Tears ran down Cuban singer Carlos Raul Torres’s face as he stood in front of his first U.S. audience. He struggled as he sang, hoping to bring beauty at a very difficult time to a people he didn’t know.
Two days after a gunman killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, the men of Cuba’s first gay choir landed in Miami then flew to Los Angeles to begin their first U.S. tour. Their first concert in the country was a memorial to the Orlando victims, an unsettling way for Mano a Mano to begin its six-week trip to promote LGBT rights and understanding of the members’ country. But the group felt it was also an important moment to create change.
“We felt unified with the people of Orlando. We are the same people,” Torres said of the victims of the shooting, many of whom were Latino. “We were in solidarity.”
The five-member choir is scheduled to perform in D.C. at 4 p.m. Sunday at the downtown Church of the Epiphany. It will be the group members’ fourth stop on their tour, which has so far taken them to St. Petersburg, Fla., Los Angeles and Denver.
Their music is a diverse mix of traditional and modern sounds from Cuba and the U.S., said Ernesto Lima Parets, the musical director. In the past two years, the group has moved away from instrumentation and toward a cappella performances accompanied by beatboxing and body percussion.
The way they perform is powerful because “the voice is the instrument of the body itself,” Parets said.
Fermin Rojas, a former member of the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus, set out with his husband to form the group in Cuba in 2014. The Cuban-American had watched his home country experience a significant sociopolitical change in the past few years, and he knew the timing was right, he said. He knew Cuba was ready.
“Everyone thought we were crazy, but by the end of the year, everyone thought we were brilliant,” Rojas said.
Fifty men came to open auditions in Havana, a large turnout in a country that didn’t have much Internet or social media at the time, Rojas said. The five men who were selected are all professional musicians, and many have trained since they were boys.
While all the men had performed in choirs before, joining an all-gay chorus allowed them to fully express themselves and promote awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in Cuba and abroad.
“With music, you can express anything,” Torres said. “Music is a universal language.”
The U.S. tour has brought many surprises: rich food, huge portions and audiences that act like paparazzi. But the biggest discovery, they said, is the Internet and its dating apps.
“It’s so easy to meet people here,” Parets said, smiling as he mimed swiping through people on Tinder. “And the apps are a good way to practice English.”
But the men were also astounded by some of the United States’ social issues, such as homelessness and gun violence. Parets said he felt less safe here as a gay man than he does in Cuba.
“In Cuba, I can go on the street at night with my partner, my boyfriend, and not worry about any violence,” he said. “Here, I worry.”
The LGBT community in Cuba has faced persecution and discrimination for decades. Though while Cuba does not recognize same-sex marriage, it provides free sexual reassignment surgeries and outlaws workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But the group hopes to do more than travel and impress audiences with its songs — the members also want people to understand their country better. As relations between the U.S. and Cuba thaw, it’s important that people from each country get to know one another in person, beyond the politics of their governments, Parets said.
“It’s the people who suffer when governments disagree,” Parets said. “To be here is a big step. We can show that there are no problems between the people of our countries.”
Torres said the arts are key to that relationship: “Music has the ability to soften the hearts of the people.”