People walk through the streets as Cuba prepares for the visit of President Obama on March 18 in Havana. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption
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For most of the past half century, Americans were generally prohibited from traveling to Cuba. And those who snuck in — via third countries — were careful to avoid tell-tale marks in their passports. That’s no longer the case, though. Since the U.S. government began loosening restrictions 15 months ago, there’s been a surge of Americans traveling to the island: 161,000 in 2015.
That’s expected to grow when scheduled air service resumes later this year. Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba for any one of a dozen approved purposes including family visits, educational activities, professional meetings, athletic competitions and humanitarian projects.
(Left) The approach to the Christ of Havana sculpture; (right) light clouds hang over El Capitolio, the Cuban National Capital, on Monday in Havana. Scott Horsley/NPR hide caption
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“Christ of Havana,” a 66-foot-tall marble statue overlooking the harbor, is one of the more striking landmarks in the Cuban capital. It was carved by sculptor Jilma Madera of San Cristobal, Cuba, and is said to be the tallest statue in the world by a female artist. Fulgencio Batista dedicated the statue on Christmas Eve, 1958 — one of his last official acts before fleeing Cuba to the Dominican Republic to escape the revolution. The statue is perched on high ground with a commanding view of Havana, including the domed capitol building. “El Capitolio” resembles the U.S. Capitol in Washington, right down the scaffolding as it undergoes renovation.
Cuban security agents keep watch as people wait for President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha at the Catedral de los Angeles during the family’s tour of Old Havana on March 20. Nichola Kamm/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
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One of President Obama’s first stops in Cuba was the Havana Cathedral. One of the oldest cathedrals in the new world, it was completed in 1787, just as James Madison and friends were drafting the U.S. Constitution. The president and his family toured the frescoed cathedral with Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Cuba. Along with Pope Francis — the first Latin American pontiff — Cardinal Ortega was very encouraging during the secret talks that led up to the diplomatic breakthrough between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.
(Top) Standing near the Jose Marti Memorial, a Cuban man holds a USA flag as President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Havana on Monday; (bottom) the plaza surrounding the Jose Marti Memorial visited by President Obama. Enrique Castro Sanchez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Scott Horsley/NPR hide caption
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On his first full day in Havana, President Obama paid tribute to Cuban independence champion Jose Marti, who’s memorialized with a statue and a giant tower at the edge of what’s now the Plaza de la Revolucion. Marti, who’s revered in both Cuba and Miami, was a safe choice for the president. On the opposite side of the plaza, buildings housing Cuba’s Ministry of Interior and Communications are decorated with eight-story portraits of more controversial figures: Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. One can only wonder what these late Cuban revolutionaries would have thought during the welcoming ceremony for Obama, when a Cuban military band struck up the “Star Spangled Banner.”
“I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.” — President Obama, in his televised address to the Cuban people.
The 1955 Pontiac Star Chief convertible that ferried several journalists across Cuba throughout President Obama’s trip. Scott Horsley/NPR hide caption
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History is on constant display in Cuba, so any visit can feel like stepping into a time capsule. Classic cars famously prowl the streets, like the 1955 Pontiac Star Chief convertible in which tour guide Jorge Achon ferried several journalist colleagues and me. Obama says the ability to keep these cars running despite the embargo on spare parts is a tribute to Cuban ingenuity.
The remnants of a wrecked U.S. spy plane on display next to a surface-to-air missile like those used during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in Havana. Scott Horsley/NPR hide caption
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There are many more somber reminders of Cold War hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, which came to a head during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. Cubans proudly show off wreckage of a U.S. spy plane that was shot down over the island while tracking Soviet missiles. “The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict,” Obama said. “It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together.”
(Left) The field for the exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team; (right) President Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro wave to cheering fans as they arrive for the baseball game, in Havana on Tuesday. Scott Horsley/NPR; Rebecca Blackwell/AP hide caption
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Despite decades of isolation, Cuba remains a close neighbor of the United States, culturally as well as geographically. “In many ways, “Obama said, “the United States and Cuba are like two brothers who’ve been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood.” That kinship includes a shared passion for baseball. Obama joined Cuban President Raul Castro at a partido amistoso, or friendly game, between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. Two sons of Cuba threw out the ceremonial first pitches: Luis Clemente Tiant, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians, and Pedro Luis Lazo, who was known as the “iron arm” of many Cuban teams.
