Monday will be a historic day in Washington, D.C., as Cuba opens its first embassy in the U.S. in 54 years. A delegation from Cuba will be there, along with dignitaries from around the world. They were supposed to be treated to music from Minnesota piano great Nachito Herrera, who was asked by Cuba’s next ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas , to perform.

It was a huge honor for Herrera, a world-class musician who as a teen performed with the Cuban Symphony Orchestra and who now calls the Dakota Jazz Club his frequent home. It also will be a moment of great joy for the native Cuban, who came to the U.S. for a better life and more opportunity.

But Herrera had to decline; he had already made a promise to Lowell Pickett, owner of the Dakota Jazz Club.

Herrera had scheduled a special two-night performance with an all-star cast of musicians from around the world called Nachito Herrera and the Universals. He had commitments from several celebrated performers, including his Grammy-winning drummer from Havana, Raul Pineda, and improvisational violinist Karen Briggs. Herrera decided he could not let his colleagues, or his Minnesota fans, down, not even to be part of history.

Instead, Herrera intends to light up the local stage July 20 and 21 to celebrate what he thinks is a long overdue attempt to normalize relations between his beloved homeland and his new home. Herrera plans to display both the American and Cuban flags and play a variety of international music ranging from Latin jazz to classical.

“I certainly would have freed him up to go to Washington,” said Pickett. “It’s a very emotional thing for Nachito. He loves Cuba. But he had put together this incredible band and didn’t want to disappoint them. I think it’s kind of bittersweet for him not to be there.”

Herrera performed Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Havana Symphony Orchestra at age 12. He went on to be musical director for the famed Tropicana nightclub in Havana, played piano for the Afro-Cuban Allstars and toured the world with Cubanismo. Last year he won the American Heritage Award for his work, the first Latin musician to win it since Carlos Santana.

“I think Nachito is taken for granted in Minnesota because he plays so frequently at the Dakota,” said Pickett. “But he’s a hero in Cuba and recognized all over the world.”

Herrera is aware that normalizing relations with Cuba is controversial and politically delicate in both countries. Some Americans see the move as appeasing the Cuban government while human rights violations remain, and some Cubans think the U.S. will attempt to influence or change its government. The United States Congress still has to decide whether to stop the embargo that has prohibited most trade between the countries.

Herrera thinks the end of the embargo is imminent. Polls show a majority of Americans, including Cuban-Americans, now favor relations. “We are very, very happy and excited to celebrate starting Monday,” said Herrera. “This is a big, historical moment, not only for my country, but for both countries.”

Herrera has been able to return to Cuba a couple of times, including a couple of years ago with some music students. He said the experience was magical. One of the things that struck them the most is how welcome they felt. While the governments have been fighting for decades, Cubans have very warm feelings for Americans, he said.

“Americans are going to be able to travel to my country and absorb that culture, food, music,” said Herrera. “I’m expecting lots of — mucho — cooperation and collaboration now. They will see that, despite the long embargo, Cubans have been surviving.”

After 54 years of mistrust, Herrera said that is not going to happen overnight, however. “I think it’s going to take awhile, but not too long,” he said. “I know there are a lot of big companies in Minnesota who are eager to invest in my country. I’m 100 percent sure there are going to be mucho developments in my country.”

Herrera intends to be part of that, a kind of de facto Minnesota-Cuban ambassador, perhaps leading more music tours. “Music is the most common language around the world,” Herrera said. “I want to share with Minnesotans my country, my people and a real mojito.”

He is sad to have to miss the event, “but at the same time, it could be even better being here, with this band,” Herrera said. “New relations with Cuba is not just something in the air now. It’s official.”

(As of Saturday, tickets were still available for Herrera’s shows).


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