Smokey: Cuba ‘really got a hold on me’

Smokey Robinson and friends in Havana.
Smokey Robinson and friends in Havana.

HAVANA, Cuba – “I hope this is the beginning of an entire love relationship,” Smokey Robinson said in a dreamy voice that made you think he was working on a song.

Guitarist Dave Matthews said he felt so safe in this proud yet fraying city that he let his children, 8 and 14, walk alone on the street, “because the responsibility people have to each other here is very rare, and I love it.”

Joshua Bell got out his Stradivarius violin and jammed comfortably with Cuban pianists and drummers, but the biggest surprise for him, he said, was the skill of the young violinists in an all-female orchestra he also worked with: “They played with extreme polish and enthusiasm that I think some of our American artists could actually benefit from.”

The three artists were among a dozen who joined a presidential delegation led by the directors of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution that wrapped up a three day-mission to Cuba.

The purpose was to expand cultural exchanges with Cuba – the latest sign of warming relations in the wake of the countries’ decision to restore full diplomatic ties last year. The U.S. and Cuban cultural leaders announced the delegation’s achievements at a closing forum in the beautifully restored Grand Theatre.

The officials’ delicately worded, and bilaterally edited, bureaucratese did not quite match the giddy passion of the artists, but it seemed that some progress had been made, even as the Cubans’ ire at the U.S. trade embargo hovered over the proceedings.

Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton had hoped to announce an agreement to make Cuba a centerpiece of the Folklife Festival on the Mall in 2017. A delay in ironing out contract language – which Smithsonian officials said is routine in festival planning – meant that he and Gladys Collazo, president of the Cuban National Council of Cultural Heritage, could only announce both sides’ resolve to keep working toward the goal of a festival in 2017.