A bicycle taxi rides past a building painted with a Cuban flag and an image of Che Guevara, along with the Spanish slogan, “Always toward victory!” ahead of President Obama’s visit in Havana on March 19. Rebecca Blackwell/AP hide caption
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The Twitter Inc. logo is seen behind an Apple Inc. iPhone 6s. Twitter turned 10 this week. Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption
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What kind of gift does one give Twitter on its 10th birthday? And what kind of gift does Twitter give itself?
Hashtags of course. On Monday, the social networking site turned a decade old, and Twitter kicked off the celebration with #LoveTwitter. When used, a heart and a bird appeared next to the words. And for a while, liking a tweet meant that the little heart indicator would jump up into an explosion of love.
Lots of people took to resharing their first tweets, full of banal accounts of daily life, or general confusion over Twitter, or comments about food.
— Joel Luther (@joel_luther) March 22, 2016
Looking 4 food
— Om Malik (@om) July 15, 2006
It was cute: Twitter — for a little while, at least — pretending to be a nice place. It hearkened back to Twitter’s earliest days, when everyone was still nice in 140 characters, and spent most of their time talking about what they were eating.
The nostalgia, it seemed, was a bit disingenuous; in many ways that’s the exact opposite of what Twitter is today.
As the week ended, the Twitter conversation moved from tweet nostalgia to a raging tussle between two presidential candidates — Ted Cruz and Donald Trump — seemingly over whose wife is prettier.
This is Twitter 10 years in: Not quite great, not quite awful, but something in between. And for us, the question is a simple one: Ten years in, what has Twitter done for our politics?
In some regards, the answer is simple: One need only look at social movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and — most recently — Black Lives Matter to see the effects of Twitter on political activism.
But with each of these movements, there are questions. Did Twitter really start the Arab Spring, or would it have happened without the social network? Did Occupy Wall Street actually accomplish anything? Who’s in charge of the Black Lives Matter movement, what do they want, and are they willing to play politics to get it?
Besides activism, Twitter has clearly affected politicians as well. Barack Obama has become perhaps America’s first Twitter president, with that now iconic image of Michelle holding him after his reelection win. And it seems entire plotlines during this presidential campaign are playing out on Twitter, with Donald Trump — a man who may speak the language of Twitter better than anyone else — leading the charge.
Twitter has opened up our national political conversation to anyone willing to write 140 characters. But as we’ve previously reported, that isn’t always a good thing, especially when there’s pressure to respond to everything as quickly as possible, and only in 140 characters.
HI TWITTERS . THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. FEELING REALLY 21st CENTURY .
— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) April 17, 2009
Happy birthday, @twitter. You guys made the world a lot smaller and our words much bigger.
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) March 21, 2016
The thing with Twitter, 10 years in, is that it’s very hard to really answer any of these questions. There is no one Twitter. My Twitter is different than yours. And for every troll it’s empowered, there’s an activist, or a social movement, or a new and needed political voice.
One researcher has attempted to quantify it all: Last year, Shelley Boulianne looked at all the research on social media use, civic engagement and electoral participation — and the results weren’t great. She found that “the relationship between social media use and participation in election campaigns seems weak.” She said the following of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns:
“While these campaigns may have revolutionized aspects of election campaigning online, such as gathering donations, the metadata provide little evidence that the social media aspects of the campaigns were successful in changing people’s levels of participation. In other words, the greater use of social media did not affect people’s likelihood of voting or participating in the campaign.”
Perhaps that sums it up. One decade in, Twitter has changed things — that’s obvious — but it’s sometimes hard to tell if has made our politics better, or worse, or if it’s had some other effect we still don’t know how to explain.
Happy 10th birthday, Twitter! You haven’t matured a bit.
— Elise Foley (@elisefoley) March 21, 2016
In this May 8, 2005 photo, supporters of the far right party NPD gather at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz square. Martin Meissner/AP hide caption
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There are some weeks in which there is so much news about death, loss, and cruelty that you are happy to find a story that can remind you in unexpected ways about life and kindness.
Stefan Jagsch, who is a local leader of Germany’s far-right NPD party, is reported to be recovering after a car crash near Büdingen.
