The documentary film, “Los Hermanos/The Brothers,” captures the personal and professional relationship of two Cuban-born brothers and award-winning musicians, Ilmar López Gavilán, a violinist who left Havana in his teens to study in Moscow, later relocating to New York, and Aldo, a pianist, whose professional training and career developed in Havana. Caringly and adeptly crafted by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, with a heavy commitment and a light hand, Dos Hermanos traces the brothers’ individual, then shared paths through Cuba and the US. The following interview with Ilmar, conducted via Zoom, is the first of a two-part series of interviews with the brothers.
Toba Singer: The film and its score carry an aquatic motif of water, rain, and the sea that separates Cuba from the rest of the world, and feeds its island spirit. Could you say what that theme evokes in you with regard to separation from your brother?
Ilmar López Gavilán: I’m thinking of a particular piece, “Concerto Por el mar de las Antillas anda un violin,” composed by my father. It’s the piece that comes to mind when I think of water. It sounds as if seashells are being tossed by the sand into the waves. It makes you imagine the beginnings of the formation of an island. The film score by Aldo works so fabulously in relation to the story. I adapted texture to violin and piano, but the notes are Aldo’s. The phrasing is found in breath, timing, and the intimacy with which you perform it. That intimacy involves finishing each other’s musical sentences. Aldo does this musically instead of with words. It reflects my feelings, too. For that reason, it is even more interesting in the psychological sense: it’s as if we communicate musically through some kind of psychic blue tooth. Marcia and Ken matched the music beautifully. It transmits the emotional subtitles.
TLS: Your wife, Seojin Yang, speaks about the quiet beauty of a nighttime arrival, and then in daylight viewing the extent of decay in Havana. Once given a few days’ time to consider what she has absorbed, she comes to love Cuba for its classic architectural beauty, contagious spirit and personality. What do her words bring up for you, especially in light of what is mentioned about “experiences you can have only by living in Cuba”?
ILG: I recall that my Dad spoke about that in reference to Aldo. My initial reaction is to smile at the significance of what she says, because she is usually pretty reserved. So, for her to come out and say that is very funny, in an endearing way. Yes, at night, there is a veil of magic. It lends Havana plenty of atmosphere, but you’re not able to see details of the decay. When the veil is lifted, oh my goodness! So many buildings need repair, and this is an unusual sight for those who are familiar only with the “developed” world. You see the obvious, with no pretense of masking it. It could be an off-putting first impression. Then, when you get over it, you see so clearly that every building has a different shape. While touring with the Harlem Quartet, we saw so much cookie cutter architecture that you almost couldn’t distinguish one city from the next, seeing the airports and malls, and little else. That has never been true of Cuba! It made me very happy she admitted that after the first shock, once able to see how beautiful Havana is, she fell for its charm!
Aldo, for instance, when he was in high school during the Special period, when the fall of the Soviet Union left us to our own devices, got around by bike. That sounds very appealing, but for the fact that our family’s very nice apartment is on the 10th floor! Imagine, when the elevator power goes out, carrying that bike up and down! You might think, “Oh, that’s awful!” But those special circumstances gave young people an opportunity to have a little fun. For example, it became the “good” reason, as well as the real one to pick up your girlfriend at her house. That and many other things can turn life a little surreal. It’s a brand of reality that shapes the mind and the music you play and write. You are suddenly living life outside the box, so young people turn it into something fun and romantic. You pull up to a stoplight, look over at the person on a bike next to you, and it’s your teacher! Under normal circumstances that would never happen!
TLS: There seems to be a perfect blend of classical music and son in the film’s score. What qualities were you hoping it would capture?
ILG: Only the kind of experience I just described will make someone write music the way Aldo does. He locates such a high level in the classical tradition! Speaking about my mom, in particular, she was a beacon of information, and taught piano to students who then became very successful classical pianists. She studied in Moscow, and brought from there the highest possible standard. You are surrounded by son, just walking around, and you can’t help but digest it by osmosis. It would not be something that Aldo would try to summon up. It comes from him organically.
TLS: There are scenes where you and Aldo compare the abundance in tourist dollar stores—or their current iteration—with the libreta [ration book] markets for Cuban residents, where there are only basic items. Given Cuba’s relative success in controlling COVID compared to the US having had no plan in place, has the pandemic influenced how you compare the two countries? In the film, your brother agrees that it might be nice to live in New York, were it not for his connections and obligations in Havana. Over the last several months, have you asked yourself whether you would prefer living in Havana under these resurgent pandemic conditions?
ILG: A few people asked me when the crisis hit, and performances got canceled whether I would consider going back. I would like to go back for emotional support. As far as COVID, Cubans were more aware of the situation, so they did stop flights sooner than the US did. Even now, you can’t go back yet. I’d like to send medicines to my Dad with a friend, but the first projected flights aren’t until November. Even with all the problems, the States is still the States, with access to what I need for my music; also, my kids wouldn’t have dependable access to their online classes, so the practical realities keep me here.
