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A Music Ministry

On a warm Saturday night in February, the lights dimmed inside an auditorium in Miramar, Havana, Cuba. Melodious sounds filled the air. As the audience listened to The Salvation Army’s New York Staff Band (NYSB) playing, a new and powerful bond formed between Cuban Salvationists and musicians from the USA Eastern Territory.

For more than 100 years, The Salvation Army has had a presence in Cuba. But in 1956, an embargo imposed on Cuba by the U.S. government made travel to the island difficult for most Americans. In recent years, the U.S. has slowly lifted some of the sanctions. As a result, travel for journalists and religious groups has increased.

On that February evening, Salvationists from the 25 active corps on the island came to hear the NYSB minister in El Teatro de Miramar (The Miramar Theater) auditorium. It would be the first of two historic performances in Cuba by the Staff Band.

‘We’re going to Cuba’

In late 2014, discussions for the NYSB’s visit to Cuba began. Derek Lance, band secretary and manager for the band, says that as soon as the idea was brought up, Commissioner Barry C. Swanson, territorial commander, agreed.

Tenor trombone player Matthew Luhn enjoys the Cuban sunset before the show.

Tenor trombone player Matthew Luhn enjoys the Cuban sunset before the show.

“We presented a list of places that we had not visited,” says Lance.  “Cuba was mentioned and so was Florida. But when Commissioner Swanson saw the list, he immediately said, ‘We’re going to Cuba.’”

“The biggest challenge was waiting for the visas,” remembers Lance. The much-needed documentation finally arrived. The band took off from Newark Airport, stopped overnight in Miami, Florida, and then continued to Cuba. After a short flight, the band landed in José Marti International Airport in Havana. They deplaned, eager to share their musical talent in a country that seemed to be frozen in time. As Salvationists from the United States, they anticipated that their audiences would be seeing such musicians for the first time.

‘Our Army identity’

In Cuba, street ministry is forbidden. The government regulates any sort of community outreach such as providing shelters for women or children.

“Our ministry, for the most part, is completely spiritual,” says Captain José Morilla of the Diezmero Corps. “For years, we were isolated from the rest of the Army—from its music, and its unique ministries.

“At times, we sadly felt as if the Salvation Army’s identity in Cuba was being lost and left behind by the rest of the world. The presence of the New York Staff Band in Cuba is a sort of rescue mission to save our Army identity.”

Soldier Julio Moreno from the Central Corps in Havana, agreed that visits like these are invaluable to Cuban Salvationists. “It’s so important for us to take part in these activities,” says Moreno. “We don’t have a lot of contact outside of Cuba. This performance opens our minds to know that there is this big, beautiful Salvation Army world beyond what we can see.”

‘It felt like home’

Bandmaster Ron Waiksnoris leads the New York Staff Band during their Saturday performance.

Bandmaster Ron Waiksnoris leads the New York Staff Band during their Saturday performance.

The NYSB delighted their Cuban hosts with a Saturday night performance in Miramar’s residential district, and during a Sunday morning service in Havana. So many people came that organizers moved the service from the smaller Central Corps to a larger church to accommodate everyone.

Both concerts featured traditional music from Salvation Army composers, along with performances of “David Danced,” in which members of the band sang in Spanish. That day, Cuban Salvationists learned a new song and took it home to use in their ministry.

The performances ended with a brass band interpretation of “Conga,” a song written by Cuban–born Gloria Estefan. Salvationists in the auditorium and in the church clapped and sang the lyrics and music. A few even danced in a traditional “Conga line.”

“Seeing that gave me chills,” says Dorothy Gates, NYSB chorus leader and trombone player. “Watching them as they clapped and danced to our music felt so special.”

Harrison Lubin, soldier from the Westbury, N.Y., Corps and a flugelhorn player for the band, says that, when you’re giving glory to God, you can feel at home even when in a different part of the world.

Young Cuban soldiers watch the NYSB perform on Sunday.

Young Cuban soldiers watch the NYSB perform on Sunday.

“I’m Haitian,” Lubin said, “and seeing the Cuban Salvationists dance to our music was just shades of the motherland to me. It’s a blessing to be part of an event that is so lively and where people can freely express themselves.”

For the Cuban people, music is as big a part of their lives as eating and sleeping. They will tell you that a Cuban baby will make music before it can understand words. Walk down any street in Havana, and you will see people of all ages playing instruments—real or homemade—either as a way of earning income or to simply showcase their talent.

“Music is just ingrained in us,” says Soldier Ernesto Torreblanca, who watched the NYSB perform on Sunday. “And our musical ability seems to be even more prominent when you are a Christian and your music’s purpose is to worship the Lord.”

‘Today, you are Cubans’

Lt. Colonel Julio Antonio Moreno is the divisional commander in Cuba. While introducing the band on Sunday, he said, “It is an honor to welcome these musicians who are not only immensely talented, but who also use that talent to love and serve God.

“Each of you are ambassadors of a melodic message to our spirits. And today, you are all members of the Central Cuban Division, and you are Cubans like us.”

After the service, soldiers took pictures with members of the band. A few discussed music and the possibility of Cuba starting its own brass band.

May2016_mainBandmaster Ron Waiksnoris said that, although the band’s expectations of the trip were wide open, they all had a fantastic time.

“The Salvationists here were a joy and absolutely welcoming,” says Waiksnoris. “We are leaving Cuba even more inspired in what we do. God has once again proved faithful and powerful.”

Waiksnoris also encouraged Soldier Anairis Guevara Fonseca, who had practiced flugelhorn in her youth. Watching the NYSB had encouraged the 17–year–old to start playing again.

Waiksnoris said to Anairis, “One day, it could be you performing or conducting a band like this and traveling all over the world.”

“It’s a great moment when you hear that someone is directly inspired,” Waiksnoris later said. “That’s when you really see the hope.”

‘Music transcends’

Charles Olsen, NYSB treasurer and property secretary, hopes that as negotiations between the U.S. and Cuban governments progress, so will what The Salvation Army can do in Cuba.

“If we could go back, I would love for the band to showcase to non–Salvationists what The Salvation Army does,” says Olsen. “[Outreach ministry] is a big part of what we do. But for this trip, everything went so well for us and for the Cuban Salvationists. They welcomed us warmly and positively.”

The NYSB would undoubtedly be welcomed back to Havana for a repeat performance. “When a band like the New York Staff Band plays here, you have no need to worry about translation or language barriers. The music transcends all that,” says Soldier Ernesto Torreblanca.

“We will be praying for the New York Staff Band to return, and I know that God will hear us,” says Torreblanca. “Cuba lives for Christ.”

by Hugo Bravo
photography by Desmond Boylan