Our Diverse Force: From Cuba to America and beyond through music

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Wilson
  • USAFE-AFAFRICA Public Affairs
Poverty can be tragic, but sometimes there are greater injustices one must endure.

"Ever since I can remember, we were trying to get out of Cuba. It is one of the saddest things that happened there; it is not the poverty - there is poverty everywhere in the world. It is how you can get into somebody's head and sort of own their thoughts," said Staff Sgt. Lencys Esteban-Nunez. "That to me, even as a young man was something I couldn't stand for."

Esteban-Nunez emigrated to the U.S. from the Republic of Cuba with his mother when he was 15. His life has taken him on a journey from that island nation to America, and most recently to Europe as a member of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band. But the biggest impact in his life has been the saxophone.

The school system in Cuba, he explained, is similar to that of the Soviet or Chinese system in that the government attempts to determine a career path for children at a very young age. After auditions, children who are accepted into a music program attend schools with intense curriculum tailored to teach them their new craft.

"If you're a violin or a piano player, you have to start in third grade - fourth grade you decided you want to play piano, it's too late, no school is going to take you," he said. "For saxophone it was fifth grade."

The staff sergeant said he fell in love with the saxophone at a very young age. The sensuous curves of the instrument and the way every pearl-embossed button caught the light on a darkened stage attracted him immediately. And a sound that can range from bright, wailing screams to the warm tones of a smoky jazz lounge spoke to him. He had to play this instrument, and play it better than anyone else.

"I went to that school that was really far away because the school that I could have gone to much closer than that didn't have a saxophone teacher for my first year," he said. "So I woke up at about four in the morning every day to get to school and I was late every day."

Because public transit was so unreliable, he would often hitchhike on everything from boats and horse-drawn carriages to bicycles and cars to get across town to school. But despite the obstacles in front of him, he was successful with his studies.

"From ninth grade to tenth grade, that's when they draw the line and they say who is going to actually be a musician," he said. "That school year for every saxophone player in Havana there were four slots. Everybody else who plays saxophone wasn't going to continue with a saxophone education. I was one of the lucky four. I made it into the one slot in ENA [Escuela Nacional de Arte], the National School of Arts."

Less than a year into his education at ENA, Esteban-Nunez and his mother emigrated. "The simple part is that she got married and we moved, but it was quite complicated," he said. "There was a lot of paper work that needed to be done and there was a lot of money that needed to be paid to the state of Cuba."

He was close to the age for military service conscription. However, the Cuban government will sign men up for service early if they are about to leave the country to prevent them from going, he said.

"They came to sign me up, my grandma said I wasn't at home even though I was," Esteban-Nunez recalled. "I was leaving the next week. I had everything in order and ready to go and they came to put my name on the list. That was a close call. I almost didn't make it out."

Once he arrived in America, he started his new life in Denver. He brought more than enough credits with him from Cuba to graduate at an American high school, but he still didn't speak English. So he completed school with his age group, concentrating on music and polishing his English for college.

"It was good that I did it, but it wasn't even close to where it needed to be," Esteban-Nunez said about his English. "When I got to college, I got my butt kicked. I had to do extra study hours in every class that was not music related because it was very, very hard."

After studying jazz for a year at Loyola University, New Orleans, Esteban-Nunez decided to return to Denver and complete his bachelor's at the University of Denver.

At this point, Esteban-Nunez was forced to think about how to make a living as a musician for the first time in his life and a military career was not his first thought.

"I couldn't picture the military and the arts," he said. "I just couldn't see them lining up. Also my prejudices from where I came from - the military where I lived and where I was growing up - I never thought of them as artists or musicians or them having a band."

But after doing a lot of research and talking to several Air Force Band musicians, Esteban-Nunez decided it was a good fit for him.

He said he feels music plays an important role in opening the doors of communication and his Cuban background gives him special insight into how powerful music can be as a tool for the Air Force.

Esteban-Nunez gave the example of his experience in Russia to demonstrate this point. "I know they have the same system that I grew up in. So I know I am meeting these people who have never had an opportunity to leave and that the only image they've had of the United States of America, is whatever has been put on television by the government.

"Then here we come in the same uniform, get on stage, make them smile, make them clap, make them happy. Every perception they've had of what we stand for just hits a wall where the reality of what they are seeing is not the one they've been told."