Over the Rainbow: To Cuba with the Michigan Community Touring Choir

CubaEarlier this month, the Michigan Community Touring Choir made “Witte history” as the first of our groups to travel to Cuba!

From April 1 – 8, 2016, I was fortunate to be the Witte representative accompanying the Michigan Community Touring Choir for Witte’s first tour to Cuba! This group was directed by Dr. Meredith Bowen and included singers from the Holland Chorale, Sistrum, and the Lansing Women’s Chorus, as well as a number of other singers from throughout Michigan.

dupont mansion, varadero, cuba
The choir posing in front of Dupont Mansion in Varadero

Their repertoire included the song, Over the Rainbow (arr. Russ Robertson). This song quickly became the theme song of our travels to Cuba—

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Many of us in the group (myself included) were only in elementary school when Fidel Castro came to power in January, 1959. Until very recently, Cuba may as well have been “over the rainbow” as far as most Americans were concerned.

car in trinidad

Part of the appeal of travel to Cuba is because it has been “closed” to most Americans for more than 50 years—but there are many, many reasons why Cuba is a very interesting destination. First of all, it is a beautiful Caribbean Island very close to the United States. Our flight from Toronto to Havana was only 3 ½ hours and in the same time zone, but when we landed, we didn’t have to say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas.” From the moment we entered the chaotic Havana Terminal, it was very clear that we were indeed “over the rainbow”—and in another world.

Besides the beautiful weather, one of the other main attractions of Cuba is their rich culture the “people to people experiences”. For a music group like the Michigan Community Touring Choir, the opportunity to have workshops with Cuban choral directors and joint concerts with Cuban choirs was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

cuban audience in havana
Cuban audience at a performance in Havana

Our group had three choral workshops/exchanges/joint concerts—in Cienfuegos, Matanzas and Havana. The quality of the Cuban choirs was outstanding and the Cuban choirs were equally impressed by the Michigan Choir. In two of the three exchanges, the Cuban directors and choirs taught our group new songs that they performed together at the end of the concerts. Wow– what a special experience for the American and Cuban performers and audience!

Choral workshop in Matanzas
Choral workshop in Matanzas

Whether your future travel plans to Cuba are as part of a performing group or for another of the 12 approved reasons, here are a few highlights plus a few words of advice—

We stayed in Havana the first night and then went to Cienfuegos for two nights before returning to Havana. Day excursions also included Trinidad (near Cienfuegos), Varadero, Matanzas, San Francisco de Paula (Hemingway’s former home) and Cojimar (setting for Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea). The combination of being on the north and south side of the island and in cities, smaller towns and country roads gave us wider view of Cuba. Definitely visit more than just Havana when you go to Cuba.


I had expected run-down buildings badly in need of repair but I wasn’t prepared for some truly magnificent architecture including the Spanish Colonial buildings in Trinidad and homes reminiscent of the French Riviera in Cienfuegos. Havana itself reminded me of a less glamourous version of Nice, France. I was also prepared for and looking forward to seeing all the classic 1950’s American cars—and they were everywhere. What surprised me was that there are lots of newer cars too—and also horse drawn carts.

Horse-drawn cart in Havana

Other surprises—

Hotels: These were a pleasant surprise. We stayed at the Hotel Capri in Havana and the Hotel Jagua. Both are 1950’s vintage, but nicer than expected. The lobbies and public areas were lovely, hotel staff pleasant and efficient, elevators, plumbing and air conditioning worked fine and the breakfast buffets were almost embarrassingly bountiful.


Restaurants and Food: Especially as a vegetarian, I was not sure what to expect from the food. In addition to our huge breakfast buffets, most meals were in the private restaurants known as paladares. Many of these are in private homes, so each one is unique. Yes, there were lots of black beans and rice, but the meals were varied and usually included beautiful fresh salads and scrumptious desserts. Non-vegetarians can expect to eat lots of pork and seafood. Besides mojitos, other beverages were always available. Water is always served in bottles.

street dog in Cuba
Street dogs are a common sight in Cuba.