The NPD won a little over 10 percent of the vote in that municipality in state elections this month. The party has campaigned against opening Germany to the more than a million people who have sought asylum in the country, mostly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Stefan Jagsch took part in a neo-Nazi march in January, where immigrants were assailed as “benefit-scrounging tourists,” “invaders,” and “lawless primates.” Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the NPD “anti-democratic, xenophobic, ant-Semitic, and anti-constitutional.”
Earlier this month, Stefan Jagsch was driving when he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree.
The local fire brigade says that passengers in a mini-bus driving along the road saw his crumpled automobile and stopped. Two people got out of the bus and pulled Stefan Jagsch from the wreckage of his car; they began to give him emergency first aid. An ambulance arrived, and the two men assured emergency workers that the man they had rescued from a smoldering wreck had been wearing his seat belt in the car. The ambulance then took Stefan Jagsch to the hospital.
Who were the strangers who stopped to help a man they didn’t know?
According to press reports, the people in the van were Syrian refugees. They left before police could arrive, perhaps because they did not want to tell authorities who they were, or how they had gotten into Germany.
This is a nice, even inspiring story, but it doesn’t have storybook ending.
The head of the local NPD called the rescue of his party’s candidate, “apparently a very good, humane act.” But he didn’t indicate that their humane act had changed his party’s view of refugees as “lawless primates.”
Stefan Jagsch insisted this week on his Facebook page that he was unconscious when he was saved. He gave thanks to “all the people who were on the spot to help me,” but didn’t mention who they were, much less suggest that their kindness caused him to question his feelings about refugees. His post appears to have been taken down.
It is hard for politicians to ever change the views that get them a following. But perhaps a few more citizens may hear the story and see people they had dismissed with a few hateful phrases as people who would help them, too.
Volunteers load cases of free water into waiting vehicles at a water distribution centre at Salem Lutheran Church in Flint, Michigan, on March 5, 2016. Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
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People in Flint are still lining up for bottled water. Two years ago, the city switched its drinking water source to the Flint River. But the water wasn’t properly treated, damaging city pipes, which have been leaching lead into the drinking water ever since.
Now Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says he has a plan.
On Monday, he released a 75 point-plan to target short-term, intermediate-term and long-term needs in Flint.
“I want to solve the problem in Flint. So that’s my focal point,” Gov. Snyder said. “Glad to get 75 points out there that we’re going to work on putting in place.”
The plan includes goals for blood-lead level testing for children, mobile nutritional centers and higher lead testing standards for local water systems.
Some of the short-term items in the governor’s plan are already underway. But many others are unfunded or lack specifics.
And in Flint, some residents are frustrated that the plan doesn’t call for immediately removing all lead service lines.
Flint City Council President Kerry Nelson calls it more of a Christmas list than an actual plan.
“Is it the best effort he can make? No. I think some terms are very vague and it’s going to be a long road before we get to them,” Nelson said. “Time at this junction is not on our side because we need to start digging up and remove all lead-lined service lines.”
After testifying before Congress last week, the Flint water crisis again dominated Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s schedule this week. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption
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In fact, Flint has started digging up the suspect lead service lines, but only about a dozen of the estimated 8,000 lead lines have been replaced so far.
Just as the governor started promoting his 75-point plan to fix Flint, his office received a rebuke from a task force he appointed to examine the city’s water crisis.
“I’ve been asked several times, ‘What caused this?’ ” said the task force’s Co-Chair Chris Kolb. “It was a mixture of ignorance, incompetence and arrogance by many decision makers that created a toxic and tragic situation that produced the Flint water crisis.”
Singled out for criticism is Michigan’s emergency manager law.
It was a state-appointed emergency manager who decided to switch the source of Flint’s tap water to save money, and emergency managers long ignored residents’ complaints about their tap water.
The task force says Michigan’s emergency manager law needs to be changed to allow for more “checks and balances.”
Task force Co-Chair Ken Sikkema says it’s part of a broader need for a cultural change in state government.
“One recommendation we made for the governor is to create a culture in state government where you don’t treat outside opinion as a threat,” Sikkema says. “You use it as a way to reassess the official government position. That change has to occur throughout state government.”
Gov. Snyder listened uneasily as the task force delivered its report. He said the state is already implementing some of its recommendations, some of which are mirrored in his 75-point plan.
But as all this occurs, Flint residents still want to know when they can again safely drink unfiltered water from their faucets.
