Tomorrow, a group of Ontario musicians heads to the Caribbean. Members of the Manotick Brass Ensemble, in partnership with a local Cuban church, will visit Cuba for a series of free concerts. The Canadians are also donating musical instruments to a group of students in Cuba.
Lucy Martin spoke with one of the group's founders about the trip. Kazimier Samujlo says Cubans don't need any help when it comes to making music. But, he says, between the U.S. trade embargo and Cuba's own economic woes, it's tough to find decent band instruments.
Time is starting to run short. The traveling group of five heads out February 3rd. They've picked nearly 60 songs – enough for scheduled concerts and impromptu requests.
But there's still tempo to tighten and tricky phrasing to work through.
The side chatter, between songs, is all about how to make bags weigh less and carry more.
Kazimier Samujlo spent 30 years teaching music at various Ottawa high schools – the kind of teacher that still gets invited to former students' weddings and such.
These days he's a certified piano tuner. But he couldn't stay away from performing.
Kazimier Samujlo: "We started Manotick Brass in 2003, with Martin Luce, who is presently our manager and trombone player. The philosophy of our group is enjoy music (SFX: fade up a baroque piece) and pass on our happiness to others. Music is a huge family and it's always growing."
Like a lot of Canadians, Samujlo is also fond of winter get-aways.
Kazimier Samujlo: "I started to go to Cuba from '95, '96, I can't remember. And we love the people, we love their music and we love the beaches. Not mentioning that the rum also tastes good!"
But about 8 years ago, a personal encounter – with one of the musicians at his resort – changed the way Samujlo experienced Cuba.
Kazimier Samujlo: "He was playing – beautifully – but I noticed his trumpet looking really dark, and black, and his trumpet was wired together."
Samujlo introduced himself and asked if he could try the instrument.
Kazimier Samujlo: "I just, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't be any help at all. I couldn't even play a scale on this, his trumpet. So, I said 'Look it, I have a trumpet in my room, I'm bring it and see if you like it.' He started to play and he said, 'I'm sorry. This is no comparison.' He said, 'This is an absolutely fantastic instrument. I've never played anything like it.' I said ,'You may keep it.' So, that's how it started. His name is Conorado Aguillar, a friend for life now!"
One evening, Samujlo and his wife Monique were invited to Aguillar's home, where music is a family affair.
Kazimier Samujlo: "He woke his son up and he said 'Would you show Canadian friends how well you play trumpet?' This 12 years old, 13, maybe? Just got up from bed and grabbed a trumpet and played Arban Study, which is very difficult, even for kids here at university level. He played from beginning to end, no crack, nothing! No warm-ups! Amazing, amazing talent. So, I promised him the next year I go, I will bring a trumpet. So that's how it started. Year after year, I brought at least one, if not two trumpets with me."
That modest, personal outreach grew – to an interest in supporting the Matanzas School for the Arts, about 50 miles east of Havana. Samujlo is now friends with the school's director, Alejandro Perez, and jokes that he has to go back, to visit a tree the school planted in his honor, on a previous trip.
So now, members of the ensemble, plus spouses, are all headed to Cuba with a whole lot of donations. Advance publicity generated considerable community support.
Kazimier Samujlo: "And the people are still sending instruments! I haven't collected everything yet. But we collected around ten trumpets, ten – if not more clarinets we didn't count them, so many of them! Two French horns, four trombones, keyboards and guitars and accessories like mouth pieces, oil, greases, you name it."
That level of success may be problematic. Samujlo can't be entirely sure how they will be received.
Kazimier Samujlo: "This time, you know, when they see so much stuff coming out, they probably will say 'Whoa! Where are you going with that?!' But I am working with the Cuban embassy at this time and I am hoping that they will give us some assurance that what we are doing will not get us any bad feedback there, at customs."
Reporter: "Canada and Cuba, as best I can tell, have good relations, but... (Samujlo: "Very well.") Nevertheless, this sort of business comes up, doesn't it?"
Kazimier Samujlo: "Indeed."
Reporter: "Well, to be fair, if someone came to Canada with a great number of musical instruments, (Kazimier Samujlo: "Exactly.") there may be questions, or fees, (Kazimier Samujlo: "Oh, absolutely.") or tariffs, or tax applied."
Kazimier Samujlo: "So, I hope, between the embassies, they can talk about and give us some sort of assurance. We are looking forward for understanding, and we looking forward for their cooperation. Because, you know, we are doing pure humanitarian action and that requires a little bit of help from the people who are receiving it."
The musical theme is 'From Canada to Cuba' with free concerts in several cities, including Havana. The group also had to get a religious visa, to play for Sunday services at a host church in Varadero. It makes for a varied play list.
Kazimier Samujlo: "We have special arrangements done by our local composer, Lloyd Hiscock. Beautiful Cuban music called 'El Mambi'. We're bringing a lot of Canadian originals, Lloyd did for us 'Canada' – Centennial song, from 1967. We're bringing 'Maple Leaf Forever', 'Chebucto Rag' – again, Lloyd's. And out there, as you know, they love lively music, so we have a lot of arrangements from Tijuana Brass. We have a lot of arrangements of topic of love, because February 14th, we will be there! So we have to play for Saint Valentine's Day. And, of course, as being invited by Presbyterian church in Varadero, we're bringing a lot of spiritual songs and sacred songs."
Reporter: "It's funny that politics makes so many barriers, sometimes. But on a human-to-human level, these things are just as easy as can be."
Kazimier Samujlo: "So true. So true. Because a little bit of thinking, a little bit of effort, you make quite a difference for Cubans, for students. Because you know that we're not only going to lay down on a beach, and rest. Everybody knows and appreciates that we are coming there also to help others."
Reporter: "Kaz Samujlo, thank you so much for taking the time to chat about your trip. And best of luck and I hope you just have a wonderful time!"
Kazimier Samujlo: "Thanks for having me! I enjoyed that."