Luthiers Without Borders: On the Road to Guanabacoa, Cuba

By Carl Applebaum

Editor’s Note: In 2015, President Barack Obama announced a renewal of diplomatic relations with Communist-controlled Cuba. In February, the White House announced that Obama next month will visit the island, becoming the first US president to venture there in 88 years. In 2002, Washington State luthier Carl Applebaum ventured to Cuba, then under strict US sanctions, to visit a small music conservatory in rural Guanabacoa. This is his Strings report:

We come to Cuba as volunteers, but not with political fervor—not to bring in the sugarcane harvest or build roads. Our purpose is simply to repair musical instruments for talented children with no access to such help. In the end, we accomplish more than that and I come away with a renewed sense of why I practice my trade as a luthier.

The idea originated with a group of musicians in my hometown of Olympia, Washington. For more than 20 years, the band Obrador has made a name locally and regionally playing “world music,” concentrating on Latin, and especially Cuban music. Three years ago, the band was invited to Havana to play in a festival and, as a gesture to the idea of cultural exchange, the U.S. government permitted the band to go. They were a hit and made many friends—including the staff and students at the Escuela Guillermo Tomás in Guanabacoa, a municipal music school for children aged six to 14. In recent decades, Guanabacoa, a formerly independent town east of Cuba’s capitol and its harbor, has been enveloped by the growth of greater Havana. It retains its unique historic identity, as well as the flavor of African culture—and poverty—derived from its origin as a 16th century slave market.

The school suffers, along with all of Cuba, from the privations caused by decades of American trade sanctions, as well as the inefficiencies of the socialist economy, the end of Russian economic aid, and the flight of professionals and capital. Since their first visit, members of Obrador have worked at helping the school, and have sent to Guanabacoa quite a number of instruments of various kinds, acquired by donation and purchase.

The people in my Washington State violin shop had donated their labor to repair and adjust several violins contributed by the shop to Guanabacoa. When the Obrador Guanabacoa Project decided to send people to repair the stock of instruments already at the school—qualified instrument repair services are rare at best on the island—we are invited to go along.

In addition, the group includes Mitch Kiel, a respected piano technician from Olympia, and Vincente Soluna, a wind instrument repairman from the Los Angeles area and former reed player in Obrador. Traveling with us are Michael Moore, Obrador’s keyboard player; my partner Judy Lehmann, a jazz pianist, painter, and nurse; and our teenage son Sam.

Our expedition is to be humanitarian, not political.

Although the U.S. government generally forbids its citizens to trade with and travel to Cuba—a policy that is one of the most odious relics of the Cold War—we are able to travel legally under a “license” for humanitarian and cultural exchanges. Even so, the most affordable tickets turn out to be with a Canadian tourist charter airline flying out of Vancouver. This means a long drive across the Canadian border to catch a midnight flight crammed with 400-odd drunken sun seekers, all buzzing with hotel critiques and debating where to find the cheapest drinks and cigars.

At four in the morning (seven o’clock Havana time), the lights and music abruptly come on, as the airline crew assume that we all needed breakfast on Cuban time.

Warm Welcome?

The Cubans had built the airport at Varadero to serve the tourist hotel complex nearby, but it is still very third world. Naturally, there are many aduanas (customs agents) and policias in evidence, but we do not see troops with automatic rifles (as at American and Mexican airports). The enclosed booths we enter for passport inspection do seem forbidding, however.

Embarking on the luggage inspection (the usual suitcases and backpacks, plus duffel bags and suitcases full of tools and materials, plus three violas, a bunch of bows, various wind instruments, and two large boxes of music stands to be donated to the school), life becomes much more difficult. All of our baggage soon is lying open and we find that our Spanish is barely up to the task of explaining why we have lots of sharp knives and chisels, unidentifiable objects, and bottles of strong-smelling liquids.

Soon, everything is taken into custody and we look for salvation to our driver, Geraldo, whose English is a bit better than our Spanish.

Geraldo, a bright man who would be an executive in any developed country, drives us to Matanzas, the next large town, to enlist the help of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), the influential government agency that coordinates foreign cultural programs. The ICAP office turns out to be the home of the lady who represents the agency. She is outraged at what has happened and, after becoming the first of many hospitable Cubans to apologize, sends her assistant Mario back to the airport with us.