Let’s say you’ve read every classic 19th century woman’s novel, every canonical retelling of those novels, the more recent mashups (like “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” and “Android Karenina”), and yet you know there’s something missing, a book that would combine the dense plot and rich characterizations of bygone books with more modern sensibilities.
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye is that book. While the story’s eponymous heroine lives in Victorian England, is orphaned and sent to a boarding school and then winds up as a governess on a grand estate, her similarities to, say, Jane Eyre stop at the name. Faye hasn’t embarked on a retelling of Brontë’s masterwork, or anyone else’s, for that matter. Her novel pays homage to the greats, yet offers a heroine whose murky past and murderous present remind us that some female behavior in other eras never made it into print.
We meet Jane Steele when her horrid Aunt Patience consigns her to the Lowan Bridge School. There she makes her first friend, Rebecca (a relationship that may be the most radical in the book), and commits her second murder. That’s right, this Jane is a killer, and Faye does not stint on descriptions of struggle and gore – that’s part of what makes her protagonist feel immediate and real.
However, this Jane is also a fighter with a heart of gold who refuses to settle for her — or any other woman’s — historical lot. We know early on that Jane believes she is in the right: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important,” she says. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that’s because Jane’s steely sense of self is forged there, something that allows her to return at age 24 to a home she knows should be hers — as, of course, a governess. However, that first murder also convinces Jane of her own essential wickedness — another strong but lightly handled thread back to Miss Eyre.
What comes next may be the most delicious part of an already rich novel: At Highgate House, Jane finds herself in the midst of a most unusual household. The master, Charles Thornfield, is a handsome Englishman who relished his service in the Punjab so much that his cook, housekeeper, majordomo, and juvenile ward are all Sikhs. Jane’s precocious charge keeps everyone on their toes as they battle a sinister East India Company scheme to impoverish them.
Battle-scarred but unbowed, Charles and his mysterious butler Sardar enroll Jane in regular household defense and weaponry classes, at which our young killer excels. At the same time, Jane and Charles discover they’re falling in love. Reader, will she marry or murder him?
Lyndsay Faye’s triumph is that neither option matters as much as the compassion these two wounded people manage to find for each other without sacrificing their own internal codes. While the scenes of Jane swinging a sword (or an equally sharp and deadly fountain pen) may be delicious, the satisfaction in this novel is its conviction that the self is enriched by an understanding of others, whether their motives are villainous or amicable.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in the atrium of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C. It is soon to be a Trump hotel. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption
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Donald Trump has said on several occasions that he wants to, as he puts it, “open up” libel laws, so that he can sue news organizations he believes have written what he calls “hit pieces.”
Libel laws now make it extremely difficult for public figures to sue for damages. Still, a President Trump would likely have a hard time changing them.
When he appeared before the editorial board of the Washington Post this week, Trump was asked to explain what he wanted to do with the nation’s libel laws. Trump told the Post, which put a recording of the meeting online, that if a paper gets a story wrong, they should issue a retraction.
“They should at least try to get it right,” Trump said, “and if they don’t do a retraction, they should have a form of a trial.”
Trump said he didn’t “want to impede free press, by the way, the last thing I would want to do is that.”
Trump went on to say that all he really wants is fairness. “It’s so unfair,” he claimed. “I have [negative] stories [written about him], and you have no recourse; you have no recourse whatsoever, because the laws are really impotent.”
Impotent, perhaps from the view of someone who feels maligned, but quite the opposite for journalists.
In 1964, the Supreme Court, in a case known as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, unanimously ruled that a public figure has to prove an offending statement was made with “actual malice, that is with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
Bruce Sanford, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, who specializes in media law, said public officials have a high bar to jump to prove libel.
“They have to prove, at the time of publication, the reporter, the newspaper, the broadcaster, knew they were making a mistake or were reckless in making that mistake,” Sanford said. “That’s a very tough standard, and most public officials don’t have a prayer of proving that.”
Sanford said libel law is very well settled, signed onto by liberal and conservative justices. He said to change it, a president would have to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would be willing to overturn years of precedent.
Or, they could take a different approach. “If you don’t like speech,” he said, “the answer is not to censor that speech, or to try to silence it. What our traditions call for is more speech,” meaning Trump or anyone else could take to Twitter (as he frequently does) or write an op-ed, or, well, make a speech.
Sanford added, “What we don’t have in this country is a tradition of punitive actions trying to silence speech.”
