When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.
These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.
Having stated that caveat, here’s the second installment of the new “Pile” — my impressions of pianist-composer Elio Villafranca’s superb Cinque, released in the spring. Following the review I’ve appended two interviews that I conducted with Villafranca in 2013 and 2014.
Elio Villafranca (Cinque):
Without multiple listenings on the granular level, it’s not possible to do justice to the various layers that Elio Villafranca interweaves into his panoramic five-movement suite, Cinque (Artists Share), a major work that wears its erudition lightly. Roughly speaking, it’s framed around the life and impact of Joseph Cinque (1814-1879) (a free man from Sierra Leone who was kidnapped into slavery in 1839, masterminded the capture of the slave ship Amistad in 1839, was imprisoned in the U.S., and was freed in 1841 to return to West Africa as a free man in 1841) and also the events of Haitian Revolution that preceded Cinque’s birth. These events are well-depicted in the extremely thorough program booklet, as are the Kongo and Gangá cosmologies that underpin the proceedings in an illuminating essay by the Ned Sublette, author of the essential Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo — the value added contained therein is a good reason to eschew streaming and buy Villafranca’s self-produced, crowd-funded double CD package (if you’re equipped to play a CD, of course).
This being said, you don’t need a scorecard to viscerally appreciate Villafranca’s vivid compositions, which reference an expansive gamut of jazz approaches spanning Ellington to Tyner to (Wynton) Marsalis, while using raw materials drawn from an array of Afro-Caribbean musics that surrounded Villafranca (a son of San Luis, Cuba, in the Pinar Del Rio region) during formative years. Villafranca came up through Cuba’s rigorous system of musical pedagogy, and graduated from Havana’s the island’s world-class conservatory, with separate degrees in composition and percussion. He’s a world-class pianist, who has made it his business since emigrating to the United States two decades ago to assimilate and attain fluency in an expansive array of dialects —- his solo declamations call up, at various points, vocabulary from the Maestro, McCoy Tyner, Monk, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Kenny Barron (check the “What If” motif that he uses on “Conga Y Comparsa”) — that he’s refracted into his own argot. Villafranca intersperses field recordings of master folkloric practitioners from his home region that contextualize the narrative and illuminate the Afro-diasporic interconnections between the hemispheres.
For the occasion, Villafranca recruited an ensemble of masters who have interpreted his music for several years. The fulcrum is Lewis Nash, grandmaster of the trapset, who, given an opportunity to stretch out, displays his extraordinary ability to function both as a generator of idiomatic grooves in a coro with four hand percussionists of Cuban descent and bassist Ricky Rodriguez, while displaying his creativity in dialogue with the exceptional soloists. Steve Turre, a long-standing master at fusing African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocabularies, generates evocative timbres and primal melodies on conch shells, and applies his sui generis trombone conception on a range of muted and open-horn solos that range from J.J. Johnson-level hardbop to Lawrence Brown-esque romance). Tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy’s stirring declamation embodies the title “The Night Of The Fire”; Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Vincent Herring on alto and soprano saxophones and flute, and Todd Marcus on clarinet and bass clarinetist contribute statements of equivalent panache and fire. Villafranca leaves space for two pithy, well-wrought solos by Wynton Marsalis, whose own interpretation of the Afro-diasporic message, as expressed in programmatic suites like Blood on the Fields and Congo Square, has established an aesthetic template for ambitious cross-cultural works like Cinque. Indeed, Cinque debuted at Marsalis’ “house,” the Appel Room at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, during the 2014-2015 season.
On a more meta level, Villafranca’s achievement is emblematic of the maturation of the Cuban musicians who have claimed their position in the international jazz conversation since Gonzalo Rubalcaba left the island during the late ‘80s — a short-list includes Yosvany Terry (whose historical opera Makandal needs a commercial recording), Dafnis Prieto, David Virelles, Roman Filiu, and Aruán Ortiz.
I’ve appended below two interviews I had an opportunity to conduct with Villafranca (who has since moved from Temple University to Juilliard) in which he discusses his personal history and aesthetics. The one from 2013 was conducted for a Jazz Times piece with several Cuban musicians (including all of the aforementioned) on their educational experience in Cuba; the one from 2014 was for a Downbeat web piece.
Elio Villafranca on Cuba Education (May 14, 2013):
TP: A few basic things first. How old are you?
EV: I’m 44. (December 1968)
TP: And you’re from Pinar Del Rio, which is in the west of Cuba.
TP: Are you from a musical family?
EV: No. There’s no music in my family.
TP: Did you learn to play music in school as a kid?
EV: I went through the system that Cuba has. I started in the Casa del Cultura of my home town of San Luis, Pinar del Rio. I started painting first (that was the first thing I did) when I was very young, and then, from there I picked up the guitar. I studied guitar for about two years. Then I knew that there were music schools, that they were accepting people for music. Then I presented myself to do the test… I did the test without telling my family, actually, and then they accepted me, but they told me that they didn’t have room for guitar players any more, so I picked percussion.
TP: This was the regional school?
TP: Dafnis Prieto went to Santa Clara when he was 10 or something.
EV: Exactly. The same thing. But I did it in Pinar Del Rio. Every province had those original schools, where you get the general music education, and then you go to Havana, where it’s more like the high school kind of thing where you get the specialization on your instrument, and then I went to the ISA, the university of music in Cuba, in Havana. Then I did percussion, because they didn’t have guitar… Actually, I have two degrees—in percussion and composition. I picked up piano when I went into school. I didn’t play piano before I went to school, but then, since it was mandatory for me to play the piano, I was playing it all the time. Then I fell in love with the piano, and then I took it seriously, and then I devoted myself to piano playing.
