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Harlem/Havana Music & Cultural Festival embraced at Gracie Mansion

Herb Boyd | 7/21/2016, 12:06 p.m.
One person arriving at Gracie Mansion Thursday compared the long line of people waiting to enter to the lines at ...
Mayor Bill de Blasio, Lloyd Williams, and Chirlane McCray Contributed

One person arriving at Gracie Mansion Thursday compared the long line of people waiting to enter to the lines at the Apollo Theater when James Brown was the star attraction. Obviously, Brown wasn’t at Mayor de Blasio’s quarters, but folks were interested in more news about the first Harlem/Havana Music & Cultural Festival. So interested, in fact, many people were still filing in as the presentations drew to a close.

They missed First Lady Chirlane McCray’s rousing address and her energetic promotion of the festival. “I don’t know about you, but I am so excited about the first ever Harlem/Havana Music and Cultural Festival will be uptown in Harlem,” she told the packed audience under the massive tent in back of the mansion. “Are you excited?”

The response was church-like with the crowd shouting its approval.

McCray then pointed out some of the vital cultural connections between Harlem and Havana, before delivering a lengthy personal relationship to the Caribbean. She began by recounting the background of her great-grandmother, Louisa Parris Edwards, who was born in Barbados and worked on a mail boat that traveled between the islands of the Caribbean.

Edwards eventually settled in Harlem. “She was a chief lieutenant in Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement,” McCray continued, “and we invested in the Black Star Line and in the Universal Negro Improvement Association. When she died in 1941, she had the biggest funeral anyone had ever seen in Harlem. There were six limousines and cost $296, I know, because I have the receipts.”

After citing a quote from the late Ossie Davis about Harlem, the first lady gave the podium to her husband, who greeted the audience in Spanish.

“Some of our colleagues are here from Cuba, and I thought I would welcome them, and came up with this phrase, ‘mi casa, su casa’ (my house is your house),” he said, pretending he had just come up with this fairly common expression.

His entry point on the evening’s theme was to mention that he and his wife spent their honeymoon in Cuba. “I can honestly say that I had a honeymoon in Havana,” he said. The festival, he added, would deepen and enrich the cultural connection between the people of Harlem and Havana.

The mayor thanked President Obama for forging ties with Cuba, and then summoned Lloyd Williams, the president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, to the podium. “Lloyd you are one of the pillars of the Harlem community,” the mayor stated, “… and it’s time we pay respect to all that the chamber has done over the years. What we are going to do is to name a day after the chamber. As mayor of New York City, I do hereby proclaim July 14, 2016, Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce Day.”

Williams accepted the proclamation and said, “We’re in Cuba now, according to the weather. You agree?” The response was a resounding “Yes.”

Then, recognizing the heat in the tent and the scheduled speakers, the mayor decided that the program should be abbreviated and invited Ana Silvia Rodriguez Abascal, the deputy permanent representative of Cuba to the United Nations, to address the crowd.