Not that Trump hasn’t tried that tack. Just ask Timothy O’Brien. In 2005, he wrote Trump Nation, the Art of Being the Donald, which, among other things, raised questions about Trump’s claims of vast wealth. Trump promptly sued O’Brien.
“I think it was and is the largest libel lawsuit in U.S. history,” O’Brien said. “He sued me for $5 billion.”
That’s billion with a B. It was, O’Brien said, “substantially higher than the advance I got for the book.”
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, as was an appeal Trump filed. So, too, was a 1985 libel suit Trump filed against the Chicago Tribune and its architecture critic, who had criticized plans for a 150-story tower Trump proposed building in Lower Manhattan.
O’Brien, now executive editor with Bloomberg View and Bloomberg Gadfly, said he was fortunate in that his publishers paid his legal bills. That might not always be the case.
“I think fewer and fewer news organizations have the resources to aggressively mount defenses against well-heeled plaintiffs who are willing to spend a lot of money to simply make a point,” O’Brien said.
And a similar libel suit, or threat of one against a writer or a reporter at a small media outlet might have a chilling effect, even if the law is on their side.
Ibrahim el-Bakraoui (center) appears in this image provided by the Belgian Federal Police in Brussels, on March 22. Turkish authorities say they warned both Belgium and the Netherlands of his terrorist links when Turkey deported him last year. AP hide caption
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In recent years, Turkey has been criticized for doing too little to stop jihadist fighters from moving between the Mideast and Europe. Its more than 500-mile border with Syria has come in for particular scrutiny throughout the five-year Syrian conflict.
Dutch Minister of Safety and Justice Ard van der Steur said Thursday in the Hague that Ibrahim el Bakraoui “was not under suspicion in the Netherlands.” BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
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Belgium’s interior minister, Jan Jambon, shown here at the parliament on Friday, offered to resign Thursday after criticism over intelligence failures. VIRGINIE LEFOUR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption
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But Turkey says it has deported thousands of suspected foreign fighters or Islamic State supporters since 2011 — nearly 3,300 of them, according to a recent estimate. Many came originally from Europe.
One of them was Brussels suicide bomber Ibrahim el-Bakraoui. After Tuesday’s attacks, Turkish officials announced that Bakraoui had been picked up last summer in Gaziantep, not far from the Syrian border in southern Turkey, and deported to the Netherlands at his own request.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his country warned both Belgium and the Netherlands of Bakraoui’s terrorist links. Erdogan repeatedly criticized both countries this week for failing to heed these warnings. Two Belgian cabinet ministers offered to resign over the Brussels attacks; their offers were not accepted.
Turkey has been under steady pressure to get control over the movement of foreign and Syrian fighters between Syria and Turkey. The government denies being lax — but border controls have tightened noticeably in the past year, experts say.
“I believe Turkey is definitely getting better at patrolling the border,” says Soner Captagay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Obviously, Turkey realizes that it has an ISIS problem. But it will be a long time before this becomes a sealed border, if ever.”
Terrorism Crisis Complicates Migrant Crisis
Border security is also an issue in the ongoing migrant crisis confronting Europe. Leaders of the European Union recently struck a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants toward the continent.
The agreement promises Turkey billions of dollars in exchange for a “one-for-one” swap proposal, under which Turkey would accept economic migrants being turned back from Greece while the EU would welcome an equal number of refugees from Turkish camps.
But human rights and humanitarian aid groups have called this deal immoral, cruel and in some respects, illegal. They question whether Turkey is really a “safe third country” for refugees, as required by international law.
Reports in recent months that terrorists who struck Paris and elsewhere may have crossed into Europe on the migrant trail have increased European calls to close borders, build walls and cut off the migrant flow.
As a result, Turkey faces conflicting pressures: EU countries are demanding that it seal the Syrian border and catch would-be terrorists before they attack, while international law and aid groups are calling for it to take the humanitarian path and offer refuge and shelter to those fleeing carnage and chaos in Syria.
Turkey says if European security forces kept better track of would-be jihadi fighters, more of them would be stopped — either before they left their home country or once they reached Turkey. That, however, would depend on a level of intelligence-sharing that so far has been lacking.
Sinan Ulgen, a Turkey analyst and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Turkish officials are rightly sensitive, and perhaps even a bit defensive, about the criticism of their country’s border policies.
