BHS Jazz visits Cuba, collaborates with Escuela Nacional de Arte


During the week of Jan. 21, to Jan. 28, 2024, Berkeley High School’s juniors and seniors from BHS’s jazz program participated in a biannual week-long trip to Cuba where they had an opportunity to learn from students in the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA) and engage with Cuban culture, according to BHS Jazz Co-Director Roberto Figueroa. 

Amber Safir, a BHS junior who plays flute in the Jazz Ensemble, explained that the preparation for this trip included non-required recommended readings and movies. Safir said that during the finals period for jazz last semester, students watched a movie about Cuba to learn more about the history of the country. 

Elliott Martens, a senior who plays drums in the jazz lab band, said that another significant part of organizing the trip was packing all necessary music supplies, like reeds or drumsticks, and instruments. According to Martens, there were few sources to buy replaceable instrument supplies in Cuba. 

“We brought instruments and got a bunch of other supplies. For example, I brought music stands and microphones,” said Martens, “And getting that all organized (is a big challenge).” 

According to Figueroa, it takes at least a year to plan the Cuba trip. Figueroa and Sarah Cline, the other jazz director, collaborated with the BHS Jazz Association and delegated tasks beforehand because of how many people are needed to help with the process of the trip planning. 

“We get a lot of parents’ support,” said Figueroa. “Luckily, we have some great parents that do a lot of work to help us get this trip done (and) put in the hours behind the scenes to plan a lot of things such as getting materials ready for trip planning, things that we need to do just even small things like making sure that we have enough money on the trip. Things like donations: we bring a lot of donations to Cuba. We had parents that helped us purchase the flights (and) had parents that helped us on every step of the way.” 

Jazz students and chaperones walk in Vinales Valley, Cuba.

Jazz students and chaperones walk in Vinales Valley, Cuba.

Nolan Whitehill

Fundraising played a key part in the success of the Cuba trip, according to Figueroa. He explained that the jazz program organized a variety of fundraisers such as a letter writing campaign, selling tickets to concerts, selling concessions at concerts, asking for donations to fund the Cuba trip, hiring guest speakers, and providing scholarships for private lessons among others. He said that the jazz program welcomes donations to cover student’s fees but also provides support to families in need, offering partial or full scholarships. 

Martens also explained that they had master classes for each instrument to meet up with a different teacher, such as all drum students meeting up to have a lesson from the drum teacher at the ENA. They added that this included people at the ENA, but acknowledged that it was mainly to educate the BHS students. 

Besides playing and learning Latin music, the musicians also experienced Cuba as travelers and students. “We went and toured the Viñales region of Cuba, which is where cigars are grown. And that landscape is just (really) beautiful,” said Safir. 

Martens explained that music is incredibly important and essential to the Cuban atmosphere. He said that everywhere that someone could go, there were talented musicians playing in restaurants or beaches to spread positivity through music and create a vibrant ambiance. 

“So we were at a place having lunch in the middle of nowhere surrounded by beautiful greenery with huge mountains beside us,” said Safir, “And then there was just these five dudes playing trumpet and other instruments in there. (They were) the most incredible musicians.” 

Reflecting on the Cuba trip, Safir explained that what this trip meant to her was that it gave her an ability to reconnect with music and reevaluate why she loves music.

“The information you get as a musician but also as a human being is priceless. And by the end of the trip, students were thanking my teacher for giving us the opportunity and making it all work. Everybody was unanimously like, ‘you have changed my life.’ This is a life-changing event that happened to me that I’ll never be able to forget the importance of,” said Martens.