At the airport, we spend the next four hours or so meeting the head of the customs office and watching as Mario and Geraldo explain over and over what is in our luggage, and why it will benefit the Cuban people. Eventually, after surrendering our passports, Judy and I are escorted to the Dangerous Goods warehouse in a far corner of the airport. The entire contents of the building are a stack of confiscated boxes of cigars and our suitcases, all guarded by a contingent of armed soldiers. Even then, we have to reopen and explain everything to three nonuniformed women who were clearly in charge. We are getting nowhere until one of the women mentions that she plays the piano. Immediately, it is like being back in the violin shop. What does she like to play? Ah, sí, the jazz classics: El Duque (Ellington), Billie Holiday. How is her piano? Pues, it has some problems.

The discussions break the ice, and we are permitted to load our stuff into the van, retrieve our passports and the rest of the group, and hit the Via Blanca to Havana.

At some indefinable point during the few hours of driving through the tropical afternoon, we start to forget about the airport hassles, and succumb to the lush beauty of the Cuban countryside. There is very little traffic on this, the main coastal highway: a few old American cars (from the ’40s and ’50s), the occasional little Russian Lada (something like an old Fiat), a few modern tourist buses, and horse-drawn carts. After a stop at a cafe, we arrive at Guanabacoa in the warm dusk, and fan out to three different casas particulares (a Cuban version of a bed-and-breakfast inn).

The following morning, we bounce through the rough streets into the center of town. The school operates in a former tile factory that would receive a stack of citations from any municipal building inspector in the United States: a three-story masonry structure, with many patches of fallen concrete, lots of black mildew, and exposed rusty steel rebar. It is built around a colonnaded courtyard, the center of school life, with a huge old palm tree in the center. Most of the electrical outlets have two live wires of varying voltages sticking out of boxes in the wall. Lighting is sparse, air-conditioning nonexistent, and toilets are flushed by throwing in a bucket of water. We see not a single computer at the school—even in the office.

This lack of physical amenities extends to instruments, of course. With the end of Russian aid in the late ’80s, the importation of musical goods from the Soviet bloc also ended. As far as we can see, the only repair work available is what the teachers can do, and parts and accessories are completely unavailable. Most of the violin-family instruments are badly in need of serious setup and adjustment, and many are completely unplayable. Very few are of original quality that would be acceptable in an American school. They are of widely varying origins: some German, many Russian and Czech, many Chinese (although not the higher-quality ones), and even some Cuban violins from a factory in Camagüey province. Most of the bows are deplorable. Even the teachers have, for the most part, well-worn student-level bows. The shortage of strings is so severe that bassists have been driven to use electrical wire with the insulation removed. Music stands and cello cases are homemade.

Viva la Musica

Despite these conditions, music thrives. The government is a strong supporter of cultural events and instruction. The people of Cuba have achieved a generally high level of education, and there is a nationwide system of music schools like Guillermo Tomás. Concert tickets are generally quite inexpensive.


At the school, the teaching and playing are of a very high standard, and I am amazed at the overall quality of technique and tone—particularly in light of the poor equipment available. And always, the sense of ensemble was remarkable. The curriculum, for voices and instruments, includes both classical and popular music. The staff is highly competent as teachers and performers. The maestra of cello at the school, for example, is the principal cellist of the National Lyric Orchestra. Some of the most famous names in Cuban music are graduates of the school.

The warm and energetic directora of the facility, Cristina Arce de Nacimiento, can often be seen at the school entrance being hugged or kissed by a young student. The warmth, closeness, and mutual respect between students and staff are remarkable, even when the Cuban propensity for physical closeness is taken into account. The difficulties of the school building are offset by the hard work of the staff. Cristina works every angle to find building materials to remodel the school and she even comes to work an hour early every day to do janitorial work.

When we arrive, everybody at the school crowds into a big upstairs assembly room for a concert in our honor and everyone plays! At the beginning, we hear classical performances, including some excellent Bach inventions, played on the piano by a ten-year-old boy. Soon, we cross over into Cuban music, with sections being added one by one until we hear professional-quality, extraordinarily complex big-band arrangements. What really strikes me are the enthusiasm and eagerness of nearly every student. The concert takes on the atmosphere of a giant jam with everyone cheering the solos. By the last number, an uptempo version of “Guantanamera,” even the office ladies and some of the profesores are up and dancing in the aisles. Finally everyone takes a look at the instruments, supplies, and music stands we have brought. And then it is time to go to work.

