American Concert Producers Cultivate Cuban/U.S. Relations Through the Power of Music

  • September 10, 2014

Havana, República de Cuba – Despite the 54-year embargo of Cuba by the United States, more than 700,000 Americans are predicted to legally visit Cuba in 2014 through the People-to-People educational exchange between the two countries. More than 300 flights a month from Miami transport curious Americans across the Florida Straits to several Cuban cities on a discovery of life in a mysterious country so near, yet so far.

For two American music producers, Woody Wilson and Neil Birnbaum, the allure and popularity of Cuban jazz in the United States was enough for them to create a specialized People-to-People program with a distinct focus on Cuban music and musicians. Through successful cultural exchanges and numerous trips to Cuba in recent years, Wilson and Birnbaum have launched Cuba Rhythm & Views, a unique exploration of musical life and performance in a nation cut off from Americans for more than a half-century.

As executive director of the Northwest Sinfonietta (NWS) chamber orchestra in Seattle, WA, Birnbaum toured Cuba with his orchestra in 2012 and 2013. The program was part of a rare and carefully arranged cultural exchange with Orquesta de Cámara Concierto Sur (OCS) in Cienfuegos, a culturally rich and historic city on Cuba’s Caribbean coast. It took nearly a year of diplomatic back channel negotiations with both governments to approve such an unprecedented exchange between these two chamber orchestras.

Wilson, president of Lakeshore Music, a Phoenix-based concert producer, traveled to Cuba in 2012 and coincidentally attended a performance of OCS. He was so taken with the music he decided to try and include them in his upcoming series. With Birnbaum’s cultural exchange in place, Wilson was able, through a successful community fundraising campaign, to tag on and bring both the NWS and OCS orchestras to Arizona in the fall of 2012. From that experience, the two men decided to build an exclusive program that would introduce Americans to Cuba’s preeminent musicians and artists.

“There are dozens of People-to-People tours that legally bring Americans to Cuba,” says Wilson, “But ours is different from all the others. If you want to see a cigar factory, or

meet a farmer, nearly every other tour will have that on its program. Our People-to-People cultural experiences happen in private homes, intimate performance spaces, concert halls and Cuba’s leading arts schools. Our program is for passionate lovers of music and the arts, and Cuba has some of the best in the world.”

Wilson and Birnbaum have personally selected the finest hotels and restaurants (Paladars) and developed relationships with Cuba’s most celebrated musicians and performing artists for their nine day trips, which begin in Cienfuegos and end in Havana. They have chosen their multi-lingual guides and interpreters from among Cuba’s brightest and most knowledgeable.

“Music and art has a prominent presence in daily Cuban life,” Birnbaum says. “Woody and I are honored to expose our patrons to Cuba’s best classical, jazz and popular music. We are particularly proud that most events include interacting with the performers at social gatherings. This, combined with the intimate setting of our private performances, provides an unmatched cultural experience for both Americans and Cubans. Art and music universally connect people regardless of politics or language.”

Lakeshore Music’s Cuba Rhythm & Views tours are scheduled Jan. 28-Feb. 5 and Mar. 25-Apr. 2, 2015. Travel is direct from Miami, returning from Havana. For more information, write to, or call 602.679.0590.


Testimonials from actual Cuba Rhythm & Views travelers

Many thanks for providing us with such an amazing trip. It was the trip of a lifetime!” ~Joanne J.

“I count the memories made on this trip, amongst my greatest travel treasures!” ~Carol F.

“Thank you for the amazing trip to Cuba; it was truly a fabulous experience and a memorable 40th anniversary celebration…it was first class.” ~Anne E.

“The Cubans were wonderfully generous in sharing their culture. I was truly inspired by the integration of everyday life and the arts.” ~Karen S.