“Their almost instinctive reply is, ‘Look at the U.S., how effective is the U.S. in protecting its border with Mexico?’ ” he says. “So I think the expectation from Turkey is to do better — but not necessarily to provide an absolute degree of control over the border, which is impossible, given the geography and the length.”
The Camerata Romeu rehearses at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Havana in November 2015. Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR hide caption
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Cuba is famous for its music. A lot of people have heard of artists like the Buena Vista Social Club and Celia Cruz. But the country also has a long history of cultivating classical composers and performers. On a recent trip to Cuba, I met one group that stands out.
In a country as stereotyped for its machismo as it is for its mambos, you might think an all-female classical ensemble would face an uphill struggle. But Cuban conductor Zenaida Romeu says that’s not so.
“Everybody thinks that Cuban music is just guitar, bass and guiro,” she says. “But we have more examples for large orchestras, for ensembles, for choir — we have a very big, intense musical life here.”
Romeu founded her group, Camerata Romeu, 23 years ago. She wanted to show off the parity between men and women she saw in her native country.
“Even in the 20th century, women had formed orchestras, and had been involved in the culture,” she says. “At that time, I was in Spain, and I felt that the woman was not involved in society as we had had here, in spite that we are third world, and a tiny country. I felt that we had something to share with the world.”
Romeu was the first Cuban woman to graduate from Havana’s conservatory as an orchestral conductor, a fact about which she is very proud. And that conservatory helps feed her orchestra. Young women generally join her group when they’re about 20 years old, and they say that they love collaborating together.
Yadira Cobo Rodriguez is the leader of the second violins and a composer herself. She’s been playing with the orchestra for 14 years. She says there’s a special energy to it.
“Men have more strength, and women, you have a different feeling,” Cobo says. “It’s more angelic, more comfortable.”
Camerata Romeu is a string orchestra — made up of violins, violas, cellos and basses. And it plays the standard repertoire, like Vivaldi, Mozart and Grieg. But Romeu says some of the best composers from Cuba and beyond have written for her group, including Brazil’s Egberto Gismonti (with whom they have recorded for ECM) and Cubans like Leo Brouwer and Guido López-Gavilán, who heads the organization of the contemporary music festival for which I had traveled to Havana in the first place, and whose Camerata en Guaguanco has become a signature piece for the Camerata Romeu.
“So this is a privilege, because they work a lot in silence, in solitude, and they have a destiny: our orchestra,” Romeu says. “Now, the literature of a string orchestra is bigger than when I founded the orchestra. So any orchestra now could be interested. If they are interested in playing Cuban music, I have music to share with them.”
Camerata Romeu hasn’t had a chance to share with listeners in the United States, though, since 2001.
“Well, I have a dream to return to the U.S. We have been four times there … but before the year the towers fell down,” Romeu says.
“After that, we had a silent time in between our countries,” she continues. “So it’s a dream to renew the relationships, the cultural relationships, and we can go again. We want to open again those spaces for our orchestra. We have been working hard all this time. I would like to share this music, and the happiness of doing music.”
With any luck, Camerata Romeu will be one of the groups to benefit from the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
The late Harry Bertoia is most famous for the iconic chairs he designed in the 1950s, which are now coveted by collectors of mid-century modern furniture.
But that was only one part of his career. Bertoia was also a renowned sculptor. He spent the final decades of his life creating works that make sound. Now those pieces are getting a fresh appreciation with an upcoming museum exhibition in New York, and the release of Bertoia’s personal recordings in an 11-CD collection called Sonambient: Recordings of Harry Bertoia.
Bertoia was born in Italy in 1915 and moved to Michigan as a teenager. He’s famous for the chairs he designed, but his real love was sculpture. Bill Johnson/Denver Post via Getty Images hide caption
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Bertoia’s recording studio was an old wooden barn on his property in eastern Pennsylvania. It looks unremarkable from the outside. But when you step inside, it’s equal parts art gallery and sanctuary.
“It was almost church-like, very private, almost sacred to enter to hear these sounds,” says Val Bertoia, Harry’s son. Val worked as his father’s assistant, and helped build some of the sculptures that are still carefully arranged around the renovated barn.
Bertoia points to a sculpture that looks a cluster of thin metal rods, dozens of them, with small weights on top. They look like metallic cattails swaying in a breeze. “This one I think is, in my own opinion, one of Harry’s very best tones or tonal qualities in a sound piece,” he says.
