The streets of Havana are bursting with music. Salsa, cha-cha, mambo, danzón — Cuba’s capital city pulses with familiar rhythms and free-flowing melodies made for dancing. But Cuba’s music and its musicians have an unlikely ally: classical icon Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart never knew how to salsa, cha-cha, or mambo. And yet, musicians in Havana insist that he would fit right in.
Several years ago, Berlin Philharmonic French horn player Sarah Willis visited Havana for a masterclass, and stumbled into a project that has changed the direction of her life: recording Mozart’s music for horn — and traditional Cuban dances in new arrangements — with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, in a series of albums she called “Mozart y Mambo.”
The most recent recording, Cuban Dances, is like a musical roadmap of Cuba, with the first-ever Cuban classical horn concerto as its centerpiece. Willis commissioned a different composer for each of its six movements, and what emerged is a vibrant suite of traditional Cuban dances written in classical terms. Mozart sparkles here as well: his Horn Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 open the album, and the last piece, “Pa Pa Pa,” is an arrangement of the Papageno/Papagena duet from The Magic Flute.
Willis recently visited Symphony Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic, for a concert with the Celebrity Series of Boston. She spoke with CRB’s Kendall Todd about the genesis of “Mozart y Mambo,” the Cuban music and musicians she loves, and her battle with the elements — and no small amount of wildlife — to get these albums recorded. Hear the interview in the audio player above, and read the transcript below.
For more about “Mozart y Mambo,” including a link to donate to Instruments for Cuba, visit Sarah Willis’s website.
Kendall Todd I’m Kendall Todd from WCRB, and I’m here at Symphony Hall with Sarah Willis, who has just released an album called Cuban Dances, and it’s the second part of her “Mozart y Mambo” project. Sarah, thank you so much for your time today.
Sarah Willis Hi, Kendall. It’s great to be here. Especially great to be back in Boston after so long.
Kendall Todd Well, welcome back. We’re glad to have you here. So the first thing that I would love to hear from you is how did the “Mozart y Mambo” project come to be?
Sarah Willis Well, it’s turned into much more than just an album. It’s turned into this huge project, and it’s truly been the adventure of my life. It’s just been an incredible journey. And it basically started because I wanted to dance salsa [laughs]. And salsa was something I learned in Berlin with a Cuban dance teacher after I’d fallen in love with the Buena Vista Social Club album. Of course, that’s how most of us discovered Cuban music. And I didn’t really, musicians are not really great dancers, I must say, at least classical musicians. Classical musicians at a disco after a concert is usually quite a sad affair. You know, we prefer to express our rhythm through our instruments.
But someone persuaded me to go along to this class, and Cuban music just did something with my body. It was something that I just felt I had to move to. And I learned to dance, and I carried on in Berlin, and then when I was teaching at New World Symphony in Florida, I decided that I would fly to Havana. I heard it was only 30 minutes. Little did I know it was like 3 hours’ check in Miami and then 2 hours waiting for your luggage in Havana. But I decided I wanted to go and it was all organized.
And the horn grapevine is such that even the horn players in Cuba heard that I was coming and got in touch with me and said, would I give them a masterclass? And I was quite surprised there were even French horn players in Cuba because we know there’s trumpet players and trombones in the salsa bands. But I wasn’t sure if there were any French horn players at all, but I said “Yes, okay, I’ll do a masterclass,” and not really expecting much. And on the first day I arrived, I went, I met the conductor of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. He picked me up at the airport and we went for a walk. And I saw these bands outside on the street in Havana, and I said to him, “Can we dance?” And I could see in his face like, “Oh, no, I have to dance with this foreigner.” So we danced and and he realized, “Oh,” you know, “she can move.” And I was very, very touched that he said that I dance like a Cuban. That was the best compliment anyone has ever give me.
And the next day, he took me to meet the horns of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. Not only the horns of the orchestra, but they’d come from all over Cuba. There were about 35 of them, and nobody even, no one knew there were so many horn players in Cuba, but they’d come and I literally fell in love with them from the very first notes they played. They were playing on terrible instruments, but they were playing with a passion and with beautiful sound and musical phrasing. And you could tell that they’d been taught musically very well, but they were being held back by their instruments. We had a fantastic time and I just loved this spontaneous way of making music. And really that was the moment I decided I have to do something. I’m going to get them better instruments, I’m going to do something for them.
