Cuba's best classical musicians mix up beats for Pope Francis' visit

Orchestra and choirs showcase island's cultural mix

HAVANA – 35434426

Cuban musicians presented an idiomatic repertoire of Roman Catholic liturgical hymns at the tune of populist Afro-Cuban rhythms and with the precision of European classical.

After months of practice for the huge outdoor Sunday Mass, the youth orchestra and chamber choir had many tapping their feet, during Pope Francis' sojourn in Havana.

Two ancient percussion instruments enriched the religious beats: The dry ratchet-like sound of the "Guiro" scraper and the rattle of the maracas, also known as rumba shakers.

"God's holy and faithful Cuban people have a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things," the pope said in Spanish during his homily. They "march with songs of praise."

Havana's Lyceum Mozartiano music students from the Instituto Superior de Arte, Universidad de las Artes followed the lead of conductor José Antonio Méndez at the Revolution Square.

The closing piece d'occasion was "Salve Regina," by Cuban pianist and composer Jose Maria Vitier. The musician told a Cuban Debate reporter that the song was inspired on the annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

The Cuban composer also said that his son's miraculous recovery after a car crash, made him indebted to the patroness of Cuba -- Our Lady of Charity, also known as Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, or in Spanish "La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre."

Afro-Cuban Santeria followers know the Roman Catholic saint as Yoruba's Ochún, a young "Orichá" or mythological goddess, who represents feminine sensuality and purification.

Many Cubans who practice both religions view Pope Francis' visit to El Cobre Monday as sacred. The heritage of the Santeros' syncopated rhythm of the drums, which they view as a spiritual experience, is present in most traditional Cuban music. 

Archdiocese of Miami Rev. Mark T. Reeves said those following the pope's 10-day trip should enjoy the Cuban take on Catholic liturgical songs, because the tone was going to change in the United States. Pope Francis arrives at Washington, D.C., Tuesday, and New York City Thursday.

Reeves was not referring to the disharmony in Philadelphia, where the pope will travel to Saturday and there are an estimated 1.4 million Catholics.  And their largest ancestries are Irish, German and Italian. There is a small population of Mexican-Americans.

The director of the office of liturgical music in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia John Romerier quit a few months before the historic visit. In his resignation letter, Romerier cited "irreconcilable differences" after "several years of discontent."

"I suspect that in Philadelphia later, it's going to be a little more staid," Reeves said. The music is going to be "a little more formal."

Follow Local10.com reporter Andrea Torres on Twitter @MiamiCrime