A Philharmonic for Psychiatric Patients

Orchestra plays at the expense of cash-strapped regime

By David Abel

The Montreal Gazette

HAVANA -- The glassy-eyed man listlessly clanging the cymbals sounded the beat as Havana Psychiatric Hospital's 115-member symphonic orchestra recently played the "Spanish Military March" to four of the asylum's gardeners.

The sparse showing was nothing new to the fully stocked professional philharmonic. The crew of mostly elderly men has been booming and squeaking everything from war marches to American show tunes since it began performing soon after Fidel Castro's bearded rebels seized power here in 1959.

Once a proud symbol of the revolution's progressive idealism and quixotic defiance of "bourgeois" norms, the orchestra's lagging cadences and the outdoor square's empty benches now seem to mirror this socialist society's current stupor.

Beneath a specially built portico, where the sallow paint has seen brighter days, the half-absent orchestra churns out tinny tunes on old, dented instruments and follows brittle handwritten music sheets. Some doze off during the three-hour performances' frequent intermissions.

"Even if they don't come to watch, the patients pass by all the time," said Rolando Valdes, a psychologist and hospital administrator. "This is part of their therapy. It's a way for them to feel good, and it also cultures them."

The unconventional treatment also comes at the expense of the severely cash-strapped communist-run government, whose scant resources prevent it from supplying sufficient medicine to the island's 280 hospitals and other necessities to the government-dependant population of 11 million.

The full-time orchestra, with its own administrator, conductor and team of technicians to support the more than 25 clarinets, 15 trumpets, 12 saxophones, eight trombones, four tubas and two bassoons, pays its players above-average salaries. New recruits earn 211 pesos (about $10.50) a month. Soloists, the top earners, make 295 pesos a month.

"Yes, the money could go elsewhere," said Juan Morell, 61, a baritone saxophonist who has been playing with the band since it began shortly after the revolution. "But I think it's a good thing. The patients like it, and it helps the time go by."

The guayabera-clad musician acknowledged, however, that he was not always enthusiastic about playing only to passers-by and chance stragglers.

The psychiatric hospital's private symphony was launched four months after the rebels took power at the behest of its new director, Eduardo Bernabe Ordaz.

The physician-guerrilla warrior, who helped foot his medical-school tuition by busking in bars before joining the revolution, introduced the orchestra as part of a plan to revamp the island nation's largest sanatorium.

The overcrowded, run-down asylum would become "a model hospital" to showcase the new regime's health-care system.

So the bearded doctor, who still runs the hospital, commissioned a ragtag group of mostly retired military-band players and, among other new rewards for the patients that included a well-manicured baseball diamond, declared that music would be "a factor in the mental rehabilitation of the patients."

Over the years, the all-male ensemble allowed women to enter its ranks. Today, there are six women out of the 115 musicians, said Florencio Figueroa, the orchestra's administrator. It has also received prominent praise, including national music awards and, most recently, the delivery of a rosary from Pope John Paul II during his January visit.

"This hospital used to be a fiery hell, and he (Ordaz) converted it into a garden of hope," said Figueroa, while leading a tour of a museum that promotes the sprawling hospital's advances. "We think the music has helped accomplish that. ... It's not a waste of money."

A few hundred feet from the clattering symphony, a gaggle of the hospital's 3,700 patients are roosted on a shady patio in a row of rocking chairs.

In the distance, over the noise of jets taking off from the nearby Jose Marti International Airport, the conductor could be heard clamoring at the orchestra.

"Watch me. It doesn't say piano there, does it?" he jeered. As the ensemble picked up, he barked, "Now, fortissimo!"

Alejandro Gonzalez, 32, who has been a patient at the psychiatric hospital for the past year, said he rarely gets the chance to listen to the morning melodies. But, when he does, he appreciates whatever is being played.

"The music makes me feel at ease," Gonzalez said. "It helps me forget everything else. It's like a tranquilizer."

Copyright, The Montreal Gazette