And that evening I went to a concert by the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, which is a chamber orchestra, a young chamber orchestra that have been together for about 12 years. They’re not state funded. They are an independent orchestra. And they played Mozart. And I was blown away once again. You could tell they weren’t playing on great instruments, but they had, they brought a real lightness to Mozart, a dance-like feeling. It was really incredible. And that’s how this idea came, first of all, to help them, to do something, and to bring awareness to the fact that this classical music-making was going on in Cuba. Did you know there was such great classical music-making going on?
Kendall Todd I can’t say that I did.
Sarah Willis No. No one did. So I went back and filmed a few episodes of, I was doing a TV show at the time called “Sarah’s Music,” and people were like, “Wow, this orchestra’s really good.” And out of that, the idea of recording the Mozart horn concertos with them was born, and it’s turned into this crazy project, “Mozart y Mambo.”
Kendall Todd That’s a fantastic answer, and I love these albums so much. They’re so beautiful.
Sarah Willis Thank you.
Kendall Todd So you play with the Berlin Philharmonic and you also spend a lot of time in Cuba with this project. And so I’m curious to know how you would characterize, like, what it’s like splitting time between these two places.
Sarah Willis “Split” is not a good word, at least for horn players [laughs]. For maybe the listeners that don’t know what I mean, when horn players miss a note, we call it “splitting a note.” We do everything we can to avoid that, but the French horn is really a very specific instrument. What you blow in the mouthpiece is not necessarily what comes out the other end, but we do our best not to split notes.
But how do I how do I divide my time? Well, first and foremost, the Berlin Philharmonic is my job, and I am happy and proud to play in that orchestra. And everything I do additionally to that is because I’m a horn player in the Berlin Philharmonic. I mean, we’re very lucky that many doors are open to us. The Berlin Philharmonic horn section consists of eight players, so we’re not all used at the same time. If there’s not a piece that needs eight horns, like if there’s Mahler or Bruckner or Strauss or something, we’ll all be there. But if there’s only four horns on, then some of us get time off. So I hamster-save my time off and then fit it all together and then disappear for a month off to Cuba to get this project done. So I’m very lucky that I have very flexible colleagues and flexible working hours. But for example, a tour like now when we’re in Boston playing here at Symphony Hall, all of us have to come on the tour. And so we can see at the beginning of the season, okay, I have to be there then, then, then, then, and the rest of the time I’m teaching or traveling around the world with my horn and spending a lot of time in Cuba.
Kendall Todd Sounds very busy.
Sarah Willis It’s very busy. I’ve been asked if I have been cloned because I pop up all over the place. But I love what I do and I love communicating about what I do. And yes, who was it that said “if you rest, you rust?” So I keep busy.
Kendall Todd That’s fantastic. One thing that I also would love to know is what sort of a role Mozart’s music has played in your life up until now.
Sarah Willis Well, we horn players are very lucky that Mozart wrote four amazing concertos. Also a Concert Rondo, a quintet for strings, and a little piece called a Concert Movement that I adore that we recorded on the first album. So Mozart, these pieces have been like a true staple for us horn players. We learn them right at the very beginning. We play them all through our career. For every audition, we just play Mozart all the time. And now that I teach, I hear Mozart all the time. Everybody brings Mozart to masterclasses, to private lessons. So basically, Mozart surrounds us, these pieces. And I think it’s a dream of most horn players to be able to record these horn concertos. And most people put them together on one album. They record all four, and then if they’re lucky, they can put the Concert Rondo on there too, squeeze it in there at the end, and then that’s the recording.
There are many, many great recordings of the Mozart horn concertos. So when I decided to record them myself and mix them a little bit with Cuban music, that was my way of showing that I like to do things a little bit differently. And mixed it up with Cuban music, not only with pure Cuban music, but also we transposed Mozart a little bit into how it would sound if he had been in Havana. So Mozart has been, Mozart is very important for every musician. Mozart was a true genius. And the Cubans say, though, that Mozart would have been a good Cuban because of all this dance music and the improvising that he did and his just, his love of life, which is exactly how the Cubans make music.
Kendall Todd That’s beautiful. I was going to ask you about what that phrase, “Mozart would have been a good Cuban,” meant to you.
