Performing Arts Producers Cultivate Cuban/U.S. Relations Through the Power of Music

  • January 30, 2015

Phoenix, AZ – As the diplomatic dialogue between the United States and the Republic of Cuba begins to thaw after 54 years of embargo, the sanctioned People-to-People cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries are expected to steadily increase as Americans become more curious about the mystique and romance of Cuba.

For two American music producers, Woody Wilson and Neil Birnbaum, the allure and popularity of Cuban culture 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 several cultural exchanges and numerous trips to Cuba in recent years, Wilson and Birnbaum 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.

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. It is little known that more than 300 flights a month from the United States transport curious Americans across the Florida Straits to several Cuban cities on a discovery of life in a neighboring country so near, yet so far.

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, an Arizona-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 performing arts series at the Tempe Center for the Arts in suburban Phoenix. With Birnbaum’s cultural exchange in place, Wilson was able, through a community fundraising campaign, to tag on and legally bring both the NWS and OCS orchestras to Arizona in the fall of 2012. From that experience, and a positive relationship with Cuba’s Ministry of Culture, the two men decided to build a program that would introduce Americans to Cuba’s preeminent musicians and artists.

“We are happy to see President Obama take his executive action to begin restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba,” said Wilson. “It’s long-overdue but it will take years for things to completely normalize. In the meantime, Americans will become increasingly curious to experience Cuba before it changes.

“There are dozens of People-to-People tours that legally bring Americans to Cuba, 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 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.

“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 salon-style 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 next Cuba Rhythm & Views tour is scheduled June 1-9, 2015. Travel is direct from Miami, returning from Havana. For more information, write to, or call 602.679.0590.