Art and Culture, Caribbean, Featured, Reality Tours Blog

27th Annual International Jazz Festival in Havana: Should you go?

Photo from Inmagine

The following was written by Carol Steele, Global Exchange Director of Cuba Customized Reality Tours. She is an accomplished percussionist who has played with an eclectic range of musical acts, everything from Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Joan Baez and Steve Winwood to Diana Ross and Tears for Fears.

The 27th Annual International Jazz Festival in Havana is coming up– you wonder, should you go?  And I say to you emphatically, ABSOLUTELY SI !!!!!!

It is a great time to be in Havana!  Usually right on the heels of the International Film Festival, Havana is buzzing with energy.  There are so many concerts in different venues all over town, lots of Cuban Jazz, as well as invited guests from around the world, and BEST of all (says the musician) the late night jam sessions!  You never know who might stop by and sit in on one of these nightly jams.  Once you have your pass for the festival, you can get into all of the shows, afternoon lecture demonstrations, and although I think there may be a small fee to go to the jam sessions – it’s a fee that’s well worth it as far as I’m concerned.

I started going to Cuba in 1987, during a time when I was working as a professional recording musician/percussionist, and wanted to go to the root – or “la mata” as my Cuban friends in New York used to say. (The root of my technique as a percussionist)  I was recording and working with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Bette Midler and Tears for Fears, to name a few, and going to Cuba during my time off.  I went to study, see, learn, absorb, breathe, play, dance, and see what it feels like to be in   “la mata” and what I can tell you is that it changed my life!

Carol Steele in action!

I am not a formally trained musician, I play by “ear” (and I would add, heart and soul.)  So for me, whether I get to play or not, just going to Cuba, and getting to be in the presence of the masters that are constantly taking modern Cuban music to new levels, or having the privilege of experiencing Afro-Cuban Folkloric music that is being played in the same way that it was handed down from Mother Africa – it inspires.  Whether I have ever put my hands on a drum or not, during any given visit over the past 25 years, I always come home playing something different, taking a different solo, and feeling my place in the music in just a very subtle and different way – inspired.

So, I have to say that the Jazz Festival is an incredibly unique time to be in Havana, with so much music happening in so many different places daily. Whether you are a musician or dancer, expert or novice, music aficionado or music critic………. You will come back changed in some way that you might not be able to put your finger on at first –  is it the music, the culture, the people, the food, the painting, the architecture, the history……………or is it just ALL of it!  Come with us and see – and by the way, let me know!


The 27th International Jazz Festival of Havana is taking place on December 11, 2011 – December 21, 2011. Find out how to travel there with Global Exchange.

You can see Carol in action & on percussion in this video!


  1. Great blog Carol!! I wish I could go! I urge anyone who is considering this trip to go!

    I traveled on a trip to Cuba designed and led by Carol in January, 2000. It changed my life….for the better. She exposed us only to the finest artists, musicians, and local culture possible. What’s unique about her trips is that you feel like you are being guided by a local with all of the knowledge of the local hangouts, jam sessions and excursions that many high end tours don’t know about. Of course, as a professional musician, I really lucked out with going to Cuba with Carol because of her musical training and contacts. Her network of musicians and artists is vast and of the highest level. She was always open to hearing people’s “dream scenarios” and tried to work out lessons or special visits for us. Her love of Cuba, its people and just having a good time is infectious and she enables you to get the most out of your trip there.

    • Carol Steele

      Hey Sebastian!!!

      Thanks so much for your kind words! You know that it is my love and passion, and absolute pleasure to share my love of Cuba and Afro-Cuban Culture! I love doing this work! I hope that I’ll have the chance to do some more music and dance trips in the future, and will let you know!

      Que Viva la Musica Cubana!

      All the best,

  2. Deborah Sherman

    Carol is an amazing leader – knowledgeable, vivacious, tireless, talented and fun. My experiences with her on two trips (Galapagos, 2008 and Cuba, 2010) were totally positive. It was a privilege and an honor to be with her in Cuba, where Carol knows so many people, so many special places, musical venues, happenings, and ways to get things done, that the entire trip was an effortless (for us travelees), magical adventure. I can’t imagine seeing Cuba any other way than with Carol. It is a truly special place, and Carol makes you feel like an “insider.”
    My only regret is not being able to go back this year! But I promise, so long as Carol will plan the trip and guide me, I will do so again!

  3. Maria

    Hola! Just got back from Cuba where we did a customized trip with a group from work and we had a fantastic time with Carol. As the others mentioned Carol is amazing. I had no idea I was going to be in the midst of an experienced musician and lover of Cuban music and culture! She showed us more than I thought we were going to see and do. I would go to Cuba again especially if Carol is to be our guide. I came back with a renewed sense of appreciation and knowledge from this trip and I hope to pass this along to others.

    Carolina – espero vernos pronto!

    • Carol Steele

      Hola Maria!!!

      Gracias, Gracias for your kind words. I’m so glad that you had a wonderful trip. I loved working with all of you, and love being able to share my knowledge and love of Cuban music and culture! You and Gil were a great addition to the group, and thanks for your willingness to fully participate, as well! It was a wonderful trip, and my absolute pleasure to get the opportunity to be there with you!

      Que Viva la Musica Cubana!

      Un abrazo fuerte,


  4. Sterling Wiliamson

    Dear Carol,
    I am very interested in going to cuba for the jazz festival. I am a saxophonist in Maine, but also have a day job as an orthopedic surgeon. Can you tell me how to proceed, and if there is still room?
    Sterling Williamson

    • Hi Sterling,
      Thanks for your interest. Carol has a new job now in Cuba, so is no longer working here at Global Exchange (though she remains in the GX family!) The best person to contact about Cuba trip is Drea. She can be reached at or via phone 415-255-7296 ext. 211. Thanks! Tex

  5. Drea

    Thanks Tex and thanks Sterling!

    I’ve just sent you an email Sterling.

    Looking forward to chatting about the opportunity in further detail soon!


  6. Tao Chan

    Hi, Carol. (You will probably never read this)
    Your performance with Steve Winwood on David Letterman in 1986 was unforgettable. I know this because I never forgot that, or you! I just discovered your name today! Sorry, I’d had a busy life too. Anyway, I am glad you keep growing and staying active in so many different venues. Peace& Love!

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