Sarah Willis Ah, you did your homework. Mozart would have been a good Cuban. You know, when we were planning this project, we were in some bar in Havana one night after a concert of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. And we got to talking, you know, Cuba Libres and mojitos were flowing, and I asked some of the musicians, you know, “What is it about Mozart? Do people here actually know him? The musicians, yes, but do people on the street know him?” And the answer was yes. Most people would recognize his music. And then one of them came out with this statement, “Mozart would have been a good Cuban.” And when I asked him why, he said these answers, you know, that the improvising that Mozart did, you know, Mozart never played the same thing twice. He would sit down at the keyboard and he wouldn’t play what he wrote down, either. He would just, you know, improvise away. And that’s what Cuban music is all about. It is never the same thing twice. The dance element, the romantic part.
And funnily enough, our conductor said that Mozart was very good with the ladies, and the Cubans think they are too. So that’s another thing they have in common. When we were recording the Third Horn Concerto, the Romanza, the second movement, is actually quite slow. And I was playing it at a tempo I thought was good. And the conductor, we call him Pepe, his full name is José Antonio Méndez Padrón, which is quite hard to say on the radio. So we call him Pepe [laughs]. And he turned around, and he said, “Sarah, romances in Cuba are not that slow. Speed it up a bit.” And he was right. We found a nice tempo for a nice fast romance.
Kendall Todd I would like to ask you about him as well, because in your liner notes for the album, you said you’ve called him your “musical soulmate.” And I wanted to know what it’s like to work with him and what makes you click.
Sarah Willis It’s very special to find another musician who you never really have to talk about musical phrasing and dynamics and the way of making music, performing, rehearsals . . . It just clicks. And this is what I found in Pepe and vice versa. You know, he found that he could conduct me, he could breathe with me as a horn player. And he knew what I wanted in concerts. If I’m struggling a little bit, he’ll just look at me and he’ll know, okay, let’s speed up this bit or slow this down. It’s been very special working with him.
But what I love the most about him is his passion for what he does. He is such a fantastic conductor. He could have made a career outside of Cuba, no problem. He could have, he could be conducting an orchestra, making an awful lot more money, traveling around the world. But he has decided to stay in Cuba to look after the next generation of classical musicians there. And he does an amazing job, really, against all the odds, it’s not easy. The Havana Lyceum Orchestra didn’t get any funding for a long time, and this project has finally made people sit up and take notice of how fantastically they play. And Pepe is really a champion of classical music in Cuba, and I admire him and love him very, very much.
Kendall Todd That’s fantastic. We spoke about how you can hear some Cuban things in Mozart’s music. And I’m wondering if you hear anything of Mozart in Cuban music.
Sarah Willis Well, when we started the “Mozart y Mambo” project, the idea was originally just to play Mozart’s horn concertos and some Cuban music. But then we started discussing, how would Mozart have sounded if he’d lived in Havana, for example, or if he’d just come and visited. We knew that he’d had these influences like “Rondo alla Turca” [ed.: the third movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11], we knew he’d had some Turkish music influences. And he, all sorts, I mean, composers are always influenced by everything and that’s fantastic. They bring it then into their music.
But he’d never been to Cuba, obviously. And so we decided to try out how he would have sounded by putting his music to a beat. It mustn’t sound cheesy. That’s what I really wanted. It had to be very well done. It’s very easy just to take a well-known tune and put a beat underneath it. But I asked some Cuban arrangers, really fantastic arrangers, to create some unique, very original things from well-known pieces like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, that everybody knows. Everyone’s heard it in a million versions and it plays in every elevator, in every hotel in the whole world. And also the Mozart Horn Concerto Rondos, because they are really so well-known and they are perfect.
I don’t know whether I hear Cuban– now, I hear Cuban music in Mozart because I’ve been playing it for the last two years. But original Mozart, I hear dance elements in it, and the other way around, now, when I hear Cuban music, I hear structure in the Cuban music that I didn’t know was there before. I had to learn a lot of dances to do this project. The first album was just “Mambo,” and the second album, Cuban Dances, is exactly what it says in the title. It’s quite a few new Cuban dances that I, some of them I knew, like the bolero or the cha-cha-chá, others I had no idea about, the guaguancó, which is an Afro-Cuban rumba, and the changüí, that nobody had really ever heard of. It’s like dancing salsa with hiccups. It’s all on the off beat. So it’s [sings]. And so I had to find out about these. And I don’t hear Mozart in them, but I hear what Mozart did. I hear a structure, I hear love of life. I hear the improvisation element, obviously, which is something, it’s a big challenge for me as a classical musician to even attempt improvising. The people who can improvise say, “Hey, it’s really easy, just try it.” And the people who can’t, it’s a nightmare. And I unfortunately am one of the people that really found it very difficult. So for me, the two, I can’t separate the two anymore. And that’s a wonderful thing.