TP: Was it at the regional school?
EV: That was mostly at the ENA. In Havana, that’s when I first was introduced to jazz, and I was like, “Wow,” and that’s when I started playing.
TP: Can you tell me something about the pedagogy in the regional school?
EV: It’s very intense. The whole system is like, you have double sessions, one session during the morning…from morning til noon you do the regular classes, which is math, physics or chemistry, and then in the afternoon you do the musical classes. At the regional school it was more focused on solfege and theory and piano, and a little on your instrument, the instrument that you were applying for, and also general history of music and music history classes, general, informative type of classes for general music and education.
TP: Dafnis said it was European music, classical music?
EV: Yes, it’s constantly European. My entire education… I think also for him… I mean, for our generation, it’s mostly in classical music. Like, my education, my training in percussion and in composition was fully classical music.
TP: Dafnis said he learned bongos and different percussion instrument, went to tympany, went to mallet instruments…
EV: Yes, exactly that. From my experience, I learned mostly classical. I didn’t know, like Cuban percussion, until I got to Havana. That’s when I started playing a little bit of Cuban percussion. But that was very, very simple information that they give you on that, because actually the courses were mainly classical music. They were following more like the Russian style. They used to see all the Cuban percussion as the lower form of music, basically. Then most of us, me in particular, learned all these other things more in the streets. I used to go and see bands play, and I would play with other groups sometimes on the street, I would go to jam sessions—but not because of education necessarily. Then there was a point in the ISA that they realized that it was a good business, because there was a lot of interest from Europeans and Americans to learn it, so then they started opening classes for foreign people and for the students, and then they opened the catedra of Cuban percussion, then I got a chance to learn from a lot of great masters in Cuban percussion when they were allowed to teach at the conservatory. Remember, in Cuba, for you to be teaching… Everything is through the government. For you to be teaching at the university level, the ISA, you have to have a degree that says you have a doctoral degree or masters degree so you can teach at this level. But most of the percussionists, rumberos and everything, they didn’t have anything.
TP: They’re street musicians.
EV: Exactly. Then there was this conflict for them to accept them in the school, because they thought, like, “oh, we…” It’s like an elite kind of thing. But finally, I think they decided, “We’re going to teach those classes.” Even though here was some tension between them, because it was kind of like, “Ok…”
TP: I can imagine what the tension was like with highbrow Russian teachers and these street guys…
EV: But you know what? Believe it or not, the tension was not between the Russian teachers and the Cubans. It was between the Cubans who had learned in Russia… A lot of my teachers… I had Russian teachers who didn’t speak Spanish enough, and I remember having translators in the classrooms, and then the other teachers were Cubans who studied in the conservatories in Russia. Those are the ones who thought, like, classical music is an elite thing, “I don’t want you guys to be playing any popular music, because that’s not really a good…” They thought that it was not really good music.
TP: You anticipated my question, which is where you picked up Cuban popular or folkloric music. I guess it was in the air, on the street all the time.
EV: Yeah, in the air, on the street, but I have to tell you also that… I just came to realize this in my later years, that actually I experienced my folkloric music in San Luis (?—9:28) for the first time when I was a baby, when I was born there. San Luis is the area where the Tambor de Yuka exists at this moment, and the Tambor de Yuka is a very rare form of Cuban music from the Congolese culture (the shape of the drum looks like a yucca). But it was very popular in Cuba throughout the slavery process because the drums are not sacred. They are the kind of drums that are played in the festive activities before the sacred music was played. It’s the drums that they… The slaves didn’t have to have a religious celebration to play them. They can play it whenever they want to play it. So it was a very popular form of drumming. In my home town, since I was a kid, I would always listen to those drums. I didn’t know what they were. I was more fascinated by the fire, because for you to tune the drums you have to make a fire, because they’re tuned by fire. For me, as a kid, that was the most exciting thing. Not so much of the drums, because the drums are kind of old-looking, kind of made out of those trees, a very simple form of making a drum. But then only when I went to the school I started realizing, “Oh, I see, this is what…” I’d been listening and exposed to that particular of Afro-Cuban music since I was at a very early age.
TP: Once you were in Havana, were you starting to play outside, to be a professional musician?
EV: Yes. When I was in Havana… One of the reasons why I took the piano very seriously was not only because I liked it… I mean, with jazz. I should say with jazz. Because with piano, I always liked it. I was taking it serious. I was taking classes and all that. But in the catedra of percussion, we used to do jam sessions. That was the only faculty that would do jam sessions. We would go there, jam, and it was great, a lot of fun. There were a lot of percussionists but no pianists. So every time I got there, all the instruments were already taken, and the only thing that was not played was the piano. Then I start sitting on the piano just to create like a real jam session, and then they start asking me to come and play the piano for the jam session. Then I realized, “wow, ok, maybe I should start taking it even more seriously,” to be able to play and jam and improvise and all the things on the piano. That’s the beginning of how I started to get into jazz.
Then, by doing that, I was hired by a few groups kind of as a pianist, but no pay—because when you are in the school, you are not allowed to be paid. Then finally, a group that I was hired for, that I was there with them for 8 years throughout my school, was with Carlos Varela, who is a singer-songwriter from Cuba who I am sure you’ve heard of—from the Nueva Trova. He is almost like the disciple of Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. He was very famous, and I was joined his band, and I became his musical director.
