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Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between

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The whole entire album, I could do a completely different version--a straight ahead Latin Jazz version with the conga and everybody else. And I could do that with most of the music in the album, and I would feel very comfortable.
Elio VillafrancaCuban born pianist Elio Villafranca has spent a lifetime observing the space between different worlds. He spent his childhood in the small Piñar de Rio region on the Western coast of Cuba and then jumped into the centralized bustle of Havana. He went through a broad and varied musical education that not only focused on the piano, but also included intensive investigations of the guitar, percussion, and composition. He immersed himself in the complex musical constructions of Havana's academic classical music world, and then struggled to explore jazz and Cuban popular music on his own. He moved from the island life of his childhood into the urban settings of Philadelphia and later, New York. He experienced massive crowds of crazed fans while performing with Cuban artist Carlos Varela, and then transitioned into small intimate crowds in American jazz clubs. As a stateside musician he has worked in traditional Latin jazz settings and free-form exploratory modern jazz groups, both as a performer and composer. In so many ways, Villafranca is a man with a very broad perspective.

It seems only natural that Villafranca's musical concept explores relationships between musical worlds. The connections between musical genres appear naturally for Villafranca, whose songwriting devices touch upon modern jazz, Afro-Cuban traditions, and classical composition techniques. Where many of us see differences between musical worlds, Villafranca sees similarities. He can see a single composition through a variety of lenses, placing it easily in a straight ahead jazz setting or within the world of Afro-Cuban rhythms. He understands these musical relationships on an instinctual and academic level, making his genre-bending experiments both natural and informed. His two albums as a leader—Incantations/Encantaciones (Universal Latino, 2003) and The Source In Between (Ceiba Tree, 2008)—reflect the duality of his musical personality, with each album focusing upon a different musical world. Yet the strength of his musical foundation and highly developed artistic personality bursts through stylistic borders, providing a steady guide as Villafranca explores the source in between musical cultures.

All About Jazz: You grew up in San Luis on the western coast of Cuba, where your primary exposure to music as a child was cultural. One of the cultural elements that you've mentioned in the past was the Tambor Yuka tradition. For our AAJ readers not familiar with Cuban culture, can you explain a little bit about the tradition—what makes it unique to the Piñar del Rio region and how it impacted you?

Elio Villafranca: Cuba as many other people know was one of the last countries to liberate the slave. Actually the slave trade in Cuba lasted way longer than after all the slaves were "officially" free. In Cuba the freedom of the slaves was not a pact or a treaty like in the United States where they decided to free the slaves and just move on and use machines for labor. Cuba, since it was not very advanced in machinery, was still treating people like slaves for a lot of years after everything was already over. What that means is that we were still receiving slaves from Africa

You see these movies like Amistad (1997), and all these horrible stories, where the British put all these ships on the seas just to punish those who were still trading slaves. All these horrible stories where they were bringing boats of slaves and they would see the police ships so they would throw all the slaves in the sea—I mean, those horrible stories. At the same time, what that says is that we had a lot of slaves coming into Cuba. And that's what made Cuba, in this particular sense, very special. Because we had more opportunities to integrate into our own culture all these beautiful traditions from Africa.

San Luis, being close to Havana, one of the main ports of Cuba, received a lot of slaves to work in the fields. It's pretty much flat with numerous sugar cane and tobacco fields, and other small crops. I noticed that every time there was a celebration in town, people from many areas of the San Luis region would come into the middle of the town and would make all these huge fires and bring these big drums; for me, it was very interesting. As a kid, it was not necessarily a cultural thing, but this whole event that transpired between the drums and the fire—it was so very intense. And it was not until much later when I went to music school that I discovered that these were people from the Congolese culture. Then I realized that since I was a very young age, I had been exposed to those elements, not knowing exactly what they were.

And then, as for all the regions of Cuba...from my hometown, we have the Congolese culture which has several different branches. You have the Tambor Yuka, which is the drum festival that they do in Piñar del Rio. You have also Tambor Makuda, and then you have Tambor Palo. In those three, you have different kinds of drums, but they are all encompassed in the same culture. Then you have, in other regions, the Abakua, which is a kind of a culture that came from a different region of Africa. Then you have the culture of the Lucumi, which is the culture that encompasses the Yoruba, which has a tremendous amount of Orishas. Every Orisha has their own chant and their own dance, and their own dress—everything. And then you also have the Arara which is similar to the Yoruban tradition, just because—before they even came to Cuba, the Arara, who were based in Dahomey (now Benin), were conquered by the Yorubans.

Yoruba was one of the biggest kingdoms in Africa, and when they were expanding, they conquered the Arara people. And then they had to integrate their religious concepts into their culture—that's why in Arara, you have almost the same number of saints or Orishas that you have in the Yoruban culture, they just changed the name. The same thing happened in Cuba between the slaves and the Hispanics. The Cuban slaves could believe in Christianity, but they said, "OK, we're going to name our Orishas after your saints, so we'll know what we're talking about." Basically, they say we're going to call her Chango Santa Barabara, instead of calling her Chango. And Babalu Aye, we're going to call him San Lazurus. They would put a saint in front, and that's exactly what the Arara people did—in a way to fool their lords. They didn't use the word saint, of course; they did it in their own native language.

After the Haitian revolution there was a huge migration from Haiti to the Eastern part of Cuba, the Oriente. We got the Tumba Francesa from them that developed in the Eastern part of Cuba at that time. And then we've got some other different groups of culture that are kind of disappearing. One is called Gaga—I remember interviewing these two old ladies who were the only people remaining from that culture. They had everything written in books and they were kind of afraid that after they passed away, the whole culture would die, if nobody else took over. As you can see, Cuba is amazingly blessed with a great number of songs, chants, rituals, and instruments...you name it. It's very interesting.

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