As relations between the United States and Cuba continue to thaw, Ben Folds is spreading the warmth with music. This Memorial Day weekend, the singer-songwriter will be leading an educational trip to explore the island’s vibrant culture, and you’re welcome to come! Between May 25 and 29, Ben Folds’ Havana Getaway will give fans a chance to witness his first concerts on Cuban soil, where he will perform both an intimate solo show, as well as a second at a larger venue with a lineup of local musicians. Even when he’s not performing, he’ll be dropping in on Cuban bands, participating in an instrumental master class and breaking it down at rhumba and salsa dancing parties.
Music is far from the only item on the agenda. The expedition will also include a wealth of other activities, including craft fairs, architecture tours, vintage convertible rides, cooking classes, visits to art galleries and installations—and, naturally, cigar and rum tastings. Folds’ passion for photography will be at the fore, with Havana-based photographers leading workshops and guided tours across the city.
Folds spoke with PEOPLE about what he hopes to learn from the journey, and what he’s looking forward to the most.
How did idea for this trip come about?
I think since the relationship between Cuba and the US has evolved and changed, there’s the opportunity now. I told my booking agent that I was definitely interested in some opportunity to go down there. One of them was simply to go down and meet the promoter and try to smoke a cigar and hang out. I was happy to do that, but my schedule is so packed that I need a better reason to go down and smoke cigars. So this affords me the opportunity to do it while learning something, working, all kinds of stuff. So it’s pretty amazing.
In addition to the music and photography elements, the track is packed with so many activities: art gallery and architecture tours, salsa dancing, vintage convertible cruises. What are you the most excited about?
I’m just interested in being there. From what I know about the Cuban people, there’s really a strong sense of the arts and it’s just impressive. You want to go see what it’s all about. Bringing the collaborations to it, where things are set up for me to play with Cuban musicians, that’s just good for otherwise not-as-socially-adept people to really have a meaningful hang. It’s just cool!
What has your exposure been to Cuban music?
It’s a little bit like my exposure to the Beatles by the time I got into college. I didn’t really listen to the Beatles, but the Beatles influenced everything. So by the time I really started listening to that kind of music, I was very familiar with what it was, I just didn’t know the words, the names of the songs, the albums, and who was in the band. I know that sounds crazy, but when you have music that is iconic and hugely influential, you don’t have to listen to it for it to affect your musicality and your life.
And I think that’s what Cuban music is. Salsas and the rhumba is particularly interesting, because as I understand it, that is more of “The People’s Groove,” whereas the salsa is more high-class. That’s what I’m told: no idea if that offends somebody! But every time I hear Cuban music, it makes me happy, you know? I like it. I come into it almost as ignorant of their music as they are of mine. I don’t anticipate I’m big in Cuba. So we’re just going to go down and do what people do: cross the border, get to know each other, play some music, and that’s what I’m most interested in.
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You’ve worked in so many different arenas of music—do you think this could inspire a Latin influenced album?
I don’t really think about things that way. If it does, it does. I’m not really going there to fish for that. Everything I do, or everything I’ve come across certainly has some kind of influence, but I certainly don’t anticipate going to Cuba and then coming back and making a Cuban album. I think that’s a really honorable thing, to go down and fish for something like that and hear some music you’re interested in. David Byrne’s done that, and it makes sense. But that’s not really my mission on this. I want to go experience it.
One of my big interests in Cuba is just how they’ve survived. Part of it seems to be the arts. In this country we’re about to do everything we can politically to cut funding for the arts and minimize it, and I think if you look at a country like that, who has gotten through a lot and they’re so disciplined in their arts, I think that that’s significant and we have something to learn from that.
It’s not something where you go, ‘Oh this is a miserable day so I’m going to drug myself up with arts.’ It’s actually a way we organize life and a discipline and a learning tool. It drives economy, all sorts of stuff like this. So when you see someone who’s done a lot with just a little bit and you can see how much emphasis they put on the arts, I think it’s worth noting.
In these uncertain political times, it’s important to build bridges with art. Has the trip taken on a greater meaning to you, as sort of a musical diplomat?
I think in these times, certainly it’s helpful for people instead of governments to communicate. It’s very easy to look at a whole country, look at their policy and make a broad generalization about the people based on the policy. And I’ve always thought it was helpful [for people to communicate]. That’s why they do two basketball games in other countries and send us to mix people, it’s a little harder to get mixed.
Tickets for Ben Folds’ Havana Getaway are still available. Click here for prices and a full itinerary.