Mitch, along with Jorge, the local piano tuner, and with Judy as translator, head out into the school to give first aid to the motley collection of pianos, mostly from Estonia. Vincente and I are shown into a large room adjacent to the entrance hall. It is filled with scores of instruments of all kinds—none operational. A quick survey of several dozen violins yields some idea of which ones might be most quickly put into working condition. Vincente sets up shop at a table in the storeroom and Sam and I move across the entrance hall to a large, high-ceilinged room, empty but for a few tables and chairs.

We start unpacking, and lay out tools, clamps, baby bottle warmer (as a compact, portable gluepot), bridge blanks, bow hair, and the other detritus that fill the typical violin shop—and then the table collapses from a bad case of dry rot and termites. We soon find a replacement and are off and running.

Immediately, it becomes clear that my careful triage is pointless—a group of musicians of all ages, and some of their parents, already are waiting for help. These are dedicated players, and if I can’t find time for them, who can tell when any other help might arrive? All the instruments are owned by the school and loaned to the students, so it really makes sense to start on the ones that are in use. In between, I try to get some of the unused ones set up so as to increase the supply.

A Sense of Mission

By the end of the first afternoon, we have a teaching workshop going, with Sam planing fingerboards, fitting pegs, and setting up strings and bridges, while I work on nuts, bridges, and soundposts, gluing seams and making adjustments. Our helpers and audience, numbering from five to 15, work on electrical connections, find a pot and hotplate to heat water, bring endless cups of muscular, sweet Cuban coffee, while keeping up a continuous line of commentary, encouragement, translation, and questions.

During the entire week, I am never short of friends in this impromptu workshop. They even bring sandwiches, or take us off into the neighborhood to find lunch at a paladar, one of the small, privately-owned restaurants in homes—one of the few permitted forms of private enterprise in Cuba.

It soon becomes apparent that I have a few loyal followers who are eager to learn—teachers who wanted to be able to repair student instruments. Two of them are string teachers at the school—a bright young woman named Asela Figueroa Marino and a very agreeable and talented young man, Yosvany (pronounced “Giovanni”) Milian Gil. Yosvany already has tried his hand at cutting bridges, and shows me some credible rehairs he has done. Each day, I try to teach Yosvany some lutherie. He has good eyes and good hands and is very determined. My Spanish is limited, as is his English, so we aid communication by compiling a written glossary. Eventually, Yosvany invites Ivan Rocha, a fellow violin student at the conservatory, to translate for us, so that we could transmit more complex and abstract concepts.

The days pass quickly. I have never worked harder or with more sense of mission. I am pursued by the thought that here are hard-working, talented musicians who need a break and that if any work is left incomplete at the end of the week, it might never be finished. And I find that the stress of work is greatly increased by having an audience that watches every move and asks for explanations in a language not my own.

In the meantime, Judy has started a popular cultural enterprise of her own. She has brought along watercolor paints and brushes, and sits down to paint the giant palm, which the students call La Bomba. Within minutes she is surrounded by curious children of all ages. She hands out paper, paints, and brushes, and gently teaches the rudiments to anyone who asks. Word quickly spreads throughout the neighborhood and eventually, her impromptu art school includes students between music classes, parents, staff, and even preschool children. The painters start with their own views of La Bomba, then move on to pictures of their instruments, their houses, their pets, their dream cars, their universe.

The paper runs out, and the directora brings more—mostly the backs of old posters, as paper is in very short supply. When that supply runs out, the children paint the leaves of the plants around La Bomba. Many of the paintings are addressed to the children of Olympia, so that Judy can take these pictorial good wishes home.

Sam makes his own contribution by starting games of Ultimate Frisbee. When Judy worries aloud that the games might disturb classes, Cristina supports the idea that this, too, is a part of making school enjoyable.

A Priceless Gift

During the sultry evenings, we attend dance and drum concerts in the local park, part of Wemilere, the national festival of Afro-Cuban culture that takes place in Guanabacoa each November. One night, we drive into downtown Havana. The waves crash high over the seawall of the Malecón, and music spills out of the clubs.

