study. The poverty here is oppressive and the chances of a potential luthier being able to travel across the country and pay for their stay while in Havana is next to none.
However, there are many, many accomplished musicians in the Santiago area, as well as Guantanamo. Merlin and Rasier are doing an excellent job at continuing their luthier studies and taking care of the tools and supplies that are entrusted to them by the different LSF volunteers that have visited. I hope to be able to come back again and continue my work there, and highly recommend that other LSF members visit here as well. While I find all LSF work to be highly fulfilling, this trip was particularly so, given that the level of musicianship is so high.
Finally, kudos to Martin Nitsche for doing such a great job organizing this trip. He tirelessly answered all of my questions and emails and helped make the entire experience very easy. The amount of work he has done in Santiago is very evident and he is not only well respected by the musicians, but quite beloved by the people in the community there. He has been a wonderful LSF ambassador to the area.