To play the sculpture, Bertoia brings the weights together gently. There’s a loud ringing sound, like a bell, then a gradual decay as the wire rods continue to move on their own. More than 90 of these sculptures are arranged throughout the barn. Bertoia coined the term “sonambient” to describe them.
“Some of the sounds sound like bit like church bells way off in the distance,” says Beverly Twitchell, a former art history professor at Marshall University who befriended Harry Bertoia in the 1970s.
“Some sound beautiful and rich and full. Others are a little disturbing,” says Twitchell. “Some of the sounds are kind of cold and icy. And others seem almost golden somehow.”
Bertoia looks at one of his art pieces at his studio in Barto, Pa., in May 1956. WFA/AP hide caption
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The sculptor was born Arieto Bertoia in Italy in 1915. He moved to Michigan as a teenager, where he went to college with some future heavy hitters: architect Eero Saarinen and designers Charles and Ray Eames. Bertoia was part of the team that designed one of the Eames’ first bent plywood chairs. Later, Bertoia moved to a small town in Pennsylvania, where he designed his famous chairs for the furniture company Knoll. But Bertoia’s real love was sculpture.
“As he worked with metal, he found occasionally that he would bend a rod and it would make a noise,” says Twitchell. “And gradually he kept thinking. ‘I wonder what would happen if you did this, I wonder what would happen if you did that?’ What kind of sounds might come out.”
Once Bertoia discovered that sculptures could make sound, he became obsessed — and built hundreds of them.
“I build sculptures that can move in the wind, or that can be touched and played, like an instrument,” Bertoia said in an interview that aired on public television a few years before he died in 1978. “My works are all over the world. But for years, I have kept my best pieces at home, which is really my laboratory.”
In his barn, Bertoia would play the sculptures for small invited audiences, or by himself late at night. His sounding pieces never got that much attention from the wider art world — until now. They’ll be part of an exhibition in May at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. And there’s the collection of Bertoia’s recordings put out by Important Records. John Brien runs the label. Brien says he’s trying to share the feeling of Bertoia’s barn with a wider audience.
In his barn, Bertoia would play his sculptures for small invited audiences, or by himself late at night. His sculptures are in the barn where he left them when he died in 1978. John Brien/Important Records hide caption
toggle caption John Brien/Important Records
“It’s a quasi-religious experience,” says Brien. “It’s meditative,” Brien say. “It sends you inside of yourself, the physiological effect of vibration.”
But it’s hard for a recording to convey the full experience of hearing and seeing the sculptures together, in exactly the environment Bertoia intended. How long those sculptures can stay in his barn, however, is an open question.
“It’s almost too late,” says Harry Bertoia’s daughter, Celia. “We’ve got to move the collection before it is too late.”
Celia Bertoia started a foundation to preserve her father’s legacy. She says the barn is not a suitable place to store his sculptures — partly because of security, and partly because it’s just not equipped for big crowds.
“One thought we’ve had is to have part or all of sonambient collection moved to a public museum somewhere, and try to recreate that space.” Celia Bertoia says. “It would make it so much more accessible. I feel that I have to do this. I’ve got to protect my father’s works.”
Bertoia’s children are at odds over whether their father’s sculptures should be moved. Val Bertoia says his father wanted the sculptures to stay in the barn. Celia Bertoia believes the collection should be moved to a location with better security and accessibility. John Brien/Important Records hide caption
toggle caption John Brien/Important Records
Both Celia and her brother Val insist they’re trying to carry out their father’s wishes. But they have very different ideas of what that means. Celia is not happy with the way her brother managed the estate. And she filed a lawsuit seeking control of her share. Val still lives in the Pennsylvania house where he grew up. And he works in the same sculpture studio his father used to run.
“When I worked with Harry in the 1970s, that was his intent,” Val Bertoia says. “To keep everything as is throughout his life, and throughout my life and on. We feel it’s more of a historical landmark and grave site. That it would be kept almost museum-like, very precious.”
For a while, Val Bertoia tried to fight his sister’s lawsuit. But he ran out of money. And now seems resigned to the idea that many of his father’s sculptures will be leaving the barn as soon as this fall. But Val Bertoia says he’ll continue to offer tours of the family’s property, where his father is buried. The grave is marked by one of his sculptures, a huge one-ton gong.