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Cuba trip benefits students at home

The Cubanisms bow at the end of their performance on Jan 19, at the art center, Fabrica De Arte Cubano. From left to right: James Isaac, Bruno Bessa, Forest Stewart, Miko Spears, Robert Beasley, John Curry and Michael McClintock. (Photo by Brian Compton/For the Muleskinner)

UCM jazz instructor James Isaac recently took his saxophone talent to a different country by performing with the Kansas City band Cubanisms at The Jazz Plaza International Festival in Havana, Cuba.

“It was fantastic,” Isaac said. “(It was) definitely well-received. We will probably be back there next year.”

The band was in Cuba Jan.15-22 and performed two jazz shows. Isaac said he brought this experience back to the classroom to share with his UCM students.

“It’s definitely something that I discuss with my saxophone students and encourage them to explore opportunities and to travel, because travel is very important to understanding the world,” he said. “The way that music in the United States has traditionally worked is we draw from all of these influences from all around the world, and I think it’s very important to have exposure to the authentic forms of music and other countries and cities and really understand where they come from and what it’s really intended to sound like.”

The Cubanisms performing at The Jazz Plaza International Festival in Havana, Cuba.
(Photo by Brian Compton/For the Muleskinner)

Isaac said the festival not only features jazz but other varieties of musical performances.

“It is labeled as a jazz festival, but it actually features all different kinds of music,” he said. “Some of it very definitely jazz, but we actually heard a couple of American groups that were almost more pop or R&B.”

Before Isaac was a member of the Cubanisms, he had previously performed with several members of the group and was made an official member in April when a member had departed.

The Cubanisms are a jazz band based in Kansas City and have been around since 2015. They were nominated by the Pitch newspaper in 2018 for “Best Local Band;” Micheal McClintock, director and founder of the Cubanisms, received a “Best Musician” nomination; and their vocalist, Fedra Cooper, received a nomination for “Best Vocalist.”

McClintock founded the Cubanisms, and graduated with a degree in classical guitar performance from UMKC with post studies in flamenco, jazz and Brazilian styles. Since 2013, he has been visiting Cuba to study their music and the Cuban Tres, the only native guitar of the island. He said he met his wife, Dálida McClintock, in Cuba and they moved to Kansas City together and started the band. 

“That’s how Cubanisms was born, as a Cuban cultural project, with the band performing different styles of Cuban music and directed by myself with the Cuban Tres; the project also includes organization of trips to Cuba to get deeply involved with Cuban culture, traditions and support Cubans and their private businesses,” McClintock said. “Dali organizes the trips to Cuba and helps with all the promotion and management of the band, and I’m in charge of the musical direction of the band.”

Isaac said McClintock used his connections to book the tour. He said Dálida was the main reason they were able to perform at the festival.

“While he was researching that instrument, he met his future wife in Cuba and she had been largely instrumental in making all of this happen,” Isaac said.

McClintock said the group released their debut album in 2017, “Acento Cubano,” or “Cuban Accent.” In January of 2018 while promoting the album in Cuba, he was invited to perform at the festival with the Cuban Tres instrument to accompany other big musicians.

McClintock said his use of the Cuban Tres has drawn interest from other musicians.

“The Cuban Tres is basically used to accompany traditional Cuban music,” he said. “The Cubans have found (it) very interesting that I’m performing the instrument in other many styles like jazz, flamenco, Brazilian and mixing it in with Afro-Cuban rhythms.”

Micheal McClintock performing with his Cuban Tres during the festival. (Photo by Brian Compton/For the Muleskinner)

McClintock said the performance was a new experience for the group.

“It was the first international performance for Cubanisms, and the first time for the band to be in Cuba,” he said. “Being invited to perform in one of the most important music festivals on the island was an honor.”

Isaac said experiencing Cuba was an interesting opportunity in a new environment.

“I haven’t visited Cuba before. When you go there, it’s definitely a different country,” he said. “One thing it’s famous for is having really old cars. They drive cars from the 50s and 60s. That’s definitely something that’s pretty interesting about the place. (Havana) is a really nice place to visit because it’s very safe. There are no guns in Cuba and people walk around very freely during the night. It has a different atmosphere because of that.”

McClintock said the band’s goals are to find their own style of music and mix it with the Cuban style.

“We want that when people listen to our music they can immediately identify us,” he said. “I personally love the Cuban rhythms and love the fusion between them, and with other styles from other countries, we are working hard on learning all these styles as much as we can to being able to respectfully create what we want.”

Isaac said this festival exposed the group to future opportunities to perform in other countries.

“It opens the door for performing at other international festivals around the world,” he said. “You always need the first one to get things going. We kind of got our foot in the door by playing more international festivals.”

To learn more about the Cubanisms, visit their website at To hear their album “Acento Cubano,” go to their Spotify page. 

One Comment

Bill Cutler

Great article, Kaitlin! It’s great to hear how James Isaac is highlighting the importance of thinking internationally as one approaches music (and life!). So much to be learned immersing oneself in another culture.


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