Cultural exchange ‘Two Islands’ brings Afro-Cuban, Aboriginal artists together

Written By Sergy Odiduro
December 14, 2023 at 10:59 AM

Yolngu elder Banula Marika, center, will perform in “Two Islands,” an international cultural exchange residency featuring Afro-Cuban musicians from Miami and Aboriginal storytellers, dancers and musicians from Australia at Miami Dade College’s Koubek Center on Saturday, Dec. 16 . (Photo courtesy of Paz Tassone)

Gary Lang loved the concept, so when he was tapped to be a part of the project, he jumped at the chance.

The premise?

To put on a storytelling, musical and dance performance as part of a two-year residency pairing Afro-Cuban artists with First Nation Aboriginal Australians.

Musician and educator Michael Gil participated in the international cultural exchange residency featuring Afro-Cuban artists from Miami and Aboriginal artists from Australia for “Two Islands.” (Photo courtesy of Bert Ochoa)

“Two Islands” is the result, and now audiences can see firsthand their multidisciplinary collaboration on Saturday, Dec. 16, at Miami Dade College’s Koubek Center.

Lang, who is the artistic director and choreographer for Australia’s NT Dance Company and a member of the Larrakia nation, looked forward to bringing both cultures onstage.

“The idea was absolutely brilliant because of its cross-cultural fertilization with information and the arts,” he says.

Melissa Messulam, Koubek’s general manager, initially broached the plan.

“I’ve had the privilege of living and working in Australia,” says Messulam. “I have always been moved by the energy and the magic that has been in that land. And now I have the honor of working with Afro Cuban artists on a regular basis. And (the performance) is really just a symbol of two cultures that I genuinely love and have a deep appreciation for.”

As part of the event, musician and educator Michael Gil will team up with Afro-Cuban dancer and choreographer Marisol Blanco, dancer Suramy Suarez and musicians Manuel Clua, René Pedroso and Caridad Paisán.

Marranunggu Marrathiyel singer-songwriter David Spry will perform at MDC’s Koubek Center in its premiere of “Two Islands,” a multidisciplinary storytelling, music and dance performance on Saturday, Dec. 16. (Photo courtesy of Paz Tassone)

Yolngu elder Banula Marika and Marranunggu Marrathiyel singer-songwriter David Spry are part of the performance, too.

Gil, who has nursed a long-held interest in Australia, is thrilled that he has the chance to work with traditional people from the First Nation.

“For more than 10 years I’ve been super interested in Australia,” says Gil. “I had an incredible opportunity to meet Melissa Messulam and she has a very strong connection with Australia. We shared our passion and our love for Australia, and for the First Nations’ culture and their instruments.“

During the performance, the Aboriginal didgeridoo, Yoruba bata drums and other traditional musical instruments will be highlighted.

“Music is really important,” emphasizes Gil. “I’m from Cuba, and I was born in a family that, mostly on my father’s side, was involved in Afro Cuban music and in a traditional way.”

He quickly learned how each instrument served as a conduit into the spiritual world.

Afro-Cuban musician and educator Michael Gil. (Photo courtesy of Bert Ochoa)

“The role of the drums is to communicate with the Orisha, with the gods and with higher spirits to call them and ask them for their blessings and powers. And so, if you don’t have those drums and play them in the right pattern, a pattern that has been kept throughout centuries of slavery, and throughout the diaspora, you cannot connect with them. You cannot show up with a different type of drum. That happens with the didgeridoo too. It’s a very primitive instrument. You cannot show up with a trombone. You cannot replace its role.”

Gil marvels at how traditional dances and songs have survived through colonization, so much so that they are still used in modern performances.

“Today we have cell phones so we can record a class,” he says. “I cannot imagine how these people were able to transmit orally all these melodies and all these steps.”

He tells of the history:  “Despite the First Nation people of Australia being invaded and colonized and the Yoruba diaspora separated from their own land and taken to the Americas, these traditions had to be reinvented; and it had to adapt to new realities. It’s incredible how, despite the harsh conditions of life, both cultures have kept the chanting, the dancing, and the patterns. And when you choose to keep something with you during times of sorrow, times of slavery, violence or pain, it’s because it is super important. “

Learning how each other’s cultures use instruments and dance in a traditional setting has been a rewarding experience, for both sides.

“I feel like a child,” says Lang with a laugh.  “It’s like information overload!”

For Messulam,  the more they delved into the project, the more she realized how much the two cultures had in common.

Gary Lang, artistic director and choreographer for Australia’s NT Dance Company, with Yolngu elder Banula Marika, left, during an Australian Ballet residency. (Photo courtesy of Edita Knowler)

“They’re incredibly drastically different cultures, but in talking to Afro-Cuban artists about ceremonies and rituals, I realized that these two cultures have a similarity in that they communicate their cultural content, richness and their language, through rituals and ceremony. And so, a light bulb went off and I thought how interesting would it be to get artists from these very superficially, seemingly different cultures (to work together).”

And though bringing international artists on one stage proved to be logistically ambitious, for Messulam it was well worth it.

“This is a very important cultural collaboration and it was put together fairly quickly, but I am a believer that things happen for a reason and all the stars just aligned,” she says, admitting that “the challenges were from a much more bureaucratic perspective, in terms of securing funding and visas.”

She says that it all came together to “work with such an incredible group of artists . . .”

Lang hopes that the audience will take advantage of the performance as a way to expand their horizons.

“I try to say to people don’t come with preconceived ideas, come along for the journey.”

 WHAT:  “Two Islands” world premiere

WHERE: Koubek Center, 2705 SW Third St., Miami

 WHEN:   8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16 

COST:  $20 

INFORMATION: 305-237-7749  or is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at

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