Kendall Todd That’s great. I’m so curious about the dance element in the Cuban music, because I know you’ve spoken about this before and the phrase that you’ve used in your website and in your liner notes is, “if you can’t dance it, you can’t play it.” And being a salsa dancer and having all of these dance experiences, I’m wondering how you’ve been able to tap into that for this project.
Sarah Willis Well, for album two, Cuban Dances, I had commissioned a Horn Concerto, it was the first horn concerto ever to appear out of Cuba. Nobody had composed like that for the horn before, and I commissioned six young, incredibly talented Cuban composers to write me an original work for horn. And there have been six Cuban dances that have come together in a suite. And these dances were traditional rhythms, like I said, the cha-cha and the mambo and the changüí, but to original music. So original themes, melodies for the horns, original orchestration, and also the fact that they’d written it for horn, because there was never a horn in any popular music in Cuba. That was just not an instrument. You know, we point backwards. That’s not really great in a salsa band. No one would hear you.
Kendall Todd [Laughs]
Sarah Willis So when the piece was finally ready, to make a very long story short, this was our COVID lockdown project. I actually visited Cuba twice during lockdown and spent quarantine, I twice did quarantine in a Cuban hotel and then was there where there was nothing on the streets, no music, no cars, no nothing. It was really, there was a curfew. It was really hard, but we got this piece written. And I’d taken it back to Berlin and I was practicing it, and a few months before the recording, I realized I could play the notes, but I really, it wasn’t sounding, it was sounding like a gringa. It was sounding like someone who was really trying to do her best but was just not getting it.
And I called up Yuniet Lombida, who was one of the composers and a fantastic saxophone player from Cuba. He was living in Germany at the time, and I said, “Please, can you help me? Something’s wrong. I’m not getting it.” And he came to the Philharmonie in Berlin to help. And we went into a practice room and he said, “Chica, you’ve got a dance them!” and I said, “But there’s six dances.” He said, “Let’s start now.”
And that was the afternoon that the whole thing changed for me. You cannot play a Cuban, Afro-Cuban rumba if you don’t know where it comes from and where it is in your body, because the clave, the beat, is different and the emphasis of where this beat comes, you do it with your body. And it was the same with the danzón, the national dance of Cuba. It was the same with the son, the guaguancó, the changüí, and the “Sarah-cha,” the “cha-cha for Sarah.”
And I literally learned how to dance them. I could do the mambo already, thanks to “Mozart y Mambo” part one. But I learned all these dances and I’m not a particularly amazing dancer, but I really felt that I had it in my body, and that really helped the horn playing. There were still technical challenges on the horn as well. I mean, you’ve got to translate all that into a very small mouthpiece. And there were lots of fast notes to learn as well, but to be able to dance this music was very important.
Kendall Todd That’s great.
Sarah Willis I’m a bit worried that I’m going to put off all the horn players listening who are going to think, “Oh, I can’t play this if I’m not going to turn into a fantastic dancer.” It’s not that at all. It’s basically just understanding where these rhythms come from and feeling them in your body. You don’t have to dance them in public. But, uh . . . [laughs]
Kendall Todd [Laughs] That’s great. I know as a classical musician, it is hard sometimes to make things, you know, make them swing.
Sarah Willis Yes. We’re not, we see the music and this was the challenge of Cuban Dances because it’s a bit like the Buena Vista Social Club part two, but in a younger version, because in the film, there are these amazing old musicians, Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo and all these amazing musicians that were just playing what they know and love. They weren’t reading from music. And on my Cuban Dances, we actually have two members of the Buena Vista Social Club, the original Social Club, as soloists.
Kendall Todd Oh, wow.