TP: You had all the tools from the conservatory, but the feeling from playing on the street.
EV: Yeah. And then I did my own group, my jazz group which I played at jazz festivals all the time.
TP: How old were you when you started your jazz group?
EV: I was maybe 17. 
TP: I saw Shawn Brady’s piece on you, which was built around the story that you had a teacher at school who told you that he’d come down hard on you if you had any jazz in the composition.
TP: Were you able to learn jazz at all in conservatory, or is that also a self-taught process?
EV: It’s a self-taught process. There were no classes on jazz. For example, even tunes—there were no Real Books. The only way we could learn tunes was either transcribing, or sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s home, because I knew he was traveling, or Chucho Valdes, or Pucho Lopez, or Harold Lopez-Nussa… Those are the people who I used to visit their home and say “I want to copy some standards.” I remember Gonzalo sometimes would say, “I have a book, but you can copy it here,” so I would bring paper, and handwrite the songs. I remember he used to have “Eye Of The Hurricane,” Herbie Hancock with Wynton…the transcription of Herbie’s solos. I’d sit down there and handwrite all these things while he was practicing. I was always listening to him practicing! I’d be writing from the book while he was playing.
At that time a cassette tape in the black market cost 15 pesos in Cuba, when the average salary was 150 pesos. My mother and my father would put together 35 pesos to give me to live for a month in Havana. Just relying on the food the school would give us, was not enough. Often when I return from home to the ENA some one would be selling tapes at the entrance of the school. The black market was the only place where you could buy cassette tapes, so I will use 30 pesos of my 35 (leaving me only with 5 pesos for the entire month to live off) to buy two tapes so I could record Chick’s music, or Weather Report, Egberto Gismonti, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie, Miles, Trane, Freddie Hubbart… on and on… So much music to hear. I would then ask musicians who were traveling out side of Cuba such as Chucho, or Gonzalo, Horacio Hernandez, Gonzalo’s drummer at the time, Ernan, to record some music for me. Some times I would team-up between a friend who also liked jazz, so that way we can trade recordings. I’m really proud of the choices I made between food or great music. Specially after been among the 5 pianist chosen by Chick Corea to play at his own festival this past May 16th at Dizzy’s, Jazz at Lincoln Center. That was one of the greatest feelings of a dream comes thru.
TP: What was it about jazz that appealed to you at that time?
EV: It’s freedom! Growing up in a system where freedom was not a common thing to have was difficult creatively at times…, and I’m not talking about politics only, also in music, therefore playing jazz was a very liberating experience. Having that freedom to express your self, when that lacked in politics and in society was intoxicating…
The very first group that really impacted me in jazz was Richie Cole. [alto sax] I remember when I first came to Havana, I didn’t know anything about jazz. I loved rock music. I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—that was my music. And then, a friend of mine, who was already at the school, said, “You definitely have to go to the jazz festival.” I really wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know what it was, but I said, “Ok, I’ve got to go.” I went and Richie Cole did a concert there, and I was with my mouth open the whole night. After that night, I just decided I want to be a jazz musician. That was the first band that really impacted me. Then after that, I started digging. Then Chick Corea, Three Quartets and Crystal Silence, and all these beautiful things, and I also got into the Herbie Hancock vein. That’s when I first started noticing about Wynton, that album with Herbie, The Eye of The Hurricane. Then from that point on, I started reaching, reaching, reaching for new albums.
TP: When did you get out of school? At 21 or 18?
EV: Out of ISA, I was 24. I did two careers there. I was not allowed to graduate from the two careers in the same year—percussion and composition.
TP: By the time you graduated, you were playing in a number of bands. Were you able to start traveling at that time?
EV: Yeah. Even before I was graduated, I was traveling with my rock band, with Carlos Varela. We were going to Spain. We were going to Colombia. Actually, we coincided a concert in Colombia with Pink Floyd and Kool and the Gang. We were traveling. That band was good on that thing. That helped me to survive. Because I wasn’t allowed to get paid in Cuba, but I’d travel with them I would get paid, kind of a stipend kind of thing, and then I would bring that money back to Cuba, and then I would be able to survive on that.
TP: So by the time you were 24, were the musical ideas that we’ve heard from you for the last 10-15 years in the States more or less in place? How did things develop? How did the type of education you received affect the way things were developing?
EV: I teach at Temple, and I see sometimes some of the faults in the educational system here in terms of musical education. I feel like sometimes the students, they don’t really get a very extensive, full education in music. Not just in jazz or how to play bebop tunes, but in music in general. Maybe because I was in such a stiff kind of training in classical music that I was exposed to a lot of great music… I had a really fantastic education in Cuba in terms of classical music and music in general—solfegge and a lot of things. So that really helped me…it’s been helping me all this time, just even… When I write music and when I play, I don’t see music as just one style. I’m not a bebop player or a Latin Jazz player or a this player. I’m just a musician, and I have so many formations inside of me, from classical to, of course, jazz… I’ve been here long enough and I’ve been studying jazz since I was in school, on my own, and sometimes taking classes and stuff. But also, the Latin music, the background that I’m coming from. This all is inside of me. So I see myself as something that…I can only be in this way if I was raised in the way I was raised in Cuba. I don’t feel like… There’s no other way around.
TP: It doesn’t seem any other place in the world can really produce this type of musician.
