When USF music professor James Lewis went to Cuba in 1996, he was unaware his short trip would become a three-week journey into Cuban culture and music. His problematic solo voyage by sailboat made the usual three-to-four-day trip last a bit longer than expected.
But during his stay in Cuba, Lewis, who started out as a jazz musician in his youth, met several musicians and became extremely interested in Cuban music, though he always had a bit of curiosity about it.
He investigated a new interest that, through the years, has been sparked by several Cuban and Cuban-American students and a good deal of research.
“It changed my direction as a musician,” Lewis said.
While exploring his newfound musical landscape, Lewis learned of a composer by the name of Alejandro Garcia Caturla.
Caturla, born in 1906, was one of the first Cuban composers to use Afro-Cuban rhythms — instruments and melodic types of dance beats from African music — in his concert repertoire.
“His music was way ahead of its time,” Lewis said. “As a composer, (Caturla) had the attention of most of the world.”
Caturla captured the attention of Lewis, who said he is in the process of completing an opera he composed based on Caturla’s life.
“It just started from discovering his music but it led into all these other aspects in his life,” Lewis said. “There were several aspects which were interesting about him.”
One angle that captivated Lewis was Caturla’s respectability as a judge, which, according to Lewis, might have been one of the motives behind his 1940 assassination.
“(Caturla) was a judge who had a lot of integrity in a very corrupt country, and he couldn’t be bought,” Lewis said. “But a lot of things contributed to his assassination.”
Some of the other things that contributed to the culmination of hatred Caturla endured, Lewis said, included trying to help out workers, slaves and former slaves as a political activist, in addition to having two black common-law wives during his lifetime.
After Caturla’s first wife died, he married his sister-in-law.
“Of course, (marrying a black woman) was looked down upon,” Lewis said. “It was a very racist society there at the time, as well as elsewhere.”
Caturla’s interracial marriages, which produced 11 children — five of whom Lewis has met — will be touched upon in Lewis’ opera, The Death of Caturla.
“The opera will deal with a lot of these issues — the black wives, his work as judge, his work as a composer, and his death,” he said.
Lewis is already receiving recognition for his work, which is two-thirds complete. His music can be special-ordered at various music stores.
During a trip to Havana in April, the Cuban Institute of Music, the National Philharmonic of Cuba and the National Symphonic Orchestra honored Lewis with a diploma of recognition “… for the entirety of your artistic work and, most significantly, for your efforts towards the diffusion of the music of the master Alejandro Garcia Caturla.”
“It’s an enormous thing to have an American composer recognized,” said Michael Foley, a USF modern dance professor who went to Cuba on the same trip.
Lewis has been recognized during his career with awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the Florida State Arts Council, The MacDowell Colony, the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, The Djerassi Foundation and The Ragdale Foundation.
“I think (Lewis) is intensely creative and has a great respect for culture,” Foley said.
Lewis is currently on sabbatical from teaching to work on the opera and will return in January.
The finished product will be presented in April 2005 as USF’s contribution to a festival for Latin American and Caribbean Arts.
Lewis said he works with the department of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at USF.
“I don’t do much for (the department). They do a lot for me,” Lewis said.
The department sponsors Lewis on trips to Cuba for research and enables him to interact with historians, anthropologists, scientists and artists.
Lewis said he hopes to one day teach a course in Cuban music.
For now, Lewis’ focus remains on the opera, whose two completed acts took him and his collaborators three years.
His closest collaborator is Noel Smith of the USF Graphicstudio. Smith is composing the libretto, or lyrics, to the bilingual opera.
“We felt the need to compose the opera in Spanish and English,” Lewis said. “(Smith) is fluent in Spanish and I’m not.”
Lewis and his team presented four scenes of the opera at the USF theater in August. After the presentation he offered the audience a chance to make comments, which he later used to make some minor adjustments.
“As an artist, (Lewis) is really open to the ideas of others,” Foley said. “He wants to see his music realized in the greatest possible way.”