CAM students, faculty collaborate on Cuban music project

Alumnus\' interactive digital work displayed as part of Biennial of the Americas celebration

September 26, 2017

CAM students collaborate on Cuban music event
Pedrito Martinez at the Newman Center during the Biennial of the Americas celebration.

There’s more to CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media (CAM) than an education in the liberal arts. There’s also a commitment to expanding the relationships and experiences created through music.

This summer CAM student Isabella Sandoval (BS, ’17) accompanied Chair of the Department of Music and Entertainment Industry Studies Richard Strasser, DMA, as well as Assistant Professor Aleysia Whitmore, PhD, and Senior Instructor Peter Ellingson, MM, on a trip to the AM-PM music conference in Havana, Cuba.

The CAM delegation experienced Cuban culture firsthand, while engaging in a platform designed to discuss the connection between music and technology. The conference was also an opportunity to network with music professionals from across Latin America.

CU Denver alumna Isabella Sandoval
Isabella Sandoval

The trip was supported by Laurence Kaptain, DMA, FRSA, dean of CAM, who strongly encourages students to explore cultural diversity. “I believe that encouraging them to develop their own sense of ‘creative fluency’ will also lead them to challenge cultural and social barriers wherever they encounter them,” he said.

Sandoval said the trip to Cuba was “amazing” and took her to “uncharted territory.” She was invited to take part in the trip after winning the CAM Pitch Competition. Impressed by Sandoval’s hard work, Kaptain spoke with CAM faculty and staff and then offered her the chance to organize the trip to Cuba in return for the opportunity to also attend.

“My experiences within CAM have helped put me into contact with really successful people that can help me succeed in whatever I choose to do,” said Sandoval, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in music business in December.

Bringing the Experience to Life

Kaptain knew this cultural experience was too great to not share with other CU Denver students as well as the larger community. He had an eye on the high-profile Biennial of the Americas festival, held in downtown Denver earlier this month, as the perfect venue to highlight CAM’s involvement with the vibrant Cuban music scene. Bringing recent graduate Robert Fikes IV (BFA, ’17) on board, the goal was to create a way to share the vibrant Cuban culture experienced on the trip.

Fikes graduated magna cum laude from CAM, with a degree in digital design. Originally from San Diego, Fikes chose to attend CU Denver because of the courses offered and the campus’ cultural diversity. “My goal is to create an emotional experience, something people can interact with,” he said.

It’s not easy to bring an experience to life in a way that makes others feel like they were there too, but Fikes was just the man for the job. “Dean Kaptain reached out to me because I’m always trying to push the boundaries and create a live experience,” Fikes said.

Working alongside Fikes, Sandoval operated under the role of coordinator. “I helped Robbie connect with different resources and gather information on the trip,” Sandoval said. “I’m really excited to see Robbie’s work; he’s great at what he does.”

CU in the City

CU Denver alumnus Robert Fikes
Robert Fikes IV

Fikes’ interactive digital work of extending the experience CAM faculty and a student had in Cuba was on display as part of the Biennial of the Americas celebration Sept. 12-16. The goal of the festival was to bring together leaders and innovators from across the western hemisphere, to transform how they interact and do business together.

“Part of the goal of showcasing the Cuba trip in the festival is to show how CAM has developed a relationship with the music scene in Havana,” Sandoval said.

In an increasingly interconnected global community, the lasting relationships created through these kinds of opportunities are more important than ever. “I’m fortunate I was chosen to work on this,” Fikes said. “I want to prove that I really can make a difference.”

As CAM connects with Cuban music professionals, the university at large connects with the Denver community through the innovative work of students like Sandoval and alumni such as Fikes.

The finished product is programmed into a 65-inch touch-screen display that runs Fikes’ custom interactive application. Using the application, viewers can interact with the Cuba experience through pictures, music and descriptive features.

If you haven’t yet seen the interactive display, there’s still time. Fikes’ work will be on exhibit at the NXT STG gallery at the Denver Performing Arts Complex as part of their “Stars of Supernova” installation which opened Friday, Sept. 22, and continues through Nov. 11. For more information on the Gallery go to