Sarah Willis And it’s sort of, like, made a full circle. And they were telling us about making the film and making the recording. They were like, “Well, we had to play these pieces,” and Cuban songs can go on for about 15 minutes, you know, everyone has a turn and they make up the text as they go along. But they always come back and then the percussionist will just change the clave and then they’ll be in a completely different dance. And to film that, he said, was really difficult because they’d play a great song, and then Wim Wenders would say, “Okay, again, please.” And they were like, “We can’t do it again!” You could never do it the same twice.
So what we’ve done is we’ve taken it a step further and we’ve written down these rhythms for people like me, for classical musicians to understand how to play this music. And it’s especially important for the percussion because in Cuba you just write mambo, cha-cha, whatever, and they just know what to do. But here in the west, you have no idea. So they’ve written it all down. Something like changüí I don’t think was ever written down before in classical terms. And for me to have my horn part, I said, “If you write it, I’ll play it. Even if it’s a squashed fly on the page. If I see it, I’ll play it.”
So they had to think of ways to write the articulation, to put the accent, to put the slur. And even then you still have to bring your own interpretation to it. But you know, you can’t just see, if you see notes, you go “ta-ta-ta-ta-ta,” but actually you’re meant [sings]. You know? And so these Cuban composers had to find a way. They had to find the key, the legend, or I don’t know quite what you, what even the technical term is, to write it down. And so we have all that now. So it’s going to be an amazing databank for Cuban composers in the future.
Kendall Todd That’s amazing. I love hearing about all of this process.
Sarah Willis Thank you. I love talking about it. I’ve probably gone on far too long.
Kendall Todd Oh, no. I’m wondering as well how you would characterize recording all of these pieces, like with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra and with the Sarahbanda, which is a name that I love, first of all.
Sarah Willis It’s cool, isn’t it? A lot of people never realize what it meant. They just hear “sarabande.” It’s like the Bach suites.
Kendall Todd [Laughs] Well, seeing it written out like that. . .
Sarah Willis A “banda”. . . Sarah’s banda. Yeah.
Kendall Todd But, yeah, how was that recording process? It looks like a lot of fun based on the videos and things that you’ve posted.
Sarah Willis It was a lot of fun and we still have a lot of videos to come of the “making of.” We’re releasing them slowly, to just show people what it was like. I was very lucky. I brought Christoph Franke with me, who’s the Audio Director of the Digital Concert Hall in Berlin, so I know him very well and he’s recorded my other horn albums, and he’s done both Mozart y Mambo and the Cuban Dances. So I brought him to Havana. With his assistant, they brought all the equipment with them as well, so it was a huge undertaking. I brought a film crew from Germany. I mean, now that looking back on it, I’m thinking, how on earth did I manage this in COVID times as well? It was really, we did the impossible. But he came and instead of a beautiful studio, he had a dressing room where cockroaches ran around and the toilets didn’t work. There was no water. The air conditioning couldn’t work because it made a very loud noise. So the working conditions were very difficult.
Also for me, because we had to start recording about 11:00 at night because outside in Havana, there was no soundproofing in the church that we were recording in, and Havana is not a particularly quiet city. Cubans are not a particularly quiet people. They they like to celebrate life. And especially at night, they shout on the streets. The kids play ’til very late. The dogs and cats are equally as vocal. So we had to record quite late at night and it was literally like having a permanent jet lag, the week of the recording.
We would be there by 9:30, have some dinner, do the sound check, record from about 11:00 and finish about 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. And once again, against all odds, especially the animal odds, because the dogs would fight on the street. A cat came in and decided to meow during my best take of the cadenza in the Mozart concerto. A bird was in there one night, couldn’t get out, but then finally went to sleep. The worst was a little cricket that would not be quiet. From about midnight, this cricket decided to make a lot of noise. Now, we were in a church with very high arches and we didn’t know where he was. We just knew the corner he was in. We worked out if we banged on one part of the wall, he would be quiet for about 20 minutes. So we had to have someone on cricket duty every night.
Kendall Todd [Laughs] Oh man.
Sarah Willis And there’s even a bit on the new album where you can still hear him. I’ll let your listeners work out where that is. If anyone can find that, find the cricket, then I will be very impressed.
Kendall Todd Oh, my goodness. I’ll have to go back and listen very carefully to hear it. Oh, that’s amazing. I was wondering, you know, do you have any favorite stories from your recording?
