The documentary film, “Dos Hermanos/Two 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 Aldo, conducted by phone, is the second in a two-part series of interviews with the brothers.
Toba Singer: The film’s score picks up an aquatic motif: water, rain, and the sea that separates Cuba from the rest of the world, and yet feeds its spirit as an island nation. What does the water theme evoke about your separation from your brother?
Aldo López Gavilán: It means a lot because I’ve always lived beside the sea and it inspires many feelings and emotions in me, not a thing I would attempt to call up deliberately; it’s a natural thing. It having been so near to me, I have always felt the ocean’s energy. It evokes reflection, some melancholic thoughts; it can remind you of both borders and tears. Yes, it can be about separation from my brother, but also the breach with other places.
TS: You mention that Cuba is different from all other countries, not just the United States. What are the specific differences?
ALG: For many years ours has been a different way of life because our economic system is not capitalist. We experience society differently because of the lack of many material things, and our political experience is different. The socialist character of our society makes a big difference in how we live day to day, and how we survive. There is the influence of Eastern Europe because it brought us much of the culture and many artifacts built there that we use here in a unique way. Imagine what it can mean to import these commodities from Eastern Europe to a Caribbean island where they undergo a dramatic metamorphosis as we integrate them into our daily lives!
Here, there is also a feeling of solidarity between neighbors, partners, and families. Often, we have three generations living in the same house. This makes for communication and interaction in ways that are unique to Cuba, which in many countries and cultures are not part of people’s
TS: What surprised you about the Harlem Quartet when you played with them in 2015?
ALG: I’d already heard their CDs and recordings because of my brother [having been a member of their group], and so I knew how great they were, but what really impressed me the most was their ability to collaborate with a jazz style rhythmically, with the accent and phrasing they gave to their parts. It’s not unusual to find good quartets, and they stick to the European classical works, but these guys show an amazing, fluidity and phrasing in the jazz style, especially interpreting unisono phrase sounds with the same accents and diction. With piano, you can make a clearer percussive sound to achieve jazz articulation of phrasing and performance, but this is especially hard for a violin because of the bow.
TS: Ilmar expresses frustration that Steinway assumed that you could ship a portion of your piano from Havana to New York for repair, which is of course impossible due to the blockade. What stands in the way of the US music world fully comprehending the tyranny of the blockade in all its aspects? Should Cuba communicate the urgency of ending it more directly, especially to artists, working people, farmers, and students here, to better convey the extent of the harm it inflicts on Cuban well-being, freedom and prosperity?
ALG: Well, we have done many good things along those lines: concerts, delegations of every kind to speak about this, but people in the US are largely ignorant about this topic. Many believe that Obama’s visit created an opening, but it wasn’t as great an opening as it may have appeared. Now the blockade is worse than ever. We have sought to educate people, engage with them people-to-people, with more information, so that they take more interest in knowing the truth of the situation. This means doing more festivals, events, concerts, master classes, conferences, with interaction that brings both peoples together, so that we ar not relying on government to government diplomacy exclusively.
TS: In speaking about you, your father refers to “experiences you can have only by living in Cuba”? What is he getting at?
ALG: Life here is completely different than in other countries, especially in the US. We have to deal with aspects of our careers that US musicians do not. There, if you’re a concert pianist, you just worry about practicing, interacting, and performing. In Cuba you have to attend to so many personal and production aspects, but at the same time, you have the opportunity to learn so many more things: a free master class from a neighbor, teachers who have so much to give and keep giving throughout your career. Your music education is free. Even with instruments and studio classrooms in such high demand, students get and give so much that the professional training you receive ends up becoming a close and valued personal relationship, like with a family member.
TS: There is mention of you and your brother recording an album together. Toward the end of the film, the two of you visit a recording studio. Was an album recorded there? If so, how can readers obtain it?
ALG: Yes, happily we did record an album! In the film, you see footage of that recording session. “Brothers” is the name of the album; it’s on I-Tunes, and can be found on my website https://www.aldomusica.com/.
TS: Given Cuba’s success in containing the pandemic, do you think that your brother and his family are still better off living in New York than Havana?
