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Supporting the sound of socialism

ROB MILLER, Cuba Solidarity Campaign director, reports on Play for Cuba, an exciting new campaign collecting musical instruments and equipment to send to young musicians on the island

PLAY for Cuba is supporting young musicians on the island by providing new and second-hand instruments donated by British supporters. The appeal was launched at the National Education Union (NUT Section) conference in 2018 and will run through to the first full national conference of the new union in April 2019 when a shipping container packed with instruments will be waved off from the NEU conference in Liverpool.

While Cuba is famous for its music, and teachers are plentiful, musical instruments and resources are often in short supply because of the impact of the ongoing 60-year-old United States blockade.

The NEU have sent a series of teacher delegations to the island over recent years and delegates always report back on the centrality of music and arts education on the island.

Karen Parkin, NEU delegate in 2016, said: “The arts aren’t part of life in Cuba. The Arts ARE life in Cuba.”

“Their curriculum, as in much of Europe, includes maths, sciences, the humanities, PE and social/ moral education, but an equal, if not greater, emphasis is on arts subjects.

“Every school we visited – primary, secondary, special or university –welcomed us with a fantastic singing or dancing performance. These were ‘ordinary’ schools, ‘ordinary’ kids. To them their performances were not extraordinary but simply part of what they do. Such displays are an intrinsic part of their education, part of school, part of life.”

In her report back she explained that “the arts are not only fully integrated into the curriculum, with time given to drawing, painting, sculpture, music and dance, the children are also surrounded by artwork and music in their classrooms and playgrounds.”

However anyone who has visited Cuban schools can not help but notice the lack of many basic school supplies that we take for granted such as stationery, computers and science equipment. These shortages extend to the arts and sports where instruments and sports equipment are often in a poor state or unavailable.

Karen Parkin reported back on the many music performances that were given by students to welcome the visiting delegation.

“It wasn’t simply the beauty, the joy, the talent or the enthusiasm displayed by these children that overwhelmed us. It wasn’t that their schools, where they sit at rickety desks on wobbly chairs, where they write so beautifully and carefully in home-made exercise books with precious, scarce pencils, were literally crumbling around them, nor because the school for the visually impaired (who provided the most inspiring and our very favourite musical performance) have had to make do for years with a couple of outmoded, ancient Braille machines; but rather, we wept for our own pupils, back in the UK, the world’s sixth richest economy, where, comparatively speaking, pupils learn in comfortable, well-resourced classrooms yet are in real danger of missing out almost entirely on an arts education.”

In Cuba however it isn’t government failure that is holding back young people in their arts and music education. It is the ongoing debilitating effect of the US blockade. Cuba’s recent report to the United Nations in advance of the annual UN vote on the blockade makes clear that arts education is directly affected in many ways:

“Materials necessary for teaching the arts, such as books for reading music, sheet music notebooks, saxophones, strings for guitars, violins, cellos and basses, are bought at higher prices on the international market, while they are found at much more reasonable prices on the US market.’

When I recently visited a school in Calimete, in Matanzas province, it was exhilarating to see three brilliant young clarinettists perform. Yet they were forced to take it in turns, sharing one clarinet which was itself in poor repair and was missing two keys. With parts difficult to come by many instruments often lie broken awaiting a new lease of life.

It is well known that in Cuba, 100 percent of young people have access to free education at every level, including a university education. The achievements and level of Cuban education is impressive. According to Unesco, Cuba is the Latin American country with the highest rate of development in education. Yet education is one of the “soft” targets that the blockade legislation most impacts upon.

Here people across the country are now getting involved in the Play for Cuba appeal and are developing lots of imaginative ideas to spread the word and collect donated items.

Schools in Tower Hamlets are working together to collect instruments and have already sent in lots of clarinets which are no longer being used. The Ferret Pub in Preston is holding regular music events and collecting donations. Manchester friends have already collected six guitars, a ukulele, a clarinet, a tambourine and some music stands. The music group Ran, Kan, Kan are holding concerts where collecting instruments for Cuba is part and parcel of the evening out.

Across the country NEU members are working with other trade unionists and CSC groups to raise awareness of the appeal and the reasons for getting involved. Hundreds of instruments have already been collected, although thousands will be needed to fill the shipping container properly.

The RMT and CWU unions have opened their offices to store collected items until the containers depart in April and they already have over 100 boxes of thousands of pairs of ballet shoes donated by the Royal Ballet amongst others.

CWU assistant secretary Allan Eldred said: “Next year is the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and it’s deeply appropriate that we’re helping to mark that milestone by playing a small part in an initiative to sidestep America’s illegal blockade. That means the world-renowned Ballet Nacional de Cuba can’t import ballet shoes nor the materials to make as many as they need – so consequently Cuban dancers often have to perform in worn out shoes that are often literally falling apart.”

A great idea has been hatched by Play for Cuba supporters in Hackney who are planning a music benefit evening in January at the Vortex jazz venue where admission can be paid for by donating a musical instrument for the appeal! Members of Madness will be amongst the performers playing alongside the brilliant Cuban violinist Omar Puente.

We are appealing for all new and second-hand instruments, plus reeds, strings and drum sticks, and any associated items such as carrying cases or music stands.

We also need donations and fundraising to pay for the transport of instruments from regional collection hubs to the main container and shipping to Cuba.

We are therefore asking you to reach out to people in your local area, trade unions and other organisations and encourage people to support the appeal.

There are now 35 regional collection coordinators working with Play for Cuba across England, Scotland and Wales. You can contact them directly, or just see what you can do in your own networks and areas. Leaflets for distribution locally are available on request.

We want Play for Cuba to be open to everyone. While the project has been developed by the NEU (NUT Section), the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the Music Fund for Cuba, we really want to involve as many people as possible from trade unions and other organisations. We particularly want schools, colleges and community groups to get involved as well as local music stores and musicians, who can also be persuaded to get involved.

We also need donations and fundraising to pay for the transport of instruments from regional collection hubs to the main container and shipping to Cuba. Any extra funds raised will be used to buy some specifically requested musical instruments. Any support will be very much appreciated here and even more so by students and teachers in schools across Cuba.

The full details can be found at www.playforcuba.org  or via the Cuba Solidarity Campaign on (0207) 490-5715

The Play for Cuba benefit concert is on Sunday January 27 at the Vortex jazz venue in Hackney, www.vortexjazz.co.uk

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