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W&L Student Performs at Havana Jazz Festival A meeting with a Broadway legend allowed engineering major Zaria Daniels ’26 to take her vocal talents to Cuba.

In-rehearsal-at-Catedral-de-Habana-with-Chapman-Roberts-conducting-Zaria-in-front-middle-1140x554 W&L Student Performs at Havana Jazz Festival

“With all the walls built to separate and divide us in this world, I continue to be awed by the power of music to unify and build bridges of understanding and friendship.”

~ Lacey Lynch, lecturer in music

Zaria Daniels ’26 never dreamed where her lifelong love of singing would take her. The engineering major from Lexington, South Carolina, who grew up singing in church and is a classically trained trumpet player, knew that she wanted to continue using her voice when she came to Washington and Lee University. Meeting Broadway legend Chapman Roberts in the fall of 2023 wound up taking her and her vocal talents to Havana, Cuba.

Daniels traveled to Cuba Jan. 24-29 to participate in the Havana Jazz Festival, an international festival welcoming individuals, singing groups and musicians from around the world. This year’s event marked the festival’s return from hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Daniels performed with a group hand-picked and conducted by Roberts, beginning intensive rehearsals almost immediately after arriving that culminated in two performances during her time at the festival. Daniels performed at Catedral de San Cristóbal and Teatro America both in Havana. The set list of songs included “Oh Happy Day,” “The Color Purple,” “Soon and Very Soon,” “Legacy” and “Total Praise.” Daniels was the soloist for “Be Grateful,” “Goodness of God” and “Proud Mary.”

Zaria-solo-at-Catedral-de-HabanaWP6-1-373x768 W&L Student Performs at Havana Jazz FestivalDaniels rehearses a solo.

“When I heard about this opportunity, I was sure that it was just a dream,” Daniels said. “However, it slowly shaped itself into a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is still difficult to fathom. Chapman brought together some of the most talented musicians I have ever had the chance to work with, and the thunderous applause, tears, kind words and smiles we received after each performance showed the impact we had not only on each other but the people in Havana.”

Among Roberts’ company was Vox Cordis, a Cuban youth choir specializing in sacred music directed by Maestro Ramón Leyva González; Lacey Lynch, lecturer in music at W&L, hopes to perform some of the group’s Cuban choral music at the university in the coming years. Daniels also had the chance to perform with the Livingstone College Concert Choir, a choral group from a historically black college in North Carolina; Dandara Veiga, a Brazilian dancer with the Ballet Hispánico in NYC; and many professional and semi-professional singers and musicians. The performances, held at the Catedral de San Cristóbal and Teatro America were attended by representatives from the Canadian, U.S., European Union, Czech, Polish and Caribbean embassies.

Zaria-and-Chapman-RobertsWP-576x768 W&L Student Performs at Havana Jazz FestivalDaniels and Roberts met during his visit to campus during Fall Term 2023.

Roberts, a longtime friend of the university and of Lenfest Center Director Rob Mish, met Daniels during rehearsals for Roots of Influence, the opening performance of Lenfest’s 2023-2024 season and a showcase of four internationally acclaimed performers for which Roberts served as impresario. Roberts is a Broadway legend, having begun his stage career as part of the cast of the original Broadway production of “Hair,” and has served as producer on multiple projects focused on Black music and performers, such as “Black Stars of the Great White Way” and “The Gospel According to Broadway,” a chronicle of 300 years of African-American sacred music that was recognized in 2007 with a recording by the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Michael Terry Singers and the London Community Gospel Choir. Roberts has been involved with the Havana Jazz Festival for many years and saw an opportunity to bring Daniels’ singular voice to the festival.

“It was magic performing with her,” said Roberts, who added that the audience erupted into applause mere moments into one of the songs Daniels performed at Havana’s National Cathedral. “She is an extraordinary talent.”

Visa requirements dictated that a chaperone accompany Daniels, and Lynch volunteered to attend. Lynch first met Daniels as a first-year in W&L’s Glee Club. Lynch conducts Cantatrici, the treble choir on campus, and both choirs rehearse together on joint pieces for all concerts; Daniels has also served as a soloist for Cantatrici this academic year and is a member of University Singers.

“Zaria is a fantastic choir member,” Lynch said, “a dependable, solid musician and an extremely versatile singer, able to perform many styles and genres at a high level.”

Lynch said she was impressed by the variety of musical styles showcased during the festival, from spirituals, gospel and hymns to jazz, blues and traditional Cuban music. Lynch and Daniels said the experience was truly collaborative; Lynch even contributed some vocals to two songs performed. Roberts said one of Daniels’ gifts is the ability to adapt quickly to new material.

“Her personality even changes once she gets onstage–she gets into character,” Roberts said.

Zaria-and-Professor-Lynch-at-Catedral-de-HabanaWP-576x768 W&L Student Performs at Havana Jazz FestivalLynch and Daniels snap a selfie during rehearsal.

Roberts said he was impressed at how quickly all the festival performers came together during the rehearsal process.

“The preparedness of some of the other groups who joined us at the festival was extraordinary–they adapted seamlessly,” Roberts said, adding that the confluence of musical stylings and influences at the festival promotes cultural exchange in a way that only music can.

Lynch echoed that the environment was affirming for everyone who participated.

“Everyone we met and performed alongside were gracious and welcoming, and they were so encouraging and supportive of Zaria,” Lynch said. “With all the walls built to separate and divide us in this world, I continue to be awed by the power of music to unify and build bridges of understanding and friendship. Just another reason we need more music in this world—more reasons to celebrate what unites us.”

Daniels credits her time at W&L with preparing her to jump feet-first into this immersive and collaborative experience.

“Luckily, I knew how to work collaboratively because of my experience here at W&L,” Daniels said. “We do a lot of workshopping in University Singers and Glee Club. My biggest takeaway from the festival was that I learned even more about adapting to change in such a fluid, dynamic environment.”

The-Company-spontaneosly-singing-following-performance-at-Catedral-de-Habana-1140x616 W&L Student Performs at Havana Jazz FestivalThe company spontaneosly singing following their performance at the cathedral.