88 Keys Connect White Bear to Cuba

Pianist Nachito Herrera serenades political change.
A Night in Havana with Nachito Herrera and his Cuban Orchestra at the Ordway Center.

Among the many frequent strollers around White Bear Lake, Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera and his wife, Aurora, enjoy the lake for a unique reason: looking at the water evokes pleasant memories of their Cuban homeland.

Not that the Herrera’s busy schedules allow as much lake time as they would like. Nachito, a White Bear resident since 2002, has been recognized as one of the world’s elite pianists in both the classical and jazz fields. His keyboard virtuosity has made him very much in demand, at home and abroad.

Herrera, 49, began his career as a child prodigy in Cuba, performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Havana Symphony Orchestra at age 12. He later became musical director for the iconic Tropicana nightclub in Havana, played piano for the Afro-Cuban All Stars and toured the world with Cubanismo. In 2014, he won the American Heritage Award for his work, the first Latin musician to win it since Carlos Santana, and the first-ever Cuban artist to win.

Last July, when the Cuban flag was raised over the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. for the first time since 1961, Herrera was invited to perform at the ceremony. But he had already scheduled a performance for his new band, the Universals, made up of elite United States and foreign musicians he had met at international jazz festivals.

Herrera first visited the Twin Cities in 1996, while touring with the Havana-based group Cubanismo. “I started to meet a lot of people here, including Lowell Pickett,” co-owner of the Dakota. “They invited me to stay longer and helped me change my legal status, and things started to happen.” In 2001, Herrera was invited to serve as musical director for a play at the Minnesota History Center, and became a full-time Minnesota resident the following year.

Herrera had initially stayed at the Vadnais Heights home of a friend he had met in Cuba; another friend recommended White Bear Lake. In 2003, Aurora and their two children, Mirdalys (now 25) and David (now 21), joined Nachito here and moved to their current home near the lake.

Herrera also began working as an instructor at McPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, where he imparts his “one music” philosophy. “I always tell my students that all music is connected, and that classical is the ‘queen mother’ of all music,” he says. “It’s unbelievable how Johann Sebastian Bach was using what we now consider modern harmony, back in the 1600s—the same things we use today in jazz harmony.”

Along with the water, the Herreras also appreciate the local community’s support for music and the arts, and the downtown area’s cozy shops and cafés, which remind them of Europe, where Herrera frequently plays jazz festivals during the April-to-September festival season. Another local trait that reminds him of Cuba is the friendliness of the people here.

He and Aurora (who is president of their company Herrera & Gonzalez LLC), have made about 10 trips back to Cuba, but only visited there twice in the past three years. Herrera is planning to invite a number of Minnesota musicians to visit Cuba next October to perform with the national symphony. In 2013, he brought a small group of musicians from the University of Minnesota and Gustavus Adolphus College there to perform, through the Nachito Herrera Foundation. In 2014, Herrera and his Cuban orchestra hosted the Cuban ambassador at an Ordway Center’s “Night In Havana” concert.

In December, Herrera finally performed at a concert at the Cuban embassy in Washington, helping to launch a new era he feels is “long overdue.”