Notes from Exile

A new life for a Cuban musician

'Sometimes I look around, and I think, where am I? Sometimes I feel so lost." It's a rare admission for Dayren Santa Maria. Generally, the 26-year-old violinist insists she's happy in the new homeland she adopted less than a year ago.

Last March, Dayren was on tour in the United States with Camarata Romeu, a chamber orchestra from Havana. She had been out of the country many times before with the group, to Europe, South America, even California.

But this time, when they returned to Cuba, she decided not to go.

Dayren doesn't like to talk about the reaction of the group's founder and conductor, Zanaida Romeu. "It isn't a big thing," she insists, saying she wasn't the first to jump ship from Camarata Romeu. "Two girls stayed in Los Angeles."

It is true that Castro lets artists travel outside the country, even though some choose not to return, so maybe Dayren is right that her decision was no big deal. After all, it was Romeu's half-brother, Gabriel "Puly" Sequeira, , who helped Dayren when she decided to stay in Florida. He lives in Tampa and found her a place to stay here.

But nothing that happens between Cuba and the United States is entirely free of politics.

Dayren chooses her words carefully, clearly uncomfortable about revealing too much when certain questions are asked. She doesn't want to talk about politics — or about the problems she has had with people in both countries who have tried to politicize her actions.

Her decision to stay in Florida wasn't political. She was no dissident seeking asylum. She was just a young woman launching herself into the world with little more than a dream. "This year, I say, I want to play other music. I want a different life; I want different everything."

Instead of having a prestigious job, playing classical music with a chamber orchestra, Dayren now plays traditional Cuban music with a seven-piece band called Richard Equus and Friends at Pipo's outdoor cafe on Davis Islands (every weekend night in February, weather permitting). The band draws an eclectic and convivial crowd. Waiter Rudy Ofarre is an ecstatic fan of the band and of Dayren's playing. "When people hear her, they want to know more about her," he says.

Ironically, sitting among families and groups of friends eating, drinking and dancing to Cuban music in the warm night air, you could easily be in Havana.

But Dayren's real love lies in another direction. "I like Cuban music," she says, "but I love jazz, and I want to play that." She's currently building her jazz chops by working with Gumbi Ortiz and the Latin Projekt. She sometimes plays with them at the Rare Olive in St. Pete. "They teach me all the time," she says. "They let me visit rehearsals so I can learn."

Although Dayren is modest about her musicianship, she has paid her musical dues.

Cuba takes its culture very seriously; artists are chosen young and given an intensive education. Dayren studied classical violin for seven years at an art school in Matanzas and then four at the National School of Art in Havana. By the time she joined the Havana symphony orchestra in 1995 at the age of 18, she had 11 years of rigorous musical training.

Her first time out of the country was a trip to Peru that year. It was during the Special Period in Cuba, when shortages of everything were at their harshest. We're talking no light bulbs, no soap, no toilet paper. At the height of deprivation, people were lucky to get a handful of rice a day and an old, shriveled onion to spice it up. Cuban people learned to live on hope and air.

Although the orchestra stayed in luxurious hotels while traveling, Dayren and her fellow musicians were frugal: "When we traveled, they gave us money for food. We ate just a little every day and saved the money."

But as bad as things were in Cuba, she says, they were worse in Peru. Rebel guerillas and government death squads were devastating the country, driving people from their homes and villages, she says. "People were living in the streets and asking us for money."

Later, she traveled to Argentina, Spain, Belgium, Barbados, even Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to perform. That's when Dayren began to dream of living a different kind of life than the one she had in Cuba.

She had been thinking about making the move for a while but didn't want to leave her mother. "My mom is my best friend," she says. And her mother, an actor and member of UNEAC, the Cuban artists union, was not ready to let her only child go.

"I knew I wanted something different in my professional life," she says. "I just didn't know when."

Finally, she felt her time was running out. "I'm 26 years old; I'm getting old."

She called her mother from Tampa and said she wasn't coming back. The pain is evident in Dayren's eyes as she recalls her mother's response: "She was crying and saying, 'please come home.'" But she wanted her daughter to be happy, and, after many hours on the phone, she gave Dayren her blessing.

But living your dream is harder than dreaming it. Dayren's passport was revoked when she refused to return to Cuba. She has no papers and in this paranoid post-Sept. 11 world, anyone from a country hostile to the United States is bound to face even more obstacles than usual. Without papers, Dayren cannot work, cannot even get a driver's license or official identification of any kind.

If she had a job, it could speed up her paperwork, she says. She has auditioned for The Florida Orchestra once without success. In Cuba, she was selected early and groomed for her place in Havana's sophisticated musical landscape. Here, bereft of the connections and a musical pedigree Americans understand, she must prove herself all over again.

There's something about her determination, though, about the way she moves forward, refusing to be stopped by fear or longing, that says Dayren Santa Maria will find a way.

These days, in addition to her other playing, she continues her violin studies with Carolyn Stuart at the University of South Florida and plays in the USF Orchestra. She relies on friends for rides and places to stay.

"The only thing that's painful is my mom is there," she says. "She's alone there, and she's so sad. I need to start working so I can bring her here."

You can reach Susan F. Edwards at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 122.