Bathrooms: The amenities for tourists are, of course, worlds away from what the average Cuban experiences. It’s difficult for the Cuban people to purchase even basic items like soap and toothbrushes—so be sure to bring some to give as gifts. Also, many buildings do look like they are about to fall apart and, except for the hotels and nicer restaurants, the plumbing (especially the bathrooms) is inadequate, not very clean, and frequently out of order. As noted in our Travel Tips, make sure to always have toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bottled water.

In spite of these inconveniences, I encourage anyone who has the opportunity go “somewhere over the rainbow” to Cuba. After all, there is no longer any reason to say, “Oh why, oh why can’t I.”

choral performance in Matanzas
The choir performing in Matanzas

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Check out our earlier blog post Travel to Cuba: Who? Why? How? for answers to some FAQ’s.

Do’s & Don’ts for a Perfect Performance Tour

Do's & Don'ts for a Perfect Performance Tour
In early March, I had the pleasure of joining the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers during their concert tour of Germany and Austria. This was my first time traveling with a choir, and since I was primarily there to watch and learn, I compiled a list of a few things to keep in mind when preparing for a European performance tour.

in salzburg
The group posing with the statue of Mozart in Salzburg, the city where he was born.

DO: Appoint a “Luggage Crew” to load/unload luggage, music stands, instruments, etc.

The Singers had pre-assigned a crew of about six people who were in charge of loading and unloading luggage. This really expedited the process – rather than everyone standing around and waiting for their chance to grab only their suitcase from the bus, we waited in our seats while the crew unloaded everything. Two people were also pre-appointed to retrieve and distribute hotel room numbers and keys. Once all of the suitcases were lined up on the sidewalk, we could just grab our bags and go. This efficient system allowed all 60 of us to get checked into a hotel within ten minutes!

DO: Expect to do a lot of walking. (But DON’T wear brand new shoes, unless you want blisters.)

In the United States, we get accustomed to driving everywhere and pulling into a parking lot right in front of our destination. But Europe was built long before tour buses and motorcoaches came into existence, and many old city centers and small towns are still only accessible by walking along narrow, cobblestone streets. Considering the distances that we covered during walking tours, while independently exploring cities, and en route to concert venues, we easily averaged at least 3-5 miles each day.

On a walking tour of Prague.

To avoid blisters, aching arches, and swollen ankles, be sure to bring along good shoes. Not necessarily new shoes– but comfortable shoes that are already “broken in”.

DON’T: Forget to pack warm clothes that can be worn for performances, if you are traveling during any time of the year other than summer.

The churches and cathedrals that had been selected as concert venues for our tour were breathtaking, and unlike anything I have ever seen in the United States. They had been chosen for their symbiotic relationship to the music that the Singers had come to perform. Their soaring ceilings and vast stone interiors had been purposefully designed centuries ago specifically to showcase the works of Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and other Baroque and Classical composers of the day. Likewise, these same compositions were often inspired by and written for these venues.

However, although these elements are aesthetically and acoustically ideal for a venue, they also predate modern central heating systems and, in early March, they make for perpetually cold concert environments. The Singers always looked very sharp in their concert dress, but they must have been freezing. They were troopers though, and never once complained, but I was trying not to shiver despite wearing long pants, a sweater, and a jacket. During their final concert at the Kollegienkirche in Salzburg, the women were encouraged to wear black pants underneath their skirts and a scarf around their shoulders, which seemed to help a little.

Kollegiankirche, Salzburg
The Kollegienkirche was beautiful, but a little cold– notice the audience bundled up in their coats and hats!

So unless you plan to travel during the warm summer months, you may consider packing some long underwear or fleece leggings to wear underneath your concert attire, and perhaps ask the women to invest in a simple black cardigan or shawl that can be worn during particularly chilly performances.

