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Interviews

Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between

By Published: January 12, 2009
AAJ: Then you went to the University of Arts to teach at that point, is that right?

EV: Yeah, because there was a time that I was at the University that they developed these courses—there was an interest from Europeans to come to Cuba and learn Cuban jazz. So I started to do those courses, and that was really interesting to me. There were the finest musicians in Cuba teaching those courses, and I was lucky that I was picked to also be part of that group. Chucho Valdes was teaching the piano course, Cesar "Pupi" Pedroso from Los Van Van was teaching a course, I was as well, and there were a few other select piano players teaching. As for percussion, Changuito was teaching a course, Eladio, Pancho Terry also.

It was very selective for each kind of instrument. And then, those courses were paid in dollars, which was very nice for me, because I was a student. But since those courses were not dealing with school time, from July to August, I would stay in Havana instead of going back home to teach these courses with all those guys. Interestingly that was the first time that we were introduced to the 2-3, 3-2 clave concept from America. We never thought that way about clave. Because, the way we see clave, it's more of a contextual thing. If you tell me this song that we're going to do is a son montuno, we automatically know how the clave should be in the son montuno. If you tell me the song is a rumba feel, we automatically know how the clave is supposed to feel in the rumba feel. Or maybe 6/8...depending on the situation, and even if you don't describe it and it sounds like a son montuno to us, we will take you there.

But when we started doing those courses, and people from San Francisco mostly started asking like, so is this 3-2 or 2-3? We were like, what is that? What is 2-3, 3-2? We had no idea! I remember coming out and Changuito would be there, because he was teaching right next to my classroom. Changuito would come out and we would say, "Did you know that? 2-3, 3-2 what was that?" Everybody was asking, "What are they talking about?!? Oh my god..." we had no idea, and finally they explained to us, well the two side is like this and the three side is like this. Oh, OK, then we got into it. But that was the first time that we heard about it, in those courses.

Elio VillafrancaAAJ: So did you jump from that school in Havana to Philadelphia? How did you make that move?

EV: From those courses, I met this group of people from Philadelphia who were also learning in those courses. I met them and they invited me to come to Philadelphia to teach in a school, called AMLA—Associacion de Musicos Latino-Americanos. And they invited me to come and to teach all their courses. That's how I got into teaching here, and I also got involved with a woman and we got married while I was in Cuba, which made it also possible for me to come to the States.

AAJ: What was the biggest change that you experienced when you moved to Philadelphia? You obviously had more access to jazz musicians, performances, and recordings. What was the biggest change in your musical concept?

EV: Well, the biggest change was actually the size of the audience. I was coming from a situation, playing with Carlos, where we used to play in stadiums. I remember being in Columbia and playing alongside Pink Floyd and all these big bands. And for me, I was coming here thinking, "I really love jazz." And then I go to a jazz club and only play for 20 or 30 people. It was very shocking to me. You know, it's funny because that's when we start to understand that jazz is something so personal and so special.

In this country it's not necessarily what you would consider to be popular music. It's not like you go to a stadium and people just flock to go see you. It's very unique in that sense; it touches people in a very specific and a special way. That was one challenge for me, getting used to that and not thinking that I didn't make the wrong move. Because when you're coming from a country that is much smaller than this country and way less developed than this country, you're thinking that you're going to come to this country and everything is going to be better. But then when you play, you wonder...where did all the people go? You're coming from a country that's under developed, but when you play, you have 600 or 700 people come to see you. It's a whole different thing. It brings you down a little bit.

Also, when I was in Cuba, I thought that I understood what jazz was. I thought, "Oh yeah, cool, I'm studying music all the time, I can understand anything. You know, I can understand jazz and I used play in those jazz festivals in Cuba." But when I was in Philadelphia, I hired a piano tuner to tune my piano. I remember he played something and I wondered "what is that!?" I just fell in love with whatever he played—and I couldn't play it! That was the whole thing. And all he did was play a few blues chords and I couldn't understand how it sounded so great. So I thought, he must be a pianist, he has to be a great pianist that happens to be tuning my piano right now. And then I asked him and he said, "No, I don't play the piano. I basically tune the piano and just play these chords to make sure that the piano sounds good." And then I understood something about what jazz is. Just as we have Cuban music in our blood, and can make rhythms out of anything, and we can have a really deep understanding of this complex polyrhythmic thing, and all of that.

Jazz is the same thing for the people who live here. The blues is in their blood, and it is something that is cultural. It's not just music where you learn a few things and that is it. It's something that you have to really dig in and begin to understand. On the same level, I would advise anyone that wants to learn Afro-Cuban music to dig in. So that made me think I needed to do something about it. I started getting together with all the pianists who were teaching me to get a better understanding of what jazz was. One of the first people that I started taking lessons with was Ed Simon. I went to him and he said, "Oh, you want to learn jazz, well OK," and we started working on Charlie Parker. He took me really down there to get the language and really put me onto the right path.


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