Cuba: Our Neighbor That is Worlds Away

By Emma Way
Senior Elm Writer
On Dec. 31, Washington College sent 17 students and two professors to study the music
and culture on an island that has been almost entirely sealed off to the United States for over
50 years.
The group stayed in home stays for the 10 day trip, giving each student a chance to see what
life is really like in Havana, Cuba. “We were hosted by incredible people,” said junior Sean
Granata. Despite obvious cultural and political differences, “every single Cuban person we met
was incredibly nice and welcoming to Americans,” he said.
Such vast cultural differences made studying Cuba especially attractive for anthropology
students. The curriculum for the cross-listed music and anthropology course was fluid and
took shape with the interests of the students and information locals shared with students.
From dancing lessons to singing practice, participating in private drumming lessons, observing
the sacred ritual performances of the Santaria religion called toque de santos, the trip
held so many different experiences.
“We focused on the religious part of Cuban music and the specificities of the different
orishas [saints],” said Granata. “It was more people’s reaction to music I observed than the
variations in the actual music.”
The Santaria religion, which was the primary focus of the trip, fuses traditional African
Yoruba rituals with Catholicism. This blend of two different cultures was created through the
unfortunate international slave trade that existed in Cuba until 1886, lasting eight decades
longer than America’s international slave trade.
In Santaria, believers worship specific orishas through singing and the playing of batà
drums, a double-headed hourglass shaped drum. Observing these rituals and occasionally
dancing was a large part of the anthropological course work for the class.
“The music is so infectious, you can’t help but want to dance,” said senior Michelle Coleman.
“In my experience, at [American] music venues, everyone is pulling out their phones to
record it and completely miss the energy…but here you don’t see that; they are living in the
Aside from observing and participating in musical performances and practices, the trip
also left some time for fun. With temperatures in the low 80s throughout the week and no rain
until the last day, it was the perfect weather for exploring and soaking up some sun. From the
mountainous region of Viñales to the pristine white sand beaches, we were able to see so much
of Cuba and yet have so much more we still want to see; it is this feeling that calls the group
back to the island.
“I still cannot believe I actually got to see a culture that seems frozen in time. It’s such a
beautiful place, and I feel like that stems from it being so different from what you see in the
United States,” said Coleman. “Not only is the landscape breath-taking, but the people’s souls
are what made this trip truly impacting.”
Cuba has a little bit for everyone. For art majors, Cuba has some of the most beautifully decrepit
buildings in the world; for political science majors, Cuba has a fascinating and complex
political history; for car lovers, there are classic cars everywhere you turn; for anthropology
majors, there are still so many aspects of Cuban culture left unturned, and obviously, for music
majors or just music-lovers, the music is awe-inspiring. Cuba is a place that has so much to
offer, and being there only 10 days impacted me for a lifetime.

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