Discovering Cuban music, culture

        Barbara Lawlor, Nederland.  Andre Mallinger is one of those fortunate persons who discovered her innate talent during her childhood and was able to nurture it through her adult life, transforming a passion into a lifelong career. Taking that passion to the next level, Andre went to the roots of her percussion performance education and traveled to Cuba, where marimbas are the heart of the music.

Now she has embarked on taking Cuban music and culture lovers on trips that involve meeting the people who perform the native salsa music and become enmeshed in the culture that created it.

The local Nederland resident is a guide with True Nature Journeys, which offers People to People travel to Cuba, as well as Peru, Bhutan and Mexico. In 2014, True Nature Journeys received a license from the US government to offer these legal trips to Cuba to study music, drumming and dance. Travelers are required to show that their itinerary meets the educational requirements of the People to People itinerary.
Andre grew up in Virginia. Her first musical memory was of being seven years old and finding an upright piano in the house her family had moved into. She sat at the piano and her musical trek through life began.

“I remember I loved the teacher, I loved sitting on the bench, and I loved the music. It brought me joy. I never had to be pushed to practice. It was my first love.”

Playing the piano was easy for Andre, like she was meant to be striking the keys. She played from third grade to the age of 11, when she joined the school band as a drummer. When the band leader heard that she played piano, he put her on the mallet keyboard, which she excelled at and was soon competitive at the state level.


She won the title of First All-State Marimba when she was a sophomore.

For the next six years, during middle school and high school, Andre played with local ensembles. In 1984, she attended college in Ithaca, New York in percussion performance, a rigorous music education course involving music history, sight singing, which she says she wasn’t very good at, and orchestral marimba, a classical, refined technique. she did not graduate as a percussion major, however.

Andre switched to a liberal art major in anthropology, thinking she would go into academia, studying ethnomusicology. She came to Colorado for graduate work at CU, but at that time, there was no degree available in the subject. She took two ethno-anthropology courses and began playing the Zimbabwe marimba, a more traditional, percussional form of music.

She finished her degree in 1994 and joined her first Zimbabwe band, Chiwoniso,  in Boulder, where the group played festivals, weddings, corporate events as well as school and private functions. Andre lived in Boulder until 1999 when the band dissolved.

“I had always wanted to live in the mountains, being used to the Appalachians, and I took the leap. I went to Nepal and spent two life-changing months there, trekking in the high mountains and meeting indigent Buddha people, loving their complexity, beauty and simplicity. I climbed to 18,000 feet and looked out at the Annapurna Range and vowed I would live in the mountains.”

When Andre returned to Colorado she found a house in the Bar K Ranch, west of Jamestown. She had a landscaping job and taught marimba while playing in a number of ensembles. In 2000, she moved to Nederland and became the director of the Nederland Area Seniors.  At this time, a friend, Mary McHenry introduced Andre to John Leventhal who was on the Backdoor Theater board. John helped Andre get through her grief after her husband died and in the course of that friendship, a romance developed.

“He had a piano and was a musician. I had been going to people’s houses in Boulder to teach when he offered to let me use his house.”

The couple engaged in a sea kayak-trip, traveling the length of Baja, a 650-mile test to see if they could get married. Most of the time, they saw nobody. The kayak was 17 feet long and they would have a 10-day supply of food and water, a lot of rice and flour tortillas. They developed football-player type shoulders and grew bellies. They learned never to waste water. Their rice water would become soup. They ate sea bass, barracuda and trigger fish.

“At the end of the trip we went back and thought we’d be married right away but we were too tired and John sprained his ankle. But we knew that if we could survive the trip together, we could survive anything.”

John began coaching volleyball, basketball and track at Nederland Middle Senior High School and Andre taught piano study both at Naropa and in their Rollinsville home.

And then they traveled.

Between 2004 and 2008, they spent seven months in Asia, in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and three weeks in India. Andre taught English as a Second Language in Costa Rica and then they returned to the mountains. For 12 years, Andre played with a female band named Low Flying Knobs, which she says was a very special group.

For many years, Andre had a desire to go to Cuba, to study the rhythms of the Caribbean, the areas that had been touched by slavery.

“It was not easily accessible which increased the intrigue,” says Andre. “I wanted to feel the combination of world travel ethno-musicality culture, and l learned about True Nature Journeys, transformational travels owned by a long-time friend.” She contacted the owner asking if she had any plans for a trip to Cuba. It was 2012 and travel to Cuba was restricted. You had to have a People to People license through the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the US Treasury Department.

In 2014, the travel restrictions were eased by Obama but one still had to travel under the requirements of the license. Andre applied, having to account for every minute of every day in Cuba and having to be engaged in a meaningful interaction of educational nature with the Cuban people. It took 18 months to get the license, but they wanted to be legitimate according to the US government.

Andre took her first group to Cuba in 2014, where the travelers studied African music extensively, women’s groups, Rumba street musicians. They studied Cuban dancers and the Bata, an hourglass shaped drum, with two heads which are played laterally only by men in religious ceremonies.

Andre says it was all community music. They had a 14-day trip in Havana, with intense drumming as the bulk of their focus.

The first group consisted of members of the marimba community in Boulder. Since then Andre has led four trips, each time developing a broader understanding of Cuban culture.


One confusing fact about Cuba is that they have a dual currency system, says Andre. The Cuban Peso, also called Moneda Nacional; and the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC.  CUC’s are the currency used primarily in the tourist industry: hotels, casas particulares, paladares (privately owned restaurants), bus or domestic airline tickets, concert tickets, and high-priced purchases that Cubans might make, such as a car, house, washing machine, etc.  Moneda Nacional is what Cubans use in their everyday lives, for food, incidentals, local transportation, clothing, etc.  It’s a complicated system designed to boost Cuba’s economy after the “Special Period,” the depression that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The groups move around Havana either by walking or by taking local transportation called “almendrones” or “little almonds.”  These are privately owned taxis, 1950s or older vehicles that operate as collectivos.  “We flag down an almendrone, jump in and off we go. There are specific almendrone routes throughout the city, and everyone pays the same price in Moneda Nacional, which is the equivalent of about $0.30.”

Andre says although the Cubans have been an oppressed people, they have a rich, vibrant art, music and dance culture. Last November, 10 people joined the trip being with the Cuban people as much as they could.  One of the women asked the Americans why they had an interest in Cuban culture, but it was difficult to exchange ideas because of the language barrier. They did, however, convey the thought that they wanted the visitors to understand who they are.

They were thrilled when Obama took office and visited Cuba, the first American president. Last November they became concerned that only those involved in tourism would receive the benefits and they worried about the pressure on their resources, mostly food.

Andre says, “They worry that Americans like to eat big meals and they will have to hustle to get enough food.”

The guides hope they will be able to continue the culture tour as long as there is an interest. Andre says that many of the Cuban guides employed by the government can only talk about what they are told to.

The People to People venture allows the residents to talk about their lives and to experience Cuba through music, dance and drums.

True Nature Journeys are meant for the traveler who longs for authentic travel experience and to discover a fresh perspective on life.

The next journey will take place November 8-19, 2017. Andre and Karen Immerso will lead the travels in master Cuban drum and dance classes, performances and an excursion into the rural town of Vinales,  an immersion into the colorful, vibrant Cuban culture.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.