D.C.’s Kennedy Center Prepares For Cuban Invasion During Artes de Cuba Festival

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A report by Judy Cantor-Navas for Billboard.

“Artes de Cuba” festival will bring “an unprecedented gathering” of Cuban artists to Washington in May.

The Kennedy Center is preparing for a Cuban invasion: Artes de Cuba, a two-week festival that includes a program of over 50 performances, is scheduled for May 8 through May 20 at the venerable Washington, D.C. arts complex.

The festival will spotlight musicians who reside both on the island and in the United States, including storied dance band Los Van Van — on the heels of a new album release — as well as buzzy young drummer Yissy Garcia and her “high speed Cuban jazz” band Bandancha. Also on the roster is singer-songwriter Haydee Milanes, with a group featuring her father, famed nuevo trovador Pablo Milanes, as special guest, and Tiempo Libre, a U.S.-based Cuban band that’s a longtime favorite on the festival circuit.

Beloved octogenarian singer Omara Portuondo is set to open the festival, together with pianists Rolando Luna and Aldo Lopez Gavilán, jazz sax player and percussionist Yosvany Terry and the danzón revival big band Miguel Faílde Orchestra.The festival will include ticketed and free events.

“I think those that may only know salsa or Cuban jazz will come away knowing that there are so many other genres that the Cubans are exploring and that they excel at,” says Kennedy Center VP of International Programming Alicia Adams.

Cuban grande dame Alicia Alonso will travel to D.C. with her Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Among other dances on the program, the company will perform Giselle, the ballet that the 97-year-old dancer and choreographer danced when the Ballet Nacional made its U.S. debut at the Kennedy Center in 1978.

Adams, who started going to Cuba two decades ago, and has since presented a succession of individual Cuban artists at the Kennedy Center, began working on the massive spring festival three years ago. The preparations for the event have spanned the Cuban-U.S. détente spearheaded by President Obama, and then its reversal by the Trump administration.

Trump’s regulations, enacted last year, made travel to Cuba more difficult for individual Americans, ending a short-lived euphoric period for Cuba travel under Obama. Additionally, the current U.S. Administration cut staff at Havana’s embassy and stopped almost all visa processing for Cubans trying to get to the U.S. after employees reported becoming ill when they were the victims of mysterious “sonic attacks.”

The current visa snafus impact artists who want to tour in the United States as well as Cubans seeking to emigrate. But Adams, who has staged similar festivals celebrating Chinese culture and “The Arts of the Arab World” will clearly not be deterred.

“The artists will have to go to a third country now, -probably Mexico- to get into the country,” she acknowledges. “So, we’re doing it. Despite what’s going on, it’s about the art and that kind of cultural exchange. It’s not dealing with the politics, but the artists.”

In addition to music and dance, the festival will include theater, film, visual art exhibitions, a Cuban fashion show, and even old American cars on the premises to add a touch of Havana.

“This will be an unprecedented festival,” Adams says. “You will have all the artists and art forms in one place… When you walk in, you will know it is a festival about Cuba.”

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