On the last afternoon at the school, we all run out of time to complete our tasks. The shock is palpable. We pack up the tools, Judy gives the brushes and paints to one of the students, and carefully packs the art the kids have given her. We are given a little party before we leave, with food, speeches, dancing, and tears. The following day, we have a lazy day at the beach, then a farewell dinner. The next morning, we head for the airport in a tropical downpour.

But this isn’t the end of the story. I had left a stock of tools and materials with Yosvany, along with lists of setup dimensions and other printed materials. We also exchanged addresses and made plans for our return trip. Later, at home, I report on the trip to the members of Technology of Bowed Instruments, an Internet listserve. Before going to Cuba, I had asked whether anyone on the list could help me compile a Spanish glossary of violin terminology. Michael Darnton passes the request on to Bernie Guterman, with whom he shares shop space in Chicago. Guterman sends not only the needed list, but also a package of bows and addresses and phone numbers for several friends in Havana. Other members respond with instruments and strings.

The most important response through TOBI, however, is from Paul Jacobs, a university professor and violin maker in Belgium. Paul’s wife, Tamara, is from Havana, and he has a natural interest in furthering the lutherie craft in Cuba. Last summer, Paul and Tamara went to Havana for two weeks, staying with his parents-in-law in the Vedado neighborhood. He went to work at the Escuela Manuel Saumell, where he produced a prodigious body of repairs. Yosvany, my friend from Escuela Guillermo Tomás, took time off from his studies to work with him.

Since then, Paul has arranged an apprenticeship for Yosvany, with Jan Strick at Maison Bernard in Brussels and he has formed a nonprofit corporation called Luthiers sans Frontières (Luthiers without Borders) to facilitate such efforts in the future.


Meanwhile, I have continued to collect good instruments and bows for the school. Major contributors have included John Welch at Consort International (Sofia Violins) and Vito Vissicaro at Arcos Brasil, as well as individuals in our community. We had hoped to return to Cuba in November 2001, but after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration became much more restrictive in giving permission to travel there (though former President Jimmy Carter did make a landmark visit in May).

I sent the instruments and tools that had been collected with another member of Obrador, who was traveling legally and carrying a shipment of medical supplies. His delivery to the school, and the school itself, were covered on Cuban national television. And there have been some exciting improvements at the school. Cristina has been successful in many of her renovations—the school is now accepting high-school students and a regular academic curriculum has been added.

During Olympia’s semiannual Artswalk festival, Judy mounted a large exhibit of the watercolors of the students at Guillermo Tomas in my shop’s concert room. She added photographs of the school, and in many cases was able to pair the paintings with photos of the artists. The exhibit was well publicized and well attended. To complete the circle, we sent photos of the exhibit back to Cuba.

We hope to return to Guanabacoa to see our friends, and to continue our work on the instruments. I have come to understand that action is the best measure of friendship. My Cuban friends have given me the priceless gift of renewed enthusiasm for my work, and they are in my thoughts every time I cut a bridge or soundpost.


Letter from Cuba: Winds of Change, 2005

Editor’s Note: In 2005, Carl Applebaum, a member of Luthiers sans Frontieres, an organization that aids musicians, orchestras, and ensembles in areas without instrument-repair services available, returned to Cuba with his wife Mara Finkelstein to report on the lives of Cuban musicians. Strings published this report on their findings in the January 2005 print edition. This addendum to their first report offers additional insight into the musical world they encountered in this country in transition.

sinfonica_largeOne can only hope that some of the gust of fresh air, which appears to be bringing significant change to Cuba since the retirement President Fidel Castro, will also penetrate the island’s music world. In many conversations, during our visit there, people told us they had serious hopes that life will get better. While we also heard concerns that the pace of change should not be disturbingly fast, the general opinion is that Fidel’s brother, Raúl, who now heads the government, is a practical man and an economist, not an ideologue. Cubans say he appears to be making changes that go to the heart of what the average habanero finds most significant.

Liberalization of the political system may be a long way off, but people seem most concerned with improvements in daily life.

One of our friends came excitedly with the news that soon most Cubans will be permitted to travel abroad freely [editor’s note: the United States government has not announced an easing of travel restrictions]. Her husband, driving us in the countryside on the way to Pinar del Rio, became so emotional telling about his recent stay at a hotel in the resort area of Varadero (previously reserved for foreign tourists), that he had to stop the car and read from his journal.

