Philly celebrates Cuba

Dayme Arocena will be performing at Cuba Festival on Friday, April 6. | Pedro Margherito
Pedro Margherito

When the Annenberg Center’s new artistic director Chris Gruits started his programing reign a year and a half ago, his focus went beyond Philadelphia premieres, debuting new artists and returning icons such as resident choreographer Mark Morris.

“I believe we’re filling an important gap in the arts market in the city through our focus on contemporary, world class artistry,” said Gruits.

One world that was of interest to Gruits was Cuba, and hence the Annenberg’s Cuba Festival was born as an event that would showcase music and dance in both its traditional forms and modern iterations.

“I knew there was a great range of artistry there, as well as here, with many Cuban-Americans in the U.S., and that scene was not being presented in Philadelphia,” said Gruits on why he started the festival. “We’re presenting a mix of established artists, like Chucho Valdes, with the next wave of artists — Alfredo Rodriguez, for example. Chucho is the elder statesman for Cuban music and Alfredo represents the next generation of jazz coming out of a strong Cuban tradition, but with a very new and different twist.”

Then there is hand percussionist Pedrito Martinez and the Pedrito Martinez Group – an adventure in movement and music all in itself. “If you’ve ever seen Pedrito, you’ll know that his performances are electric — so full of energy. Audiences will literally be dancing in the aisles.”

While daring Cuban music finds its place in the fest with the mix of dancefloor modernism, jazz-folk traditionalism and Santerian chant religiosity that is Daymé Arocena (“Billboard named her one of the artists we should be listening to today,” said Gruits), futurist-forward visions of contemporary Cuban dance can be found in the work of DanzAbierta who makes its Philadelphia debut performing the the full-length work, “Malson.”

This melancholy love letter to Havana is backed by virtual film screens filled with streetscape imagery and the sounds of renowned Afro-fusion composer X Alfonso.

“We are interested in reflecting our reality and investigating cultural memories at the top of the process of the choreographic creation — but from the present, using tradition and contemporaneity,” said DanzAbierta’s Susana Pous. “We like to show the dancers as human beings, not like gods on stage away from the audience.”

Question how the multi-media “Malson” fits into the team’s overall aesthetic vision and Pous believes that the virtual reality displayed in its staging is a reflection of the taste and habit of young people in Havana. “Waiting, dreaming, living: our city is a place where the old and the new are completely mixed.”

The same could be said for the Philadelphia musicians of Conjunto, who’ll play the fine arts of Son, Chá-Chá-Chá and Bolero while paying homage to Cuba’s deep and treasured musical history.

“Keeping this music alive is essential to the preservation of not just the musicians who came before us, but also the musical traditions and culture of Cuba,” said Jeff Torchon, Conjunto’s Musical Director. “Ultimately, we want to use music as a community builder showing that we are all more alike than different and tracing the roots of music from the United States to Cuba and beyond.”

Torchon goes on to describe one of the greatest honors that his band has ever received.

“Cubans tell us that our music reminds them of their childhood, their culture and their homeland. In my opinion, there isn’t a greater honor that one can receive than to be told by someone that is Cuban that you are playing Cuban music in an authentic and accurate way.​”

Cuba Festival runs from through Friday, April 13 at Annenberg Center of the Performing Arts, located at 3680 Walnut St.

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