Q-band Soho: Middle Eastern Dance and Music in Cuba

Helson Hernandez

Gretel Llabre.

HAVANA TIMES — “This may be the right time to organize an Arab Culture Festival in Cuba,” says Gretel Llabre, dancer, choreographer and director of the dance company Q-band Soho in her interview for Havana Times.

HT: Q-band Soho marks a difference in Cuba.

Gretel Llabre: We are the first Cuban company to stage Middle Eastern dance and music performances.

HT: Dancers and musicians perform together live in your shows?

GLL: Yes. The work actually becomes much more interesting when you intertwine dance and music during a live performance. The audience is drawn in by the magic of our instruments because these are so exotic in our culture. The dancers also play musical instruments, and this gives our company a distinctive touch.

HT: How did you become interested in the distant culture of the Middle East?

GLL: They are not so distant to me because of my background: my grandfather on my mother’s side was Lebanese. Arab culture also left its mark on ours owing to the many immigrants, chiefly from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in Cuba towards the first half of the 20th century. I’ve always wanted to reconnect with my roots.

I had the fortune of meeting a belly-dancer through a friend. Her name is Tiffany Madera, or Hanan, an American of Cuban-Moroccan background who came to Cuba in 2003. We began to learn of this dance genre through her. We later met a Cuban percussionist, Franqi Corbea, who had been given a darbuka, an Arab drum, as a gift. He had taught himself to play it. We decided to combine his playing with the dance and it made such an impact on us that the group got together in July of 2004. Today, in addition to being the musical direct, he plays several instruments, such as the darbuka, the santur, the bata drums, the Riqq, Quena, Indian tablas and others.

Gretel, Lianet and Tania.

HT: What were you doing, professionally, before Q-band Soho was formed?

GLL: I was a music teacher at the Eduardo G. Delgado Art Instructors School.

HT: What is your background, then?

GLL: I have a degree in Arts Education. My specialty is Music Education. My career as a dancer began when I graduated at 23.

HT: What is it like to promote Middle Eastern dance and music in a country like Cuba?

GLL: It’s been difficult but highly rewarding. At first, as tends to happen with all things new, people looked down on the dance because of its sensual movements and because, at first glance, it looks to be an “easy” style. We’ve been changing this perception little by little. We’ve been developing our art. At the beginning, we only performed Arab dance and music. The name of the company was Aisha al Hanan at the time. As we began to develop our work, we started to incorporate new elements, such as modern Cuban dance, Afro-Cuban rhythms, classical Indian music, traditional Cuban music, Brazilian rhythms and others.

We could define ourselves as a Middle Eastern dance and music company with a global and contemporary outlook. We’ve also had support from the Casa de los Arabes Museum, belonging to the Office of the City Historian, a place our company grew, for we’ve been working with them from the beginning. The agency that represents us, CARICATOS, has also aided us.

HT: Do you hold workshops in order to guarantee that these traditions aren’t lost?

Gretel and Franqui

GLL: That is in fact one of the most important parts of what we do. We’ve created a school where we offer vocational workshops aimed at girls aged 5 and older. There are no specific pre-requisites and there are no limitations in terms of age or build. This school has nourished the dance company that has contributed its experience and helped consolidate the company’s style. We organize two shows every year. We perform at many different festivals, venues and events. The work the school has been doing has grown to an extent we never anticipated. It is now growing and we are creating an Eastern dance movement in Cuba of such proportions that there are now several Eastern dance companies in the country. This may be the right time to organize an Arab Culture Festival in Cuba. That is one of our future plans.

HT: What does the company name mean?

GLL: Sohos are the multicultural neighborhoods of big cities, places where different cultures, stores, markets and activities converge. It sounds like “Soko”, which are oriental markets and family businesses. The “Q” comes from the latin “quid”, the crux of the matter. Meaning we’re a Cuban-styled “Soho.”

HT: When do you plan on performing at Arab countries?

GLL: We’ve had the pleasure of performing for diplomats from Arab countries and we’ve had very positive responses. When the opportunity arises, or we are invited to do so, well, it will be an immense pleasure for us to show the world what we do.