At that moment, he said, he felt that he was no longer a second-class citizen in his own country.

Indeed, there have been recent changes. Now, Cubans are able to acquire ownership of the apartments and houses in which they live. They can own cell phones—an important symbol of modernity and uncontrolled communication among individuals—and they can buy personal computers. Perhaps even more significant in the long run are reforms in the agricultural sector, which allow farmers to plant unused land with crops of their own choosing, and then to market the produce independently.


(Mara Finkelstein, who grew up in the Soviet Union, says that these measures parallel almost exactly the changes that took place during perestroika.)

How will the coming changes affect the lives of the island’s classical musicians? Making a living is difficult for most of them, as it is in most places. Our friends who play in the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (shown above) receive the equivalent of between $20-$30 salary each month, for five rehearsals and one performance every week. However, there are other benefits, resulting from the unusual situation in Cuba. It’s important to realize that a life as a musician is prestigious, and gives opportunities to earn more money than a doctor or engineer. Those professionals earn the same standard salary as anyone else, but without the chance to add to it. For musicians, there are additional sources of income.

For instance, musicians also teach in the music schools, or play in the opera and ballet orchestras, or in chamber groups. Some play occasional recording gigs, making an additional $10 or $20 a day, as well as shows, weddings, and parties. The musicians get to travel abroad, and are paid much more for foreign tours. Just as in Russia, when Mara was a young professional, a musician returning from a foreign tour can profit by bringing back foreign goods and selling them on the black market.

But all is not what it seems. One Cuban friend says that there are three economies on the island. First, there is the economy of official salaries (paid in CUP, or moneda nacional); second, there is the economy of the CUC (or convertible peso, which has been substituted for the US dollar, and must be used by foreigners, and therefore is received by people working in the tourist industry); and third, there is the “abajo de la mesa,” or under-the-table economy. This latter segment is generally agreed to be the largest. Stores charging in CUP generally carry a very limited selection of basic foods and necessities. Stores charging in CUC carry more sophisticated products, and are usually better stocked.

Still, there are obvious anomalies that can only be due to the black market. For example, lobster is reserved for export and the government-run tourist restaurants, yet it is commonly served in the small private restaurants (paladares) and on special occasions in private homes. Even now there are, increasingly, musicians who can afford to buy strings at open-market prices. We did see a few new violins in private hands. However, these instruments, or the money to buy them, are said to come from relatives in the United States.

In other, non-monetary ways, it is clear that the Cuban musicians will gain enormously from the coming sea change. When we attend a Sunday afternoon concert of the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional, we remark on the overall youth of the members. We are told that this is because so many experienced musicians have taken any opportunity to leave for Mexico, Spain, Venezuela, or the United States.

The teachers and students suffer from lack of contact with world standards of playing and trends in interpretation. Mara tells the cello studio that there are lots of videos of different performers, even of master classes, on YouTube, but nobody there has heard of YouTube.

In fact, none of them has access to the Internet at all.

On the other hand, what will happen to the system of free advanced musical education, and to the limitless immersion in lessons and practice, when the teachers will be able to make much more money doing other things? What if, as in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the state ends its financial support of the orchestras?

Our flight back to Cancún evolves into a comic-opera microcosm of the contradictions of Cuban life. Two weeks earlier, when confirming our flight on Cubana from Mexico to Cuba, we were told not only that it was delayed, but also that the return flight would be delayed two hours. When we asked if the schedule had been changed, we were told no, only that the flight two weeks later would be delayed.

The reason for this emerges only on the day of the return. The 12:30 pm flight is delayed again and again, forcing us to sip rum on the patio of our apartment all afternoon. Finally, the flight is announced for 8:30, and we head for the airport at 6:00. We exchange money, check luggage, go through passport control, and arrive at the gate to find no plane, nobody at the counter, and only a few passengers lounging. Somehow, everyone knows exactly what has happened: There was an opportunity for a private charter to Caracas—so the crew borrowed the plane to make some money on the side.

The same Russian plane we flew on two weeks ago, which spent the day going unofficially to Venezuela and back, rolls in at about 9 pm. The passengers drift in over the next hour, and we finally leave at about 10:30. After two weeks in Cuba, we are not disturbed by the delays, and it appears that nobody else is, either.