Love song: Pedro’s Canadian adventure
Local musician and music teacher Pedro Quintana was raised in Cuba and moved to Grand Bend after meeting his wife, Marcy Walker, at the resort where he played piano.
“I came down the elevator and heard this fantastic music in the lobby of the hotel,” Walker says, recalling their first meeting. “My friend and I sat and listened to his music for a while. I went over and asked if he would like a glass of champagne. I thought, he’s not only talented, but he’s pleasant and has manners; he’s not bad to look at either.”
The two met on December 25, were engaged on December 31, and married the next April. They’ve lived in Grand Bend since then, and have faced their share of challenges together.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, and had treatment for two years,” Walker says. “Pedro was just phenomenal through that. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Pedro is now able to do music full-time, teaching and performing locally, including Thursday nights at Hessenland for its Mongolian Grill.
As told to Casey Lessard
I was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It’s in the centre of the island. We weren’t poor poor; my father was an electrician so he made good money, and my mother was at home. There’s no comparison between what you can afford in Cuba compared to Canada. I don’t remember things being so great that we could buy toys and things. We owned a 1956 Chevrolet, and we used to go once a year to the beach.
We were very much into music; I wanted to pursue music even at a young age. My mom and dad were singers with a group called Lyric, and I remember going to rehearsals with them. There was a lot of music around me growing up. I started taking piano when I was 13. An opportunity came for me where I could go to the National Music School in Havana if I did the seven years of work I would have done in elementary school; I had to do it in two years or I was out. It was quite challenging for me to learn all the subjects, including piano, history, and theory. But I did my examination in Havana and got accepted.
It was a full-time music school, and I finished in 1991 when I was 18. I had to decide whether to go back to Santa Clara and be a teacher, or continue on to university for another five years. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and we didn’t know if the school was still going to be open; if you could picture Cuba at that time, it was a pretty depressing time to be away from home. I decided to go back to Santa Clara, where I taught at an elementary school for two years, and also taught adults.
It was a very rough time economically, and an opportunity came up in Varadero as a pianist in a show, and that was my start. I eventually found more opportunities and became a pianist in a piano bar at the Brisas del Caribe resort. I started taking English lessons and lyrical lessons. I was about 22 at the time.
For a year I lived in Varadero in very poor conditions, paying a very high price for rent in a resort area. I got tired of that, and rented about a half hour away in Matanzas; I had a whole house and paid less than in Varadero.
The resort’s drivers would pick us up at 4 p.m. and drop us off at 4 a.m., six days a week. It was good working at the piano bar because I got a lot of privileges. The food was good, plus drinks, etc. I could talk to tourists and I had a lot of free time to study my English. It was quite boring working 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., six days a week. But in those circumstances, I met my wife, and a big light came into my life.
The piano bar
Being a pianist and having a love for music, I was forced to balance my night between piano and karaoke. On nights where people didn’t care for piano, I had to turn on the karaoke machine. One night, Marcy was sitting beside the bar. She had a little tape player and was listening to some nice music. I stopped by her table during a break and said to myself, “Wow! Who is she, listening to this good music and her hair bouncing around?” She certainly paid attention to me and we found something in each other right away.
I sat down and she offered me a drink. She told me about her family, and that her dad had passed away a couple of months before. After that, we decided to meet for dinner. She asked me what my favourite colour was, and I said blue. She went and changed into a blue dress! We had dinner and it was very interesting to talk to her. I was concerned at the beginning about where things were leading, but she treated me well. She treated me not as a Cuban, conscious of our situation, like other tourists do.
Not too long after we met, we were having drinks in a bar on New Year’s Eve 2000. I asked her if she would marry me and she said, “Yes. I’ll marry you.”
After that she went back and forth to Cuba several times and we used to email each other every day. I have several books full of printed emails from day one to the day I arrived here. In April, three months after we were engaged, we got married in a park in Cuba with a few friends; it was a beautiful wedding.
Coming to Canada
I came to Canada in February 2001. Challenge number one was the language: speaking properly, understanding it, and learning how things work here. I’ve always been concerned and aware of the expectation that if you’re a teacher, people expect you to speak properly. Canada has been great because it has given me the opportunity to do anything I want. Here are the doors, you can open any one you want. I had to start from zero, so I had a vision of what I wanted to do and that’s the only thing that kept me going. Eventually people recognize the work you do if you work with love and you’re consistent with what you believe. That’s true of any business.
Canada gave me opportunities to do what I wanted to do. But it could have been awful, too, if I had come here and found that people didn’t believe in what I believe, or that Marcy wasn’t the way she was down there. Fortunately, everything was as I thought it would be.
I really took a risk coming here, but my wife was the big light in my life and believed in me. Today, we’re still fulfilling the dream we started based on our mutual trust and the love of music we share.
When I was working in Cuba, I was always dreaming, and those dreams are what I do now. Down there, there was always a big roadblock that would not allow me to realize my dreams. I used to go inside my own world to be able to survive depression and the lack of freedom. I think that’s the only way I was able to survive.
When I finished school in 1991, I had this dream of teaching, and I found after a while that it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing because I couldn’t make a living at it. That’s why I pursued the piano bar job. Now I’m free to do what I want and I’m respected. I work every day to make sure I do the right things. I know that working hard will eventually pay off.
In Canada, music has to be fun, and people take it as the third or fourth thing they do (after sports, etc.). I can teach anyone who comes how to play piano the right way. There are no short cuts if you want to learn the right way. But I have students who just want to learn a little bit, for example chording. You have to understand what people want you to teach them and focus on that.
I arrange my time based on when students are available. Students come for half an hour or an hour, and I teach individually or duets. I follow the Royal Conservatory curriculum, but some students prefer to just play along and learn some popular stuff.
I work at the Forest United Church, and I see myself playing at church and developing choirs and working with children. I enjoy that and working around the area at restaurants and bars. I work hard at everything I do and I take all the experience I have in popular and jazz to my church, and I’ve gotten a good response.
I see myself in every one of the students who come here. Everyone has something to offer and I take the best they can offer to make them start believing they can do it. You have to be patient and love what you do.
To learn more about Pedro Quintana’s music program for all ages, visit pedroquintana.ca, email pedromarcy (at) mac.com or call 519-238-2996.