DO: Give impromptu performances whenever it’s appropriate (and after obtaining permission).

After Dinner or Tours: Monique, our tour manager, would frequently invite the Singers to sing a song or two after finishing dinner at the hotel or upon completing a walking tour or museum visit, as a way of thanking the servers and guides. These songs were always very appreciated and well-received.

Outside of Performance Venues: We had a little extra time before rehearsal began at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, so the Singers assembled in front of the church and sang for the audience of passers-by that quickly gathered to listen. It was a great way to promote their concert later that evening, and the onlookers really enjoyed the spontaneous performance.

Not pictured: The small crowd that had gathered behind me to watch the Singers’ lively performance of “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired” in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where they gave a concert later that evening.

At Meaningful Sites: The Singers were able to pay tribute to Bruckner in the chapel above his grave at the Abbey of St. Florian, and let their voices ring throughout the ornate Haydn Hall. Such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities were some of the tour highlights for these music students.

For me, the most powerful moment on the tour was when we were leaving the Buchenwald concentration camp. We had stopped for a visit to Buchenwald on our way to Leipzig, and spent a couple of hours quietly roaming among the foundations where overcrowded dormitories and ominous crematoriums once stood, and viewing the black-and-white photo exhibit on display in the museum there. The Singers were denied permission to sing a memorial song on the grounds, so instead they sang on the bus as we drove away. Their hauntingly beautiful rendition of Biebl’s Ave Maria gave me chills as we rode down the winding roads lined with beech trees that, only decades before, had been the site of such sadness and despair. My mind recalled the images that I had just seen of liberated prisoners—hardly more than wide-eyed skeletons—walking past these very trees on their way towards freedom, and the Singers’ soaring vocals carrying that hopeful melody made it a reverent, moving experience.

DON’T: Leave your umbrella at home!

This may seem like a no-brainer, but even though I consider myself an experienced traveler, it somehow never occurs to me to pack an umbrella. After yet another long Michigan winter, I think I was too optimistic about the weather we’d encounter while in Europe. Sure enough, our first few days were beautiful– sunny and spring-like– but then on Wednesday morning, we woke up to a light but persistent drizzle that lasted throughout the day. Most of the group members had remembered to bring their umbrellas, and our bus driver Rein had a few tucked away to lend to people, but I was reminded to add “Umbrella” to my mental checklist the next time I pack my suitcase.

DO: Ask someone to be the tour photographer.

If you have any non-performers traveling with you, ask them to be in charge of taking pictures during your trip! Taking photos is a great way to remember all of the amazing things that happened, and sharing them on social media allows your friends and family back home to follow your tour from afar.

Some of the Singers taking a selfie with our tour guide in Vienna.

With all of the excitement and activities that go on during a tour, there’s not always time to pause and pull out your camera—especially during a performance. On the other hand, if you spend the entire trip peering through a lens because you’re worried about missing a photo op, you’ll miss out on actually experiencing everything first-hand. By appointing a couple of people to take pictures, you can relax and enjoy each moment as it happens, reassured by the knowledge that all of the memorable ones are being properly captured and preserved.

Furthermore, if you have a very large group, you may find that assigning a couple of tour photographers will save you time during museum visits or walking tours. Instead of holding up a guided tour through Haydn’s house just so that 20 people can take the exact same picture of his wig, your one or two designated photographers can be entrusted to thoroughly document the experience for everyone. Plus, it reduces the risk of anyone getting lost or missing out on interesting information from the tour guide, simply because they were still in the previous room Instagramming a marble bust of J.S. Bach.

Lastly, be sure to encourage your photographers to post their work on your group’s social media pages for everyone to enjoy!

We would really love to see your tour photos too! Tag @WittePerformanceTours on Facebook or @WitteTravel on Instagram to share your experiences with us.

To purchase the USD Chamber Singers’ CD on iTunes, click here: Yours In Song (2013)