Not many American musicians get recognized by locals on the streets of Havana, Cuba—but Doug Little ’91 of Minneapolis does. Little, who started his career playing jazz, has traveled regularly to Cuba over the past 15 years to study and perform traditional Cuban music and now is a minor celebrity of sorts, greeted by name in Havana’s bars and cafes.
“I was there once with my girlfriend (now wife) and we were walking down the street, and someone was like, ‘Oh! Hey! Douglas!’ and it freaked her out,” he says.
Most notably, his mastery of traditional Cuban music led to a 2015 invitation for his group, Charanga Tropical, to perform at the International Danzon Festival in Havana, the premier international Cuban music festival. The ensemble was the first American group ever invited to perform. The weeklong tour included performances in venues all across Havana and a recording session at the famous EGREM Areito Studios featured in the documentary Buena Vista Social Club. In the United States, Little has performed with major Cuban artists such as Tiempo Libre, Nachito Herrera, Chuchito Valdés, and Grammy winner Mayito Rivera.
At Macalester, Little majored in political science and French. He played in the Mac Jazz ensemble and expanded his jazz education by connecting with jazz musicians and educators around the Twin Cities. He has had a busy and varied musical career since graduation, performing in 37 states, Europe, and Asia, and has released several CDs.
By 2002, he was looking for a change. He won a travel and study grant from the Jerome Foundation, a St. Paul-based organization supporting young Minnesota artists, and set his eyes on Cuba. “I really liked the Buena Vista Social Club recording when that came out in the 1990s, and there was a lot of interest in Cuba,” he says. “I got to pick where I wanted to study for two months, and thought Cuba would be a really interesting place to go.”
Little was experimenting with Latin jazz styles and thought he’d continue in that genre in Cuba. “But then I was totally blown away and seduced by some of the pure Cuban musical styles,” he says. He fell under the sway of Charanga, a percussive orchestral style originating with 18th- and early 19th-century French immigrants who fled to Cuba following slave rebellion and revolution in Haiti and Napoleon’s sale of Louisiana to the United States.
The French settlers formed small musical groups with piano, flute, and violin—instruments not previously popular in Cuba—to perform popular chamber music styles, which were soon influenced by other music traditions in Cuba, particularly rhythms from Africa. Over the course of the 19th century, Charanga emerged.
“You hear Charanga in Cuba, but you don’t hear it in the United States,” Little says. “I got really interested in that and started playing a lot of flute.” Little returned from Cuba captivated by Charanga and wanting more.
In 2005, he won a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and returned to Cuba for three more months of musical and cultural immersion. “I rented an apartment in Havana and studied with famous flute players, percussionists, and music historians, took salsa dance lessons every other day—the whole thing,” he said. He came home with a stack of music and recordings and soon formed Charanga Tropical. “It’s the most popular thing I’ve done,” he says.
The invitation to play in Havana was the group’s biggest break to date, and one of Little’s biggest challenges. Little raised $30,000 online to fund the tour and a recording session in Havana.
The festival ran eight days, with performances all over the city. “We played the grand, beautiful old Teatro America, we played a rural late-night party, we played a Cuban danzon dance competition, we performed on national radio, and that same week we recorded the CD,” he says.
The repeated trips to Cuba have led Little to start a side gig: a tour company called Tesca Travel, through which he leads trips in Cuba for small groups and other American artists and musicians. He has also led tours for large organizations such as the American Composers Forum and the Chicago Children’s Choir. “Now that I’ve both lived there and worked there as a musician, I have a pretty good idea of what a good itinerary would be for a week of arts and culture in Cuba,” he says. “I just want to share that with people. It helps the music, and the music helps the tourism, and getting people there helps Cuba, and that helps the United States’ relationship with Cuba.
“I’m combining all sorts of different things. I feel like now I’m the poster child for what a career in the liberal arts can look like.”
BY TED LEVENTHAL ’91
August 2 2019Back to top