The Montana to Havana Bridge Building Project started in 2011 with Doug Wales' first trip to Cuba from Montana, traveling to Santiago with bongos in his backpack and a dream of playing music with Cuban street musicians. This was the first of three biennial trips he made to Cuba conducting cultural tourism research for Yellowstone Country of Montana, a tourism organization based in Bozeman. What had originally begun as a good legal excuse to travel to Cuba with a tourist visa became a life-changing experience and the beginning of a long-distance friendship between many musicians from Montana and Cuba, most of whom still have never met each other.
Based on a single good review on the Cuba Junky website, Doug chose Casa Tejera, a bed and breakfast type of establishment known as a “casa particular” in Santiago for the first portion of his trip. The review said, “Juan speaks English, his wife is a good cook, they are located near most of the good music venues in Santiago and Juan is knowledgeable about the local culture.” With that information, Doug was satisfied and booked 11 nights at Casa Tejera. Unknowingly, with that impulsive, late night reservation, Doug had struck cultural gold. Juan was indeed very knowledgeable about the local Cuban culture. Seventy year old Juan Tejera had a degree in physics, a minor in journalism and taught mathematics at the university. He was currently serving as president of Santiago’s chapter of UNEAC (National Union of writers and artists of Cuba), had spent several years managing a touring Cuban salsa band in Europe, was one of the primary organizers of Santiago’s annual week-long carnival, and was the former host of an extremely popular radio show with 96.6 percent of Santiago’s de Cuba’s listening audience (greater urban population: one million people). Amused by his bongo packing guest and Doug’s intention of doing cultural tourism research, Juan personally escorted Doug for the next 11 days and nights through Santiago's rich art and music scene, introducing him to some of Cuba’s most famous artists, writers and musicians, including guitarist Aquiles Jorge. At the time, this 45 year old musician was one of Cuba’s go-to musicians hired to play for Fidel and Raul Castro, famous Olympians and other visiting dignitaries. He was also one of the primary "musician judges" who sanction other musicians to be supported by the state of Cuba as professional musicians. Through Juan’s introduction, Doug and Aquiles became quick friends, musical comrades and began making plans for Doug’s return visit.
Returning from this incredible introduction to Cuba, Doug was inspired to write lyrics to a song about what he observed there, covering the struggles of the Cuban people who have suffered greatly because of the half-century long USA embargo on Cuba. With plans for his next Cuba trip underway, Doug collaborated with local musician friend, Jake Fleming, and composed "Building a Bridge from Montana to Havana." The pair composed melody and bass lines, recorded Doug playing a conga rhythm and a spoken word recording of the song intended for reference and copied it onto a computer Doug planned to gift to Aquiles when in Santiago de Cuba. They hoped, with Aquiles' connections, to enlist local Santiagueran musicians to contribute instrumental and vocal tracks to their new song.
So began the Montana to Havana Bridge Building Project.
One late afternoon during the final few days of his stay in April 2015, Doug and Aquiles gathered with five other musicians from Santiago and began work on "Building a Bridge from Montana to Havana," adding new bass lines, acoustic guitar parts, piano, congas and lyrics sung in Spanish. The late night recording session took place in a very funky local Santiago music studio where a sound engineer recorded “single-take” tracks of all the musicians' individual parts. Back in Bozeman at Jake’s recording studio, several local musicians were brought in to complete the group's first collaborative Cuban-American song. With the support of local DJs at KGLT, the song was first broadcast on July 20, 2015 - the same day the Cuban Embassy in Washington reopened 57 years after Fidel Castro's led Cuban revolution and our ensuing embargo. Using home-movie style video shot by Doug and friends, casually documenting this cross-cultural music project, a music video of the song was also cobbled together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfsbAb5Xpmo.
Inspired by the success of the first song and growing interest between all the musicians in Bozeman and Santiago de Cuba, Doug and Jake began composing their next collaborative Montana-Cuba song called "Cuban Taxi." With the recent visit by 1st Secretary Cuban Ambassador Miguel Fraga to Bozeman last month and Doug's invitation to perform the Montana to Havana song at the Fidanz Music and Dance Festival in Santiago this April, a local team of audio and video production professionals have expressed interest in documenting this bridge building project and covering the creation of this song and cross-cultural friendships made on the road in Cuba.
The Montana to Havana Cuban Taxi Tour 2017 will launch on April 14th from Havana, Cuba. Accompanied by Aquiles Jorge, Doug and Jake will hit the Cuban back roads to record "Cuban Taxi." Starting in Havana, the musicians and audio/video crew will hire a '57 Chevy taxi (an iconic car that is featured in the song) to travel on this 475 mile musical journey from town to town, recording and filming along the way. With Aquiles' help, unknown but immensely talented musicians in the cities and rural communities of Cuba will be sought out. The trip will conclude on the far end of the island nation in Santiago with a live performance of "Building a Bridge from Havana to Montana" performed with the original Santiago musicians and Cutumba Folklorico dancers at the Fidanz 2017 Music and Dance Festival the week of April 24-30th.
With a letter of interest from MontanaPBS, a short music-video story covering the Montana-Havana Bridge Project will be made for potential broadcast on Montana’s public TV station. A GoFundMe.com campaign has been set up under the name of “Montana to Havana Bridge Project.” Though everyone on this project is volunteering their time and talent to capture this unusual song recording project, there will be a lot of expenses traveling through the country with extensive equipment in tow, and considerable post-production work to prepare broadcast quality programming. The ultimate goal of the Montana to Havana Bridge Project’s humanitarian effort is to help encourage our citizens and politicians to end the embargo on Cuba. Financial support of this project will enable the project to tell this wonderful story of friendship between Montana and Cuban musicians, expand this program to reach a wider audience, build a stronger bridge between our two countries and help put an end to this crippling embargo on the Cuban people.
Yellowstone Country of Montana, on which Doug serves chair of the cultural tourism committee, now awards a total of $50,000 annually in Cultural Tourism Grants for the benefit of artists and communities throughout SW Montana to support art and music events throughout our region.For more information on YC’s Cultural Tourism Grant, email [email protected]