TAMPA — There was a time before Fidel Castro’s revolution when Tampa, not Miami or New York, was the destination of choice for the top bands from Cuba.
Rene Gonzalez remembers families driving in and sitting on the bumpers of their cars to hear the loud music pouring from the outdoor patio of the Cuban Club in Ybor City.
“But no one sat for long,” said Gonzalez, 76, founder of Ybor’s historic Spanish Lyric Theatre group. “Everyone danced. The streets could be just as exciting as the dances”
Work is under way to bring those days back to Tampa.
David Cox, president of the Gasparilla Music Festival, visited Cuba with a delegation led by Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Capin earlier this month to meet with arts and cultural representatives from the Cuban government.
They discussed the possibility of Cuba’s popular bands performing at the Gasparilla festival, which drew 15,000 fans over two days in March to Curtis Hixon Park downtown to hear more than 40 musical acts, including headliners The Flaming Lips and Trombone Shorty.
Next year’s festival is March 7 and 8.
“No specifics were discussed,” Cox said. “This was just an initial meeting. I can’t say if we would have a Cuban band perform at the next festival or even the following.”
When the Gasparilla Music Festival was founded, Cox said, the goal was to encompass musical genres from the entire region — defined broadly as Louisiana to Cuba.
“Much of this city was built by Cubans,” Gonzalez said. “You see the culture everywhere — in our food and architecture and clothing style and traditions. It would be great to see some of Cuba’s modern culture become a major part of this city.”
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Cox said the Cuban officials he met were excited about the possibility and were aware of Tampa’s history with Cuban music — and of the city’s role in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain in the late 1800s. Tampa residents donated money to the cause and fought alongside the Cuban military.
“This could be a wonderful opportunity for Tampa,” said Albert A. Fox Jr., founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. It was Fox who organized the fact-finding trip to Cuba — planned to include gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist until he dropped out — and set up Cox’ meeting with Cuban officials.
While a Cuban government endorsement of the Gasparilla Music Festival is not necessary, Fox said, it will make it easier to book some of the nation’s hottest bands.
“These are not rinky-dink bands that could come to Tampa,” Fox said, “but major acts that could be introduced to this city’s young music fans.”
It could help the festival grow, said Eric Odum, a member of the Gasparilla Music Festival’s board of directors and part of the recent delegation to Cuba.
“If we book the right bands the attendance could take a leap,” Odum said. “Cuban Americans from around the country would come to Tampa to see them perform and perhaps fall in love with the festival and city as a whole.”
Still, Odum said, nothing was officially discussed with the Cuban government concerning the 2015 festival.
“This was about introducing Dave Cox to Cuba and its culture,” said Odum, who has been to Cuba a few times over the years. “I wanted him to see the country and hear its music.”
Cox said he was impressed by the talent he encountered in Cuba.
“Everywhere you go has live musicians playing,” he said. “And every one of them is really good.”
Performers must study at a musical institute if they hope to get government permission to perform anywhere, even street corners, said Henry Adams, an associate director with the Florida Orchestra. Adams is married to Haydee Guitierrez, who was born in Cuba and trained with its national ballet.
“They have a tremendous musical education system there,” Adams said. “It is a nation flooded with talent.”
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The Florida Orchestra was the first Tampa organization to bring top Cuban musicians to the city on a grand scale.
It sponsored two performances by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in November 2012. One at the Cuban Club included selected musicians from both the Cuban and Florida orchestra performing side by side. The other at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg was the entire Cuban orchestra performing on its own.
In return, the Florida Orchestra has sent two musical delegations to Cuba. In 2011, its Wind Quintet performed chamber music in Havana, marking the second time since Castro’s revolution a professional American orchestra had sent musicians to Cuba.
Then in 2013, the Florida Orchestra’s concertmaster and violinist Jeffrey Multer performed with the Cuban orchestra and led his colleagues from the concertmaster chair.
“It is a terrific experience for two symphony orchestras from different cultures and different countries to find great commonality in music,” Adams said.
Before the travel and trade embargo imposed by the United States in the early 1960s, after Castro embraced Communism, performers from both nations traveled often between Tampa and Cuba.
“Several artists went to Cuba and made big names for themselves there,” said Gonzalez, with the Spanish Lyric Theatre — at 55, the oldest Hispanic theatre group in the U.S.
Tampa native Velia Martinez became a well-known theatrical actress in Cuba. Following the revolution, she left Cuba and continued to act, portraying grandmother Adela in the PBS series “¿Qué Pasa, USA?”
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Jack Espinosa, a former Hillsborough County teacher and sheriff’s information officer, once performed monthly on the Cuban television show Cabaret Regalias — at the time, the nation’s equivalent of the Ed Sullivan show.
“I’ve heard Fidel Castro was a big fan,” Espinosa said with a chuckle. “He watched me while hiding in the mountains.”
Espinosa said he booked shows in Cuba for two years following Castro’s victory.
“My face then turned up in a Cuban magazine accusing me of being part of an anti-Castro revolution in Tampa,” Espinosa said. “I wasn’t part of any revolution, but I decided it was best if I stopped going to Cuba.”
Espinosa believes he was the last Tampa resident to regularly perform in Cuba.
Odum with the Gasparilla Music Festival has been working almost a decade to restore exchanges of talent between Tampa and Cuba.
Before serving on the board of the music festival, he was founding president of the Gasparilla Film Festival and was responsible for creating its annual sidebar of Cuban films.
Films Odum helped bring include the Cuban classic “Memories of Underdevelopment,” the modern zombie comedy “Juan of the Death,” and the biopic “José Martí: The Eye of the Canary.”
On Odum’s recent trip to Cuba, he met with actor Daniel Romero, who portrayed Marti and spoke at the Tampa screening of the film. Odum said Romero is interested in returning to Tampa to perform theater shows.
“Cuban artists of all kinds want to come to Tampa,” he said. “They know that our two cities have a rich cultural history and they want to strengthen it again.”
“This is not about politics. It is about exposing Cuba and Tampa to new talent. Our nations have a history of cultural exchange and I don’t want that history to end.