EV: Yes. The other thing is, what I’ve told other people also… When you see a Cuban musician, what you see is a filter, a sort of filter, a very competitive filter…I don’t know what will be the next word… But what I mean by ‘filter’ is you see the people who made it after they went to the filter. I know a lot of people all my career that never made a musician. Because in Cuba, not only do you have to be very good, but you have to be very good to be able to get at the level that we got. I mean, at the level to be able to go to the ENA or be able to go to the ISA. At that time, there was only one ENA and there was only one ISA, and they only have limited space available for students. Let’s say, for example, in some of those years, when I went from the EVA, it’s called the EVA, “Escuela Vocacacional de Arte”…from the EVA to the ENA, Escuela National de Arte,” you have to do a test, a very competitive test where they say… There’s only 9 places for percussion, and there are 60 people applying for the same position. In Cuba, all the schools from all of the provinces used to go to Havana to do that test, to go into the ENA, because the ENA was only one ENA at that time and there was only one ISA at the time. Now I think there’s more ENAs around the country, but at that time there was only one—the one in Havana. So the people who made it there were the people who were basically the best of the best.
Then, when you get past the ENA, you have to do exactly the same thing for the ISA. Only one ISA. And in my year, I remember there were only five positions for percussion and two positions in composition. I did what everybody normally does, I said, “Well, I’m just going to do both,” because I knew that I did not want to go back to Pinar Del Rio. I wanted to stay in Havana, because I was already in that group, I was playing jazz, and I wanted to stay in the capital. So I did the test for both, and I was lucky enough that they accepted me in both, which created a kind of problem, because when they accepted me in both, that meant there was one person who wasn’t coming in. That meant there was one bed less for them to give away. They say, ok, there’s 5 beds for percussionist; 2 beds for composition. But that’s it. I had one bed technically on paper for percussion, and I was also taking one bed for composition. Then they were trying to figure out, “Well, you have to give up one.” But since I got first place in both tests, none of the teachers wanted to release me. They said, ‘I don’t want to give away my first place for another year.’ So they said, “You can start one career this year, and then in two years you will do the other one.” But no one wanted to do that. So then they decided, “Well, you have to do both at the same time.” I said, “Well, I’ll do both at the same time.” Then my father said to me, “you’re going to go crazy.” “Well, I don’t think so; I think I can do it.”
That’s what I did; I did both at the same time. But even though I did both at the same time, I was not allowed to graduate…for bureaucratic reasons, I was not allowed to graduate the same year in both. Because you have to spend one year creating a composition, one year creating the piece, and then present it in the following year, and then, in percussion, you have to follow the program and then graduate. That’s why I stayed longer in the school.
TP: Do you feel that, let’s say, movements (I use the word loosely) like timba or developments in popular music in Cuba in the ‘80s and ‘90s have anything to do with the conservatory system, or is that not accurate?
EV: Well, not quite. The timba movement started in the ‘70s, when the… Los Van-Van was one of the pioneers of that movement. It’s a process that, of course, was started at that time a little bit, and now into the ‘90s and then in the ‘00s, it becomes consolidated on what it is. But it started as far as that, and it has nothing to do with education. There were different factors. After the revolution happened, they decided, “ok, we’re only going to do music that belongs to the Revolution,” and then you see La Orquesta de Pello el Afrokan and all of that, and then also Van-Van comes out of that trend, too. The original Los Van-Van was after Fidel Castro’s speech, called “Van-Van,” the “que van van,” talking about sugar cane. So they did that, but then, at the same time there was a very strong influence from Rock music, coming from America, and then that, in combination with…
The government decided also, “Well, all the groups have to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music.” For some reason, they felt like Beny More and all these other bands represented an era they didn’t like, the era before the revolution and the big casinos and these big bands that played in those casinos disappeared. So they really pushed the bands to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music. But Van-Van did something very interesting. Van Van said, “We’re influenced by Rock,” but they did the rock side of music the Cuban way. That’s why they started the drumset without cymbals. Because with cymbals, it’s typical American Rock. So the first movement of songo will be that without the cymbals, because they used the bambu as the cymbals… They wanted their drums to sound very African, but it was an American drum. Then only with Changuito… Changuito decided, “I’m going to put back the cymbals.”
But that’s the whole movement of timba. It’s a combination of the rock that we were listening to at the time, and musicians trying to create new, different combinations and find different ways to create music, different from the music that was played back in the ‘50s and before the Revolution.
TP: I’m not sure I’m clear on whether you’re primarily a self-taught pianist, or received instruction, but it was outside the academy?
EV: No, I had a lot of instruction. The only thing that I am self-taught, to a point, is in popular Cuban music, and jazz. Even though I had several mentors once I got to the US.
TP: You’re a highly trained pianist.
EV: Yes, in classical music.
TP: Can you speak a bit to the ways in which pianists of your generation think differently about music than, say, pianists of Chucho’s or Emiliano Salvador’s generation? If it’s possible to say that, because obviously everyone is an individual. But if there’s anything you can say about the way you learned music in terms of the impact of the conservatory.
EV: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s really… I know Chucho’s playing and I know Emiliano’s playing, and I feel… It becomes a matter of choice.
