Four students of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra smile as they receive applause after performing prior to a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 3, 2017
Minneapolis (AFP) - Question marks again cloud US-Cuban relations, but one element of engagement is moving ahead -- a joint youth orchestra, which aims to build both musical and personal connections.
In an initiative that emerged after the Minnesota Orchestra's landmark trip to Havana in 2015, four students from Cuba this month traveled to the midwestern city of Minneapolis to study in the inaugural Cuban American Youth Orchestra Academy.
The Cubans, who study in Havana but often lack more advanced training and their own instruments, learn under experienced performers in Minnesota -- and as people they find common ground.
"I believe that music is like an ambassador between the two nations. Personal interests aren't put first; it's just the music," Adriel David Rodriguez Laza, a 21-year-old cellist who was part of the group, told AFP by telephone from Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Orchestra played Havana shortly after then president Barack Obama moved to end a half-century of tension with the communist island. Tensions have crept back up under Obama's successor Donald Trump, who has questioned reconciliation.
During the visit, Cuban and US musicians together played Mendelssohn's "Octet." Hoping to make the exchange two-way, the Cuban musicians in turn performed a folk composition from the island.
The musicians from the two countries hope to play together next year as a chamber group before a goal of creating a full-sized Cuban American Youth Orchestra, made up of high school-age students, which would tour in 2019.
"We want to find musical phrases together and share musical, emotional feelings together," said Osmo Vanska, the Finnish conductor who is music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.
"There is no politics in music. That's one of the great things. We can come together without any negative baggage from history," he said.
- Gift of instruments -
The four Cuban musicians came together after discovering Puccini on YouTube, creating what they called the Crisantemi Quartet after the opera master's elegiac piece.
Rodriguez would play at his university and on a cello on loan from his aunt but never had his own instrument -- until now.
He and another student -- his sister, violist Adriana Deborah Rodriguez Laza -- were presented their own instruments after donations collected by Rena Kraut, executive director of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra.
"I was very happy and very moved. I was almost speechless," he said. To buy a cello in Cuba, he said, "you would need months or even years" of salary.
To Rodriguez, the prospect of working as a classical musician is daunting in Cuba, a country with a rich musical heritage but more identified with jazz, salsa and African-influenced rhythms.
"Yes, you can live from music, but not from classical music -- from more modern Cuban music you play in the streets," he said.
"It's difficult being a classical musician in Cuba because it's not what the public wants most," he said.
He called the time in Minnesota "magnificent," saying he was able to witness a different experience.
"American musicians have another way of seeing music. They have other opportunities," he said.
- Different feeling for music -
Kraut became aware of the potential for mutual learning when she headed to Havana with the Minnesota Orchestra, the first trip there by a major US classical ensemble in 15 years.
The orchestra had practiced a Cuban piece and in one section had to clap out the rhythm. The audience of young people was baffled at the Americans' musical sense.
"Every single student stopped and looked at us and they said, like, 'What are they doing?" Kraut said.
"Their sense of innate emotional connection to the music is much more advanced than with American students in general," she said.
"American musicians, we play much more by the book, and they play by the heart," she said.
The students entered the United States relatively easily, with Washington making exceptions for artists even when its embargo on Cuba was tightest, and corporations have supported the project.
But with the Trump administration scaling back the US presence in Cuba in response to mysterious sonic attacks on US diplomats, the Minnesota Orchestra increasingly expects Cuban musicians to travel to third countries to arrange their US visas.
Kraut, who fondly recalls traveling as a youth to Russia when the Soviet Union was collapsing, vowed to persevere no matter the political uncertainties.
"This is art diplomacy in action and it only benefits the people of both countries. They have a lot to learn."