Just weeks before spring break, some members of the Yale Glee Club worried their planned tour in Cuba would have to be cancelled.
American travel to Cuba has been strictly regulated for decades as a result of U.S. sanctions against Cuba’s communist government. Though Americans with close relatives in Cuba, diplomats and certain professionals can receive general licenses to visit Cuba, others must apply for a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control within the U.S. Department of the Treasury, obtain visas from Cuba and follow a Cuban-approved itinerary while in the country.
Though the Glee Club acquired its specific license in mid-January with assistance of a travel agency and Yale’s General Counsel, negotiations between Cuba and M&T Bank of Buffalo delayed the process of getting visas, according to Rachel Protacio ’15, one of the group’s student tour managers. Still, the group received visas within two weeks of departure and was able to travel to Cuba, perform at various venues in Havana and Matanzas and collaborate with Cuban musicians and students.
“We were confident from the start that if we put in the necessary work, in the end we would be able to go,” said Jeffrey Douma, musical director of the Yale Glee Club.
The Glee Club is not the first Yale group to travel to Cuba in recent years. Douma said he chose Cuba as this year’s destination for the Glee Club tour after visiting the island with the Yale Alumni Chorus in 2010, when he grew to understand the rich presence of choral music in Cuba.
In order to take the necessary steps to apply for a cultural exchange in Cuba, the Glee Club employed Classical Movements, a group experienced in planning international music trips, as well as Faraway Travel, another travel agency.
“It was actually one of the smoothest travel processes I’ve ever seen,” said Ellie Killiam ’15, the other student tour manager for the trip.
Still, Killiam and Protacio said they were concerned that a recent change in Cuba’s policies would cause their visas to be delayed and prevent the group from traveling to Cuba as planned.
Last year, M&T Bank of Buffalo — the bank that processes visa fees for U.S. travel to Cuba — announced that it was closing its embassy accounts and would stop processing fees on March 1. Though the U.S. Department of State tried to find a new bank to process the fees, no bank had been found by Feb. 14, when Cuba announced that it would suspend visa distribution to U.S. citizens after March 1. At the time of the announcement, Glee Club members had not yet received their visas for the spring break tour.
Still, Protacio said the Glee Club did not ultimately have a problem obtaining the visas in time. After a five-month process, the group received its visas between one-and-a-half and two weeks before departure, according to Killiam.
The group had met the deadlines for the relevant forms and fees and was not subject to the suspension that began on March 1, Protacio said.
While in Cuba, the Glee Club followed an itinerary approved by the Cuban government, and was only allowed to visit certain approved cities.
“It was interesting to actually go to a country that seems forbidden,” Protacio said.
While this itinerary restricted the group’s activities, students said it did not hinder the group from getting a varied cultural and musical experience.
During its stay, the Glee Club performed with two professional Cuban choirs: Coro de Cámara de Matanzas, directed by José Antonio Méndez, and Coro Entrevoces, conducted by Digna Guerra.
Glee Club members also participated in master classes with the choir directors.
“Master classes with them really helped us get the sensibility they have for their music,” said Marianna Gailus ’17, a Glee Club member who will serve as student tour manager for the group’s next trip to Ghana. “There is something so natural and so innate in the rhythm that they have. You have to feel it.”
Although Douma said jazz music is typically associated with Cuban culture, he added that the country is accomplished in all forms of music and that “the level of choral singing in Cuba is very, very high.”
The group performed American folk songs, original pieces and Caribbean works for a range of audiences, including a group of students from the Escuela Nacional de Música, a music conservatory for high schoolers in Havana.
At one point, Killiam said the high school students began to sing along to some of the Cuban songs they recognized, adding that the audiences were all warm and supportive.
“We had a very eccentric repertory. Some of us were worried with how it would go over with the audiences there,” Gailus said. “[But] they went mad for it.”
The Yale Glee Club has previously performed in every major U.S. city as well as abroad on six continents.