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Cuban orchestra gives a voice to women

The principal conductor of Cuban Orchestra, Zenaida Romeu, speaks during an interview with EFE on March 7, 2019, in Havana, Cuba. EPA-EFE / Ernesto Mastrascusa

The principal conductor of Cuban Orchestra, Zenaida Romeu, speaks during an interview with EFE on March 7, 2019, in Havana, Cuba. EPA-EFE / Ernesto Mastrascusa

EFE

Her first intention was to break stereotypes and demonstrate that the Cuban woman is much more than a sexual object, and adhering to that principle Zenaida Romeu, the first orchestra conductor to finish her training on the island, has found a sound of her own that has inserted a feminine voice into music from the Americas.

Born in 1952 in Havana into a family with a century-long musical tradition, Romeu’s vocation is something that came to her naturally, but choosing a path for her career and a purpose was a very personal decision.

“I’m the first woman to graduate as a orchestra conductor in Cuba, so I’ve always - in some way or other - had the idea of creating new spaces for my gender based on knowledge of a profession that has been historically dominated by men,” she said during an interview with EFE.

At a very young age, Romeu, who has become used to carrying the weight of her surname on her shoulders, stepped into the demanding Cuban cultural scene with her first project: a chamber choir that broke molds at the time.

The intense economic crisis the country experienced after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s resulted in an exodus of talent that also affected music, especially chamber music, where “there were few gray heads but even fewer young people,” she said.

With her years of experience as a teacher in Spain and as a conductor in Italy, Romeu followed the opposite route taken by many of her countrymen in the ‘90s and returned to the island to found the Camerata Romeu, a chamber orchestra made up exclusively of women that revolutionized the Cuban classical music scene.

One of the first aims for the new project was “to change the poor image of Cuban women that existed in many places at that time,” she said.

However, a female orchestra in Cuba was nothing new. In the 1930s, coinciding with the legalization of women’s right to vote in Cuba, several exclusively female musical ensembles emerged, but they always focused on the popular dance genre and “never on classical music.”

“We got rid of the music stands and decided to play by memory. So we’ve played things ranging from a work by (Pyotr Ilyich) Tchaikovsky to Guido Lopez-Gavilan’s ‘Camerata en guaganco.’ It’s part of the orchestra’s image, which helps to produce a certain involvement by the public,” Romeu said.

The Camerata got started in 1993 thanks to the Pablo Milanes Foundation. Its proposal for change began with “a fresh image” that was first inspired by the jacket and skirt ensembles popularized by France’s Coco Chanel, ultimately evolving into the outfits they wear today.

Musically, Romeu decided to start with an extremely varied repertoire, which - although it includes pieces by European classical composers - also favors the work of Cubans and Latin Americans, which is the “orchestra’s true aim,” she said.

Although the Camerata Romeu has declared itself to be a feminist organization, Romeu said that “We are not fighting against men. We just want to make clear that women can do the same job men have done throughout history. Twenty-five years ago we filled a space that was empty.”

By Yeny Garcia.


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