Harlem/Havana Festival: Benefiting the Community through Business, Art and Partnerships

Photo Credit – Seitu Oronde

In May, I wrote about my historic trip to Havana as part of The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s People-to-People Tour of Cuba. In August, GHCC hosted the 2017 Harlem/Havana Music and Cultural Festival as part of the 43rd annual HARLEM WEEK. The event featured international visual and performing artists, as well as fashion, education and culinary exchanges.

Cesar Lopez and Habana Ensemble kicked off the jam-packed week with a rousing and inspiring performance, followed by the all-female, folkloric dance and drumming ensemble, Obini Bata.  The week’s activities also included a cultural exchange and musical performance at Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Newark, N.J.

It was great to see many of the artists we first met during our February visit.  GHCC seamlessly added the Cuban cultural makers, fashion designers, and culinary artists, to the program of HARLEM WEEK. The Cuban artists performed in restaurants and clubs. There also was an amazing Harlem/Havana International Art & Photography Exhibit at the Mural Pavilion of Harlem Hospital.  Cuban chefs shared their culinary magic at selected restaurants including Marcus Samuelson’s famous Red Rooster Harlem.  The new Whole Foods Market-Harlem, which recently opened on 125th Street, also featured Cuban cuisine and a musical performance by the Cuban jazz pianist, Jorge Luis Pacheco.  The Cuban musicians and dancers also held a master dance workshop at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and performed at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

The closing reception for this extraordinary week was held at the Mural Pavilion of Harlem Hospital. It was a grand affair—from the musical performances, fashion show and the food to the special guests, including Eduardo Roca Salazar, also known as “Choco,” one of Cuba’s greatest visual artists. I had the opportunity to meet “Choco” at his gallery during my trip in February, and I am not surprised that during the closing reception he was swarmed by new fans of his work.

I salute the vision of the GHCC leadership, which has been the guiding force behind HARLEM WEEK for 43 years. Lloyd Williams, President of GHCC,  has an uncanny memory and uses it to bring out the strengths of his team. His leadership style is strict yet nurturing, sprinkled with a bit of humor. But Lloyd also knows when to push everyone to achieve excellence. His network and resources are extensive and interconnected, making it possible for him to bring together business interests, economic developers, elected officials, faith-based leaders, as well as representatives from education, the arts and culture, to create a high-quality and successful event.

Voza Rivers is the Executive Producer of HARLEM WEEK and HARLEM/HAVANA. A pure lover of the arts, Voza has produced Broadway plays and runs New Heritage Theatre Group, founded by Roger Furman and the Harlem Arts AllianceVoza is always working on creative projects, engaged with a broad array of arts makers and entertainers. His vision and execution are flawless and audiences adore his events.

GHCC collaborated with numerous organizations to create this amazing week. This year, I was a part of the promotional team and I gleaned unique insights into what it takes to successfully create this type of event:

Visionary leadership combined with a strong business acumen, as demonstrated by Lloyd and Voza. This week was a win-win for all partners, the community and the artists.  The community responded to the invitation to engage, participating in the restaurant events; attending performances, and purchasing art.

It is possible to successfully combine art and business without compromising the integrity of either one. They feed each other to the benefit of the community.

In thinking about community engagement, make it as broad-based as possible. Consider including hospitals, grocery stores, churches and street festivals. These businesses, institutions, and other venues were successfully added to the list of the organic, indigenous cultural organizations that are an obvious fit.

In addition, community participants, within the span of one week, had the opportunity to experience the music, dance, visual arts, food and fashion of Cuba; a country with whom they have cultural roots, but limited exposure and interaction. This event serves as a great example of how collaborations can make possible opportunities for diverse people and cultures to respectfully and joyfully interact, engage and exchange, even when they speak different languages. Harlem opened wide its arms and its heart to welcome new Cuban friends, and the new friends were thrilled by the warm embrace, which was demonstrated in all of their performances and interactions.

I believe these types of cultural exchanges provide a great opportunity to break down the walls and barriers deeply dividing our nation. Events like the Harlem/Havana Music & Cultural Festival can be replicated throughout the country. And I would like to encourage the arts community to take the lead by forging partnerships with our nation’s Chambers of Commerce to make it happen. It doesn’t have to be an international event—it can be borough to borough; urban and suburban; interfaith; interracial, or even tackle the barriers of language through the arts, music, food and other cultural exchanges. When we know the hearts of our neighbors, we won’t be so quick to dismiss them or to pass legislation that marginalizes or denies them the right to live.

I hope you will keep these words from Buddhist scholar, author and educator Daisaku Ikeda in mind: “The life and essence of art—whether it be painting, music, or dance—lies in expressing through a wellspring of emotion the universal realm of the human spirit. It is a melding of the individual and the universal. That is why great art reaches out beyond ethnic and national barriers to move people all over the world. ”The possibilities resulting from the collaboration of the arts, communities and businesses are endless and so are the benefits! I urge you to get started today.