A celebration of the Cuban guitar – Eduardo Martín and Ahmed Dickinson Cárdenas start their anniversary tour

15 years ago I wandered into London’s Brunei Gallery for a free concert. Little did I know that this seemingly ordinary event would one day lead me to organise a trip to Cuba. The time came this year but then, as a start, Ahmed Dickinson Cárdenas, a Cuban guitar virtuoso took to the stage.

He is labelled as a classical musician on major platforms and in various interviews and reviews, but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him too much, because one label doesn’t suffice to describe his work. He proves time and again that he doesn’t let himself be confined to a certain genre and is very much open to playing for the most varied audiences, and he participates in the most uplifting musical projects. Considering how diverse the art of Cuba is, it’s no surprise. His work no doubt is an imprint of his background. Bringing together various influences and cultures is a trait that is easy to notice in his decades-long career.

The London-based Cárdenas is an emblematic representative of the Cuban classical guitar movement. He graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte (Havana), the Royal College of Music, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has received prestigious scholarships, past and present, played in many of the UK’s most well-known venues and beyond, but he doesn’t seem to be resting on his laurels for long.

He dedicated his first album to Ñico Rojas, a hydraulic engineer by profession, who, not incidentally, was a devoted classical guitarist. Rojas was one of those who created the filin movement in the 1940s. These jazz-influenced Cuban rhythms quickly spread to Mexico, New York, and Puerto Rico, then on to South America, and remained popular until the early ’60s.

Cárdenas spent a decade working with Rojas, transcribing his previously unpublished works, which goes beyond sharing a few compositions on an album. He created and made a material available that recorded and preserved a major musical movement of Cuba that only started withering after the revolution (1953-59). Then, because of the new regime and circumstances, people needed new styles and content in place of romantic songs. The transcribed materials are a treasure trove for listeners, musicians, and ethnomusicologists alike.

One other major collaboration of Cárdenas also started in Cuba, the one with the Grammy nominee composer and acclaimed guitarist, Eduardo Martín, his former mentor. 2024 marks the 10th anniversary of their shared journey and on this occasion, they will embark on a 30-date tour, this time focusing primarily on UK venues.

Martín, a guitar professor at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, frequently tours Cuba, South America, the United States, and Europe, offering recitals, seminars, workshops, and masterclasses. His compositions include works for solo guitar, duos, trios, quartets, chamber ensembles and orchestras, and he has written music for theatre and cinema. His works La Trampa and Hasta Alicia Baila were nominated for Best Classical Album at the 2003 Grammy Award.

Going beyond Martín’s professional achievements, what’s most striking while we listen to his performance or when he talks about his work, is the curiosity and humility he approaches the various genres, his students, and his audience. Many of his compositions are inspired by his family, and his children (Galy Martín and Darío Martín), who are also applauded musicians, were fundamental in his career as a composer.

Cárdenas and Martín recorded their album, The Bridge, wishing “the spirit of The Bridge be a symbol of fraternity and fluidity, but also a platform to honour and celebrate the musical legacy of those who came before us and those still to come”.

Thinking about how music can influence individual lives, one of the first things that comes to mind is that learning to play an instrument positively affects the cognitive development of children. As Miendlarzewska and Trost put it, “Psychological and neuroscientific research demonstrates that musical training in children is associated with heightening of sound sensitivity as well as enhancement in verbal abilities and general reasoning skills.”. In addition to improving that certain grey matter, music opens up a whole new world, a world that otherwise might seem strange and at times intimidating.

Getting access to a culture different from our own is a gift. As outsiders, we will unlikely ever fully understand the complexity of another part of the world, but learning about it enriches us in unexpected ways. Regardless of how we enter this new universe, be it through its vibrant rhythms, or the rich flavours of its cuisine, it’s a privilege. Each avenue allows us to embark on a journey of discovery and appreciation.

As Martín beautifully says in an interview with Daniel Vassi, Professor of Guitar: “Only by singing and dancing you’ll understand and enjoy the mambo. That is, the more you get into the environment and the essence of a musical genre, the more you will enjoy it, and understand it.”

While it may sound cliché, the truth remains that music possesses a remarkable ability to transcend language barriers and connect with us on a deeply visceral level. When crafted with skill and sincerity, music taps into something primal within us and this is what The Bridge and its creators also achieve on stage – they connect not only past, present, and continents, but they help us to get closer to our authentic selves.

As Cárdenas says, prepare to listen to classical styles merged with rock and son montunos, old Yoruba chants or feel-good rumbas with funk- boleros, and new-age tunes and cinematic pieces sitting alongside Cuban tumbaos with slap bass. And someone who has witnessed their magic, says that expect your emotions to be stirred during the performances of Cárdenas and Martín.

They begin the tour in Casa Sors in Barcelona, moving onward to England, Ireland, and Scotland. Performance dates are available here.

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