TP: Or Frank Emilio or Bebo or Peruchin…
EV: I’ll compare it to the hip-hop movement here. The hip-hop movement here is like a social statement. Rather than to be a musical style, first rap came out as a social statement. The same thing for us. I know when I was in Cuba, this trouble of trying to match Chucho’s playing… Chucho came from a generation that was listening to a different type of jazz. I mean, when I came in, it was Weather Report, all of this electronic…the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and also the high development of… We were seeing Cuban music completely different than we were used to… The syncopation in the music was also different. In the ‘50s, the syncopation of Cuban music, you listened to, in groups such as Beny More, and even if you listened to Peruchin, even though it’s very highly syncopated music, was almost specific. Like a pattern, but when you start to listening to groups like Bamboleo, it’s like the syncopation has changed from a pattern idea to a more global inclusion of genres and rhythmic styles. Anything goes… We tend to add a lot of that rumba and Afro-Cuban mixes into the music, and also funk. I am saying this because musically it will affect us, the way we see music, the way we compose mainly…the way we compose, and also the way we think about the instrument, the piano in this case. But more than that, those musicians, you know, from Peruchin…they were also influenced by jazz music. Back in the ‘50s, they could travel to America… The bridge was way smaller than it is now. But for us, the fact that we weren’t close at that time, that we didn’t have access to that music any more, but we have to learn from underground to consume the music because it was illegal…to consume it underground, and all of that investigation that you have to do, the hunger to learn something that you were not supposed—that changed the attitude in how we approached the music, I think, than when you have it at hand.
TP: I’ve talked to Dafnis a number of times, and one issue he had in Cuba was the ability to find situations where he could play what he wanted to play, what he was hearing, not even because of the government, but just because there weren’t that many like-minded musicians. Was it your experience that you were able to fully realize the things you were hearing when you were in Cuba? Did things change… I’m not sure about your process of coming to the States…
EV: Exactly that. There were very few places in Cuba where you could play. The first time I played with a band that played jazz was with Bobby Carcasses’ group, at a club that used to be called the Maxim. That was maybe one of the two clubs, or the only club that was in Havana at that time. That was my very first experience playing with a band. But aside from that, for me to play, I have to just… That’s when I did my own band, because I wanted to be at a festival. But that was only a few times—once a year at the Havana festival, and then if I’d go to the Maxim to play some music, and the jam sessions that we would do at school. Definitely, there were a lack of places or situations where you can play jazz.
TP: The other question was the notion of developing your own vision, your individuality through music. Was that something you were able to do in Cuba? Did it become easier to do once you left?
EV: Yes. It became easier once I left, definitely. Being in Cuba, especially being a pianist… Chucho was a big cloud.
TP: He’s the king.
EV: Yeah. He still is. But he was a very huge cloud for any pianist who wanted to become their own particular voice. Because Cuba, it’s a system… Almost the same system that happened in politics is the same system that happened in music. There was only one voice, and that was the voice. And then, everybody else almost didn’t exist. Even Gonzalo had to struggle to become his own voice. Because there was always Chucho, and Chucho was—or is still—the favorite pianist. I mean, he’s an amazing pianist. But the system is like, “Ok, nobody can really match him; this is what we want.” Then in Cuba, if the government says, “This is the person,” that’s the person.
TP: He also had a lot of clout because Irakere was of such great value to the government.
EV: Exactly. Even since Irakere. So for us, for me, or a lot of pianists to become their own voices was really difficult. The whole thing that started when you move out of Cuba, and then you start realizing, “Oh, wait; there are so many different voices; it’s not just one thing…” You don’t have to play like Chucho to be heard. You can play the way you want to play. Then when I got here, I started informing myself. I listened to a lot of different pianists, took some lessons, did some sessions, and listened to a lot more records and played more. I think the process of creating your voice is a non-stop…
TP: Well, it never ends, but maybe the roads you travel become a bit more defined as you get older.
TP: So it seems that one consequence of so many of the Cuban jazz musicians coming out of the conservatory is that it’s a virtuosic music, and it’s a music in which you have a lot of options because of the breadth of their education.
EV: Yes. I think that’s one thing. The other thing is, we’re in a system where it was very competitive, and if you have Chucho as your high mark…or Gonzalo… You had Chucho and Gonzalo; those are two high marks. To compete with that in Cuba, it was not about choice. It was more like a competition. It was more like, “Ok, you have to play more than them to be able to be considered in anything.”
TP: By playing more, do you mean more virtuosic? Does it have to do with the athletics of it?
EV: Yes, there’s a lot of athletics.
TP: That is something that Cuban musicians have been criticized for—playing a lot of notes, being very busy, flash over substances. But it seems that this is much less of a criticism for players who’ve been here for… I mean, look at the way Gonzalo has pared down, going for simplicity and the essence of things. It’s like he’s trying to unlearn that almost.
EV: Exactly. Because once you leave that environment, then you start understanding that you can really do music without having to play a lot of notes. But it’s true. That process only was started once you leave Cuba. Not only because you’re in a different country, but then, when you start being exposed to and listen to other pianists, then you start hearing different music… But then it does help that you went through such a rigorous musical training, because then you have the mechanism to do whatever you want.
TP: You have all these tools to apply to the free marketplace of ideas, so to speak.
TP: Like, in Cuba you wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing.
EV: No. Definitely not. I wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing. That would be too outside of the box. I don’t think they would consider that an opera, to begin with, then I’m not sure if they would appreciate all of this free improv stuff I do in that project. In Cuba, music tends to get very specific, and so is the way it is played. As a matter of fact, one of the last times I went to Cuba, the festival was happening, and I coincided with a few of my friends, musicians, and I went to a jam session. It was unbelievable, everybody fast and furious, loud and everything. Then one of my friends said, “Do you want to play?” I was like, “No, I can’t play; look at the environment.” Then he said to me, “Are you afraid?” I was like, “No” What, afraid? Music is not about to be afraid. It’s freedom of expression. I said: The only thing I could do there to impress anybody is just get a can of gasoline and light the piano on fire. That’s the only thing that was left to do.