ALG: Honestly, I don’t think could know the answer to that, though I see the news of the resurgence of the pandemic in the US, and am in touch with Ilmar and his family, and because they are thoughtful and aware, they know the risk. It is alarming that there is not the support from the US government necessary to protect the health of those who live and work there. At least here there is an effective plan in place, though like there, children have not been able to attend school. They receive classes via TV instead of online; online communication is not as reliable here.
TS: Your wife, Daiana, observed that it was fun but “complicated” to conduct during the Joshua Bell appearance. Can you interpret what she might have meant?
ALG: There are many aspects. All concerts demand full commitment, implying a lot of effort mentally and physically. It required so much to get there, with getting visas and permits. There is the artistic commitment on the part of Daiana to conduct one of the greatest and most famous violinists in the world, creating a tremendous amount of stress as a result of wanting to do her best. Then there is learning the music and the rehearsal. I’m very happy about the relationship with Joshua, and the experience of sharing music and friendship. I very much look forward to it continuing.
TS: Your father observes that the 1959 Revolution designated development of the human potential as its central task, and that art is a fundamental part of that process. Your brother characterized that goal as idealistic. In your opinion is it idealistic or realistic when you consider the alienation that pervades capitalist culture, some of which is transmitted to Cuba via tourism and internet technology?
ALG: I see it as both. Having the opportunity to educate yourself as an artist is something deserving of recognition and that’s the realistic part. Each generation experiences various aspects of life differently under our system. The quality of teachers and professionals who were the founders of our arts training, many of who studied and graduated from schools in Russia/Soviet Union and Germany, makes what we have here amazing because the culture and traditions we benefit from are among the greatest. The revolution brought this to Cuba. That experience confirms the value of our education system, in this case, for music. The quality is outstanding. Just look at the great results from those teachers coming here!
Later on, during the Special Period, everything fell apart. Today, in spite of the terrible hardships back then, Cuba remains a huge producer of artists, and so many talented students can become great musicians. The idealistic part exists side by side with conditions in which so many needed material things are lacking. We are so fortunate to have the ENA [National School of the Arts] conservatory for music and dance that began during the years at Cubanacán [In the early 1960s, Cubanacán was formed out of what had been a racially exclusive pre-revolutionary golf course and country club for the wealthy that the 1959 revolution expropriated. It was rebuilt and repurposed as a high school devoted to the visual and performing arts. It closed during Cuba’s Special Period and the schools for each discipline moved to other locations.]
TS: In the film, while riding in the car with your brother, you respond to a remark he makes about the luxury McDonalds he saw in Moscow, that Cuba will not go the way of the Soviet Union. Can you elaborate on what that means to you?
ALG: This is such a typical theme, the comparison of the former USSR and Cuba! It’s because we’re often pictured as a colony of the USSR, and in a certain way we were influenced politically and in our education by them. At least Cubans here would not like see the big chain stores become part of our lives. That’s because people here are better educated now about those chains and what they represent, especially in other countries around the world. So, we are more aware of what they would do to Cuba. Having said that, I still would like to have Home Depot here! [laughter]
TS: While on tour, you stopped in Detroit, a city of laid-off workers who are suffering the devastation brought on by the gradual but definitive collapse of the auto industry there. What went through your mind? What may working people in Cuba not be aware of that affects their counterparts in the US, the hardships that they currently face, and the social and political implications?
ALG: I don’t think people here know about these things, especially since bad news about the US is pretty much all we get here. So, the meaning may get lost or swept under, as just one more piece of bad news. I don’t think the majority here know what happened in Detroit. We do however know about the reality of police violence there.
TS: When your brother were able to play together, where was the emotional load the strongest for you—before, during, or after the performance? Please describe each—the anticipation what you visualized or felt while you played, and what it was like for you when it was over.
ALG: The biggest emotion was realizing what we did. While we were preparing for it, we were so concerned about everything working, so busy mentally, that we may not have fully appreciated that moment in time. Playing and performing with your brother is a huge emotional experience, hard to describe in words. I enjoyed it so much, while at the same time remaining conscientious about the details. Afterwards, it was, “Wow! We did well, and still, we have to improve, but yes, we made it!”