Sarah Willis Oh, there’s one of them. [Laughs] It was also very hot in there because we couldn’t, there was no air conditioning. And Havana’s a very hot place. And when you play the French horn, you have a metal mouthpiece, you know, on your face for most of the time. If you’re hot and sweaty and the sweat starts running down, that metal mouthpiece starts to slide. Also, your hand gets sweaty. I mean, it was really quite a challenge.
But we did it. And I love my musicians so much. And they have a very hard time in Cuba right now. There’s a lot of difficulties, a lot of shortages of every basic need that they have. But when they play music, you would never know that because they play with all their heart. They never complain. It’s really a very special time. So one of my favorite memories would be when we finished recording the guaguancó, the Afro-Cuban rumba, part of the Cuban Dances Concerto, it was their favorite movement. It’s movement number three in the suite, because it’s like the top of the mountain. It’s a very special rhythm that you don’t quite get it, our ears don’t understand it at first, so we didn’t want to put it right at the end. We put a more popular one right at the end, but it’s in the middle of the suite and it’s brilliantly composed by Wilma Alba Cal, a wonderful young lady who actually composes for choirs in Havana, but did a great job with the horn. And it was their favorite number, this Afro-Cuban music.
And so we finished recording it and the percussion went absolutely bananas. They just would not stop. And so, everyone started doing a conga around the church. And it was three in the morning. And the conductor, Pepe, went crazy and everyone just stood up and the percussion went crazy. And I’ll never forget that moment. It was really wonderful. I think we have a video of it coming soon. But yeah, there were so many wonderful moments recording “Veinte Años,” which is a beautiful Cuban song with Carlos Calunga from the Buena Vista Social Club. He was a backing singer back then.
Kendall Todd Wow.
Sarah Willis So he was quite young and he came. We only did two run throughs of it, two takes.
Kendall Todd Oh my goodness.
Sarah Willis And I had such goosebumps and literally we were all crying at the end of it. And you can hear that. I think we took it practically the whole take as it was.
Kendall Todd Wow.
Sarah Willis That was an amazing moment. And then the very final moment of recording, the very last minute of Mozart, and then just that hug that Pepe and I gave each other because we were just so happy and proud and couldn’t believe that we’d done it.
Kendall Todd Those sound like all amazing moments. And I have loved watching the videos that you’ve put out about this project as well. I think they’re really wonderful.
Sarah Willis Thank you. It’s an important part of this. It’s not just, these days it can’t just be an album. It can’t just be music you listen to on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever. You need the visual to go with it. And I was very aware of that from album one, and we were very lucky that for album one I made a film for Deutsche Welle, which is a German news channel, and they commissioned the film to be made about the project. And the video we made to it, “Rondo Alla Mambo,” the very first video, it went totally viral. It had like eight and a half million views on Facebook within a few weeks.
Kendall Todd Wow.
Sarah Willis And that was incredible. And for this second one, I really wanted to do a different type of film. So we brought a film crew with us again. And on German TV there’ll be a movie about it soon and hopefully it’ll come out in English at some point as well. But this visual aspect is very important. It has to be a whole product. Can’t just be a music thing. It’s hard work these days, you know, [you] used to be able to just go into a recording studio and then just get it out there. But now it’s all these things. And then interviews for the radio! Oh, my goodness.
Kendall Todd [Laughs] Oh, sorry.
Sarah Willis [Laughs] No, it’s a total pleasure.
Kendall Todd I would love to know more about the documentary that’s coming out.
Sarah Willis It’s called Cuban Dances and it’s a road trip. And we took the whole orchestra on a road trip of Cuba. Cuban Dances, the concerto, is like a musical road map of Cuba because each dance originated in a different part of Cuba. So we got on a bus in Havana and went 17 and a half hours across the whole country to Santiago de Cuba. Just saying “17 hours on a bus” is bad enough. But you haven’t been on the streets in Cuba. I tell you, every bone in your body is shaken and stirred.
And we got there and we recorded, we filmed each dance where it came from. So Santiago de Cuba, then we went to Guantánamo. And to get filming permission in Guantánamo was really not so easy. We filmed in a banana plantation in the middle of the country near Guantánamo. We went to Matanzas, which is not far from Havana, and filmed the the danzón, the national dance of Cuba. And then we went to the poorest part of Matanzas to record the guaguancó, because that’s where the music originated from. The African slaves would come into the port of Matanzas and sing of their homesickness, and then they would mingle with the Cuban culture. And that’s how this rhythm was born. And then we did the cha-cha and the bolero in Havana.
