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Elio Villafranca: Schoenberg's Cuban Street

By Published: October 6, 2003
This young figure grew up without ever owning a piano in Cuba. 'In order to learn how to play it, and for studying and composing,' he avers without a hint of resentment, 'I had to depend on the schedule for individual studies at the university. The same held true after finishing my studies. In order to reach the level I am at, often times I had to study during meal times since those were the times with available pianos. I am happy in this country because I can make my own music with freedom of expression, which I didn't have in Cuba because of the dominance of Salsa and Cuban music in the market. Here I have a piano to drop my musical tears and where I can satiate my need to learn furthermore.' Such determination paid off very well as his learning needs led him towards the discovery of both known and unknown influential resources for his mature pianism.

Although, 'There weren't, or aren't, any musicians in my family and no one is even studying music,' he continues explaining some of his main influences, that 'were spiritual, cultural and musical, without overlooking the familial ones. I grew up in a town called San Luis. Almost perchance, I was in contact since my childhood with the Tambor Yuka culture. It is of Congolese origin and one of many Afro Cuban cultures. These traditions are divided into three types: El Palo, El Tambor Yuca and La Makuta. San Luis is one of the regions where the Tambor Yuka is strongest. During my childhood, there were street parties and activities. I was always curious when a group of individuals prepared a bonfire to tune the drums. At the time, it was entertaining for me since that was the only time someone did something like that on the street. The instruments seemed strange since I was used to the Cuban conga type of drum. Those instruments, however, were different. The combination of the street fire, the dialect in which they talked and sung, the rhythms, the shape of the instruments, at any rate, everything about these parties attracted me. When in due course I pursued formal musical studies, it dawn on me that during many years throughout my youth, without recognizing them as such, I had seen authentic Congolese traditions. That was a spiritual, cultural, as well as, a musical influence.'

Furthering his imagination and learning during his childhood, Villafranca relates that his initial contacts with non-folkloric music and art came through the Cuban House of Culture system. 'The one in my town,' he reminisces, 'was next door to my house. That's why I could watch each presentation, all the concerts, dances, art exhibits and carnivals by looking out of the door. A wall low enough to climb on top to see on the other side divided the backyard of our house and the House of Culture one. In that patio, they had all the rehearsals for the carnivals, concerts and groups. That motivated me to select the guitar as my first instrument as I could take lessons right next door. When I turned 12 years of age, I joined the Art School in order to study music formally, specializing in percussion. Then, as I studied two baccalaureates at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana, one in percussion and the other one in symphonic composition, I became better acquainted with the music of Romantic composers from the IX Century such as Wagner, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. Ever since, the latter, has been one of my main musical influences. I should mention that the musical education at the ISA was of a Western Classical nature. Many of my teachers were Russians, therefore, I received a European type of education in piano and musical history.'

He quickly adds, however, that another ever-present influence 'is the Afro Cuban cultural baggage that not only influenced me in an indirect way just by living in Cuba, but that I had to study its rhythms, instruments, songs, dances and history alongside the European Classical studies at the university. Another one of my favorite influences is Cuban popular music. It should not be mistaken with Afro Cuban music, nonetheless. They are completely different. I learned Cuban popular music in the street. That influence has grown ever since I decided to make a book reviewing the evolution of the piano in popular Cuban music, which will be published this year by the Smithsonian Institute Press under the title Cubano! Evolution of Popular Cuban Piano Styles.

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