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Elio Villafranca: Schoenberg's Cuban Street

By Published: October 6, 2003
'The last influences I want to mention,' he continues, 'are North American Rock and jazz. Of the two, jazz was more influential, even though I was embroiled for eight years with Carlos Varela's Cuban Rock group Nueva Trova and the Rock of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rush, U2 and Pink Floyd fascinated me. The influence of North American jazz was very strong during my generation of Cuban musicians, as was the influence of Cuban jazz, of which, among others, the leaders are Emiliano Salvador, Chucho Vald's, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Hern'n L'pez Nussa. As far as North American jazz is concerned, my main influences are Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and the Marsalis family, as well as Weather Report, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Monk, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Hip Hop, Free jazz and Kenny Kirkland.'

'When listening to music,' he closes, 'I always look for different things depending on the type of music I am listening to. If listening to Afro music, whether Cuban, Colombian, Peruvian or Puerto Rican, what gets my attention is the relation among the instrument and the polyrhythms created in Africa, its songs and modalities. If listening to a jazz cut, or a Classic one, other things attract me, such as the harmony, the phrasings and the colors. What I always look for, nonetheless, is its metaphorical sense. I look for a message that can reach my inner being, for something that speaks to me. Then I analyze how it achieved that and figure out its influences on my work, if any.'