So that’s what we made a film about, a real road trip, a map of Cuba. And it was a lot of fun, but it was also quite a huge challenge to move us all across the country and in these days in Cuba, just to find hotels and to find enough to eat. And those were quite cool bus rides. The Havana Lyceum Orchestra knows how to have a really good time. And we, when the film comes out, I’ll be releasing some videos of what goes on on that bus. They literally dance on the bus.
Kendall Todd [Laughs] It’s like a, like a rock band on tour almost.
Sarah Willis Totally. Except at night, late at night, and in the mornings. They can sleep then through anything.
Kendall Todd Well, that sounds really wonderful. I’m excited to see it when it comes out, and I hope they release an English version as well.
Sarah Willis I will do my very best.
Kendall Todd [Laughs] Thank you. That’s great. One last thing that I have to ask, because I love these videos as well. And I’ve watched every one that’s on YouTube. The “Sarah’s Music Horn Challenge.” I would love to hear you talk about it.
Sarah Willis Oh, yes. Well, I was doing a TV show for Deutsche Welle called “Sarah’s Music.” They were 12 minute segments every other week, which was a lot of work next to my job in the Berlin Philharmonic. 12 minutes of TV is a lot, but they gave me free rein. I could do it on whatever I wanted, whether it was John Williams or Wynton Marsalis or Baroque music or house music or rap. I could choose what I wanted to do, and I loved it. But I decided it needed a running gag. So I would present whoever I was interviewing my horn at the very end, and they had to see if they could get a note out of it. The “Sarah’s Music Horn Challenge.”
Now, of course, that all had to stop in Corona times because nobody wanted to play anybody else’s French horn. But before that, we did an awful lot of horn challenges. And I think the most popular one was Wynton Marsalis, and John Williams came pretty close after that. He was great. He used to play the trumpet, so he just took the horn and played a few notes. I said, “Is that Star Wars?” He said, “No, it was Beethoven.” But he got a few notes out of it. So I was very impressed. But we’ll have to see when hygiene allows. We will start it up again. But I don’t think the world’s quite ready for the Horn Challenge just yet. Otherwise, I would have brought it and you could have done it live on the radio.
Kendall Todd [Laughs] Oh boy! I’m a violinist. I don’t know what I’d do.
Sarah Willis Yeah, that’s the whole point. The worse you are, the more we love you.
Kendall Todd That’s true. Those make the best videos. Is there anything that you’ve taken from that experience of doing “Sarah’s Music,” or more specifically, the Horn Challenge?
Sarah Willis It’s just a bit of fun and I think these days it’s very important to communicate about what you do and what you have a passion for. In my case, classical music. But of course, then to surprise people who think maybe classical music is a little bit too serious for them, might even be a bit too boring. You have to sit in a concert hall, turn your phone off. Ugh, terrible. You don’t know where to clap. And I feel it’s somehow my mission to get out there and show people how amazing classical music can be. It’s all about the live experience as well, because nothing replaces a live concert hall experience, as we saw here in Symphony Hall when we performed the Korngold. It was, it’s just incredible. You can’t have that experience— It’s great we have radio and streaming and all things digital, but the whole point of all that is to get people to go and experience it live.
And I feel like that’s, you know, you take on the sort of evangelist role of communicating that. And I feel very lucky in my career. I’ve had a lot of fantastic things happen and why not share them with other people? And the “Sarah’s Music Horn Challenge” was just a little way to make people smile and to have the unusual happen. And when you can surprise people and make them laugh, you know, maybe they’ll think we classical musicians aren’t as serious as they thought we were. So I think it’s learning with a bit of laughter as well. If you can give people information, but also make them smile, I think that’s the best combination. That’s what I try and do with all the things that I do, especially with the Cuban project.
Kendall Todd I love that. Thank you so much. Sarah Willis, It has been so great to talk to you today. Thank you so much for your time.
Sarah Willis Thank you for your great questions, Kendall. And next time we’re going to get you mambo-ing, okay?
Kendall Todd Oh, boy. I’ll look forward to it.
Sarah Willis Thanks so much.
Kendall Todd Thank you.