TLS: In the film your brother says, “Music can be more persuasive than politics.” It’s not clear whether he is speaking generally or about eliminating the blockade. Do you agree with him, and if so, in what way?
ILG: My brother was probably referring to the blockade, but also perhaps speaking more generally. Many people hear certain ideas through songs that resonate socially, the world over. Take that wonderful encounter with Joshua Bell! He’s an outstanding musician! That wouldn’t have happened as strictly a function of politics. The arts sometimes allow you to transcend a situation where you can get stuck in analysis when communicating politically, or around an abstract notion of “human rights,” for example, where it ends up in a government-to-government tug of war, consisting of ultimatums and conditioned responses. With art, it can be simpler and more of an intimate exchange, in which hearts and minds connect with more fluency.
TLS: In the car, while riding with your brother, you describe the luxury grade MacDonald’s you saw in Moscow. You both agreed that Cuba will not go the way of the Soviet Union. Can you elaborate on what that means to you, especially when you compare revolutionary Cuba with the Stalinized bureaucracy of the Soviet Union that spelled its downfall, seeding the revolution’s piecemeal destruction?
ILG: There are certain bureaucratic commonalities between the Soviet Union and Cuba, but the Socialist Realism school of art isn’t one of them! According to my father, this school, which originated in the Soviet Union, insisted that such themes as soldiers holding guns or workers toiling, were the only proper ones for the visual arts, but similar conventions imposed themes for novels, plays, and criticism. As you know, in China, Maoists went so far as to burn instruments! Such a thing would never happen in Cuba!
Soon after the 1959 revolution, Fidel approached representatives of the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC), with the idea that we Cubans should follow the Socialist Realist lead of the communist bloc countries. But instead of delivering a fiat, he opened up a discussion about it, and in that discussion, all the artists spoke out against that proposal, against taking that direction, and so it was unanimously rejected. Having lived in the Soviet Union and Russia, I cannot imagine artists there speaking out in such a manner!
The cultural trend among young people in Cuba today—not so much among the middle-aged—seems to be a yearning for the novelties that show up in the US, such as tennis shoes and cell phones. For whatever reason, they see movies featuring the McDonald’s drive-through, and that’s what they want! It’s a meaningless thing, but it symbolizes the US fixation on commodities, and Cubans identify with certain US institutions historically, because they were or are popular here too—such as baseball. A place that today serves fried chicken in Havana started out before the revolution as a drive-in movie theater. You would buy your fried chicken and then enjoy it while you watched the movie. Dos Hermanos will have its premiere tomorrow at a Woodstock New York drive-in theater!
TLS: On tour, you saw first-hand the devastation in Detroit, once a destination for those seeking good jobs in the United States, especially auto workers, who have today lost everything. Are Cuban workers aware of the extent of the hardships here, and what the capitalist crisis means for working people here as well as in other parts of the world?
ILG: Had we not toured there, my brother would not be aware that those old Cuban jalopies came from Detroit, or how much industry has been destroyed here. On the other hand, seeing the creative ways communities in Detroit are preserving art reminded him of similar efforts in Old Havana. There is a little alley called El Rincon de la Rumba that is kind of a parallel to the street art we saw in Detroit. It was a reminder that this happens here too! See how artists seek to raise spirits and consciousness to transcend the mediocrity of imposed by decay!
TLS: When you played together, where was the emotional load strongest—before, during, or after? Please describe each—the anticipation, what you visualized or felt while you played, and what it felt like for you when it was over.
ILG: There is a distinction between before, during and after. They are related, but each has its own profile. When it is “before, ” you are feeling an emotional tug, a longing to play with your brother, not knowing how it might materialize. You share a connection with the musical and the personal, as though you were born to share something elevated with that person, and that thing is music. That period is definitely one of intense emotion and filled with the hope that what you imagine will materialize. When I discovered it would take place, I got super elated to accomplish what I had some doubts about before. Then during a performance, it is even better than what you anticipated: to have that liberating experience on stage, to feel that the music is protected because he wrote it. It’s bullet proof, but even so, we practiced as seriously as we would Beethoven, a strict regimen to meet high standards, to achieve that liberating moment of expressing those feelings together.
The Harlem Quartet had a very prestigious residency at the London Royal College, but it was not as liberating as those here. Why? Because they know so much about the music! Present was the editor of “Peters for Haydn Quartets,” the critics’ gold standard for what we were playing. On the one hand, they honor you; on the other, the metaphorical “overtones” of the performance are magnified. However well-prepared you are, ultimately, you face the severest of critics. I connect with my brother. We connect the audience with Haydn, sending it out there as a boomerang that comes bounding back, with you feeling the centrifugal energy in a quietude where you can hear a pin drop. It’s as euphoric as a rock concert. Afterwards, there’s the “¡Hasta la vista!” nostalgia coming full circle, the tug reactivated. It’s like vibrating objects. It’s very nice when one vibrates, but even better when the other does as well! You’ll only feel that vibrational part of you when you go back to Square One, but not really, because deep down, you know it’s too late: it will never feel as amazing as it did the very first time!