TP: One last question. Do you feel that the musical production of the musicians who left Cuba is having an effect on the last couple of generations of musicians in Cuba, and on the conservatories, and the way musicians are being taught now? That the music that you or Gonzalo or Aruan Ortiz or Fabien Almazen or Dafnis or Yosvany or Gonzalo…I could name 15 more people…that the music you’ve created and documented is having an effect on younger musicians in Cuba, or on the pedagogy, or the way musical education is approached?
EV: I think so. When we go back home, people do comment a lot on the music that we are producing actually, like Dafnis and Terry and myself and Aruan… In a way, we always will look at the thing that we were doing… Because we are living outside of Cuba, when you get there, everybody wonders, “So, what are you doing?” Then once they find out the music we’re doing is different from what they would normally do or different from what they’re hearing in their country, they realize that they do have an apprciation of it.
Especially young musicians… It’s interesting when you go there and you meet a young musicians who hasn’t really met you, who is not from your generation, and they can talk about, “oh, we’re following you and we’ve listened to some of the things you’ve done.” It’s a beautiful thing.
[END OF CONVERSATION]
Elio Villafranca (Detroit—Aug. 31, 2014):
TP: You’ve been doing multiple projects for a long time, pretty much since you arrived here, and each recording seems to document a different sphere of activity.
Villafranca: Yes. I always had very broad interests in music. As you know from our earlier interview, I was playing classical music, and that training really opened my ears to many different things. I didn’t grow up in the traditional jazz per se. I listened more to classical music. From there, I got an interest in jazz and in popular Cuban music. But then, my early exposure into music was the Congolese traditions. So I always had the interest. The reason why I came here was because of that, because in Cuba I was only doing the Carlos Varela group, and then I couldn’t really do any other thing. I was playing at the jazz festival once a year. There was only one festival. There were not many clubs to play. So that has been my mission since I’ve been here, just to do a few different projects.
My first album, Incantation, was like the album that I did almost the date that I left my country. So I was going to do my first album; it was going to be pretty much all Latin music. I owed that to myself and I owed that to Cuba. Being in Cuba, that was the first thing I wanted to do. But after that, I realized that music is way bigger than that. I didn’t want to be stuck on just the Cuban pianist that’s only doing Cuban music and stuff like that.
This album, the Jass Syncopators, is almost the beginning of my explorations of music of the Caribbean and tying it in with classical music, and putting everything together with jazz and everything.
TP: Were the pieces all written for this as a project, or did the accumulate over the years?
Villafranca: There were pieces that were specifically written for this project, like “Caribbean Tinge” and “Sunday Stomp At Congo Square” and all so on, that were written specifically for that. “Flower By the Dry River,” “Mambo Vivo,” all these pieces were targeted specifically for this project, the band I had at the time.
TP: Give me the evolution of putting together a personnel like this.
Villafranca: I knew that in order to accomplish what I wanted to do, I needed to have two types of band in one band. I needed to have a band formed by American jazz musicians, fully fluent in the language of jazz, and I needed to have the other band, which is the Latin musicians who are fluent specifically in Latin music… I wanted to marry those two concepts.
The one thing different about this project is, like, before… I don’t know if you know this, but for us Cubans, it’s really hard to detach from the clave and to detach from the cascara and all these traditions. When I came to this country, it was pretty much like that. If I would rehearse a band, I would look for a drummer, I would look for a drummer who knew about cascara, clave, all of these things, and it was always challenging, because you don’t find that unless you play with a Cuban drumnmer, but if you play with a Cuban drummer, then sometimes the jazz language [makes spangalang motion with his right hand] can be a little bit compromised. I wanted really to have those two things. So I thought that if I get a bassist who has knowledge in Latin music, and myself and some percussionists who are knowledgeable in Latin music, that’s it. I don’t need any other thing. American drummers, if they study the tradition of jazz, they feel rhythm the same way we do. The tradition of jazz is pretty close to the same way as the tradition of Cuban music. Think about New Orleans and the rhythms and everything. I don’t have to tell the drummer, “You need to know the clave on everything,” because the clave is around us all the time.
TP: Well, the New Orleans beats are another way of dealing with the African root.
Villafranca: Exactly, which is the same source. Then I realized I just want to do something where I don’t have to tell anybody anything. Just, “this is the music; just feel it. Just feel the music. They’re going to do the thing. Just listen to what they do, and play what you think feels good at the moment.”
TP: Was this band tailored for the people who play on Caribbean Tinge? There are two great jazz drummers.
Villafranca: Yes. You don’t know this, but Billy Hart was the drummer in one of the initial versions of the band, and I also had Victor Lewis in the band. Actually, the first recording that I did with this band, which I donated to a company that creates funds to save children that are subject to abuse and starvation and all of that… They came to me and asked if I’d do a record to help raise funds to help children, and I said yes. So the idea was that all the money that recording would generate would be towards that mission. Victor Lewis did that session. The same with Pernell Saturnino (?—6:23) and Gregg August. So in my band, I have Victor Lewis, I have Willie Jones, III, who plays on the record, I have Billy Hart and I have Lewis Nash. The one thing that all of them have in common is that they feel the African music really deep inside. I didn’t have to tell them anything other than basically go through the music, and that’s that.
TP: How about the horn players? Are the pieces tailored to their sounds, or are they more interpreting parts?
Villafranca: It’s more like interpreting parts. When I first talked to Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to do a concert, which I still will in the future… I wanted to do a concert that featured Wynton and Paquito. I wanted to have the two languages there, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to interpret the language from the Latin and Wynton from the jazz. Having those two great musicians together in a project was my first thing that I wanted to do with Lincoln Center. But then they were wise enough to say, “Just form your team, and don’t depend on anyone else,” and that’s when I started to think about finding people I know who have that language.
TP: We spoke about this when I was writing program notes for the Nuevo Jazz Latino concert. Is a new kind of music being developed by the Cuban musicians who have been coming here during the last 10-15 years, or a new variant?
Villafranca: Some people have mentioned that to me in the past. They feel there’s a new thing going on…
TP: You, Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Aruan Ortiz, Roman Filiu will probably be developing some stuff…
Villafranca: Yes, I think maybe. History will be the judge of that, but it feels vibrant. I think everybody is doing their own interpretation of music. The common thing that we have is that we all came with a very strong classical background and classical training. That’s basically the whole thing we all went through when we were all in Cuba. We all listened to jazz like you wouldn’t even imagine. Really, we were eating jazz every day and listening to all these things. But we had limited access to jazz, and that informed us in a very particular way, too. And then, we were not just listening to the American jazz. We were listening to a lot of Brazilian music. Brazil was a really big influence on us.
TP: Wasn’t Carlos Masa a bridge for a lot of people.
Villafranca: Not so much for me, but he was for Dafnis, because Dafnis used to work with him. It’s true that he introduced a lot of things to some Cuban musicians, especially the people who played with him. Because he had the benefit that it can be in and out of the country. In a place where we couldn’t really go anywhere, anybody who would bring… The person who was very influential on me was Hernan Lopez-Nussa, the uncle of Harold Lopez-Nussa (his father is Ruiz Lopez-Nussa, the drummer). Hernan was one of the persons who, whenever I needed some kind of musical challenge or recordings that I didn’t have, since he was one of the people who was coming in and out of the country, I would go to his house, and I’d bring a tape, and he would record for me something new. I also used to go to Chucho’s house, and have a conversation with him about music. And Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Because in Cuba there was no real book.
TP: You’re 45, so you were born in 1968. Gonzalo was still in Cuba when you were in school.
Villafranca: Yes, Gonzalo was one of the kings in Cuba. I was fortunate… I don’t know if you remember that I told you this, but I used to go to Gonzalo’s house when he was practicing.
We didn’t have real books, so basically the only way we could get hold of some jazz tunes was by transcribing. Sometimes, we knew… I knew that Gonzalo had access to some books, and then I would go to his house and say, “Gonzalo, I would love to have some tunes,” and he’d say, “Oh, yes, fine.” He’d bring out some of the books that he had access to, and he’d say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can notate whatever it is.” I would bring this huge manuscript and I’d spend hours and hours writing tunes by hand while he was practicing.
TP: That’s a very interesting way to learn some music. It becomes a very personal experience.
Villafranca: Yes. I remember having my hand very sore, because literally I would spend in his house like 3 hours. I notated some of Herbie Hancock’s tunes, stuff like, at the time, “The Eye Of The Hurricane.” I remember when that album came out, we were really all over the place. We were all over it, and we really liked that album with Wynton Marsalis, and then the V.S.O.P. after it came out. We had Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band album. I had it in my head before it even was on the market.
TP: Did you just miss the post-Gorbachev years, when the subsidies ended?
Villafranca: No. I was right in the middle. Half my teachers were Russians, and I remember one day coming to school and all of a sudden there were no teachers. I was like, “what happened?” Then we were told that perestroika happened, which basically is when Cuba and Russia got into a dispute and Cuba kicked everybody out. Russia said, “You owe us money,” and Cuba said, “We don’t owe you anything,” and then everybody was kicked out. All my teachers left like overnight.
TP: And there were shortages and scarcities.
Villafranca. Oh my God. There was the “special period,” which I went through, and another period called the “Option Zero.”
TP: Didn’t you tell me that you had a certain allowance each month, and instead of buying food, you bought tapes?
Villafranca: Yes. My mom and my father would put together 45 Cuban pesos, which is almost half of a salary, for me to survive in Havana for a month. I’d go to Havana, spend a month, and then come back for a weekend. I’d go there, and then at the school you’d see… The Black Market was really at its height, selling everything, and they were selling cassette tapes. Each cassette tape would cost 15 Cuban pesos, which is a very high price in relation to salary. I would buy two, because I wanted to record two albums. Then I would go to Hernan’s or Chucho’s or Gonzalo’s or Pucho Lopez, and I would ask them to record something for me. Or El Negro, Horacio Hernandez, right before he left (he was playing with Gonzalo at the time). That’s the sacrifice we made in those days to learn this music.
TP: You’re the same generation as Yosvany, Dafnis is younger but he was in there, and Omar Sosa is a little older.
Villafranca: Yes. When I was in school, Omar was already really out there. He was music directing for Xiomara Laugart and other bands.
TP: In retrospect, what do you think the impact of those experiences has had on the way you approach your career in the U.S.?
Villafranca: I can’t think of any way other than to feel grateful. Even though we went through those hard times, even though we didn’t have all the materials to deal with the music… Like, we had one tape player that belonged to someone in the entire school, and then we had to take turns. Maybe my turn would be 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., whatever, and whenever it was, then I would use that time. But whenever I got my hands on that tape player, I would make sure that I listened to that music to my 100%. I would listen and listen, and go back, and listen again, listen again, listen again. That’s what made me get to this point today. It gave me a very strong… I mean, I still study for four hours. I grew up in that environment, and it’s really made me a better musician.
TP: I guess there was a lot of competition in the school also.
Villafranca: Extremely competitive.
TP: It was an opportunity for advancement, for social mobility as well.
Villafranca: But that also has a catch to it as well. A lot of friends of mine who were very talented didn’t make it, just because in Cuba it’s just got to be one person. If it’s one pianist, it’s going to be one pianist. It was Gonzalo and Chucho. But it was really hard, because there was no space for a different voice.
TP: Another aspect aesthetically of coming up in Cuba is that (I think I’ve heard you say this) that the competitive environment makes people treat music almost as a sport to the detriment of the artistic aspect, and that slowing down is a complex thing. I guess that’s a good thing and a bad thing.
Villafranca: That’s a good and a bad. You always have the good and the bad. It’s good for the people who made… For every musician you see on the scene right now, there are 20 or 30 of them that didn’t make it. Not because they were no good. It’s just because there’s only what we call dambulo, which is like a very open hole where only one or two people can just fit through. It’s a very strong filter, stronger than America here, where you can get musicians of all different kinds. The beautiful thing about this is you might get some people who are not that great or whatever, but they have the opportunity to express themself. In Cuba, if you were not the level that they think you should be, then you don’t get anywhere.
TP: You were saying at the beginning of the conversation (and other musicians from the Afro-Hispanic diaspora have told me this) that breaking away from clave and cascara and so forth is more complicated than might be readily apparent. How did that process work for you? What were some of the steps you took once you came here?
Villafranca: Basically, it’s a liberation thing. It feels to me like a liberation of the soul. What I mean by liberation is that I started to look at music in the more pure form, not in a very specific way. I am realizing that when the musicians have the freedom to express, they’re going to play better than if they have to feel tied to something that I’m giving them. If I wanted to play something that has a very strong Cuban accent, like charanga or something like that, I will get a musician who is very knowledgeable in that. I’m going to be play charanga music; we’ll play Peruchin’s music. When I do that, I want just to be 1950s. I want that. Right? But when I do jazz, like the thing with the Jass Syncopators… For example, I am premiering a suite at Jazz at Lincoln Center in February next year which is an expansion of what the Jass Syncopators is right now. That’s why I mentioned that the Jass Syncopators is just the beginning of something. I am very much interested in looking at Congolese traditions in the different regions of the Caribbean. I am done with Yoruba, because I’ve done that, everybody’s done that. My roots are Congolese, not Yoruban. Then I am looking at that tradition of Congolese music in the different areas. If I play you something from the Congo people in my hometown, there is no clave. It’s like something more traditional than that. These people don’t even know anything. They don’t know anything about clave, all they know how to feel… When I was interviewing them…
TP: You were a percussion major.
Villafranca: Yes. It was so beautiful to see them, when they start playing the drums, they don’t have it compartmentalized the way we do when we go to music school. Of course, when we go to music school, they teach us to compartmentalize everything, to analyze everything. I am trying to go away from that. I want it to be more like feeling the music rather than technically analyzing it.
TP: You need to be careful with that idea, though. It works for someone as highly trained as you, but…
Villafranca: True. But I’m not far from what Pat Metheny said when someone asked him why he covers all this melody? Well, he grew up in that environment, and that’s what he does. Yes, you’re right, I come from a very strong background in African music, but that could go two ways. You could either focus on that and try to play just like that, or you know that you have it, so open up and experience the moment. When I see my people from the Congo in San Luis, they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about clave, they don’t talk about anything. It’s funny, because you ask them and they say, “No, this is what you do.” [plays rhythm with his hands] Then that’s it. You ask them, “Explain it to me,” they don’t know how to explain it. I want to be that way. I want to experience the music at that level, not from the analytical point of music.
TP: Tell me about the band you’re playing with today. You have a recording with Eric Alexander, The Source In Between, that celebrates the sound of swing and hardbop.
Villafranca: That record was the beginning, when I started… That’s why I chose the title, The Source In Between. I thought I could write music that could played in a Latin Jazz tradition with percussion, and also can be felt in a jazz tradition. For example, if you remember the album, the track called “Oddua Suite,” it’s like the music of John Coltrane but it’s just basically a Yoruban chant. Then I decided I’d have Eric, who is a very bebop-oriented person, but then I want to have Dafnis, who is very strong on everything, and then Jeff Carney, who is an American bass player who has nothing to do with Latin music. So I wanted those two poles. The Jass Syncopators is the expansion of the same content. That’s how I was thinking about this project.
I think it works, because when you think about music, it doesn’t have to be… As long as the musicians you’re working with feel the same way, they honestly feel what you’re trying to do, it’s great. Having Eric here with me today is so beautiful, because I haven’t played with him in a long, long time. I met him when I did a couple of tours with Pat Martino’s band. I was living in Philadelphia then.
TP: What you’re saying about Congolese traditions seems like a similar attitude Yosvany Terry is bringing to Arara.
Villafranca: He was initiated. I am not initiated. I am doing it because I grew up on that… Since I was a baby, literally.
TP: You were speaking about being done with Yoruba, and…
Villafranca: In Cuba, if you say “Yoruba,” then they say, “Havana or Matanzas?” It’s regional. You can talk about exactly the same tradition or exactly the same orisha, but you go to Havana, then they completely play it different, and the words…sometimes they’re using the chants in one way, and you go to Matanzas it’s completely different. He was initiated in an Arara casa in Matanzas, and Pedrito’s is from Havana. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that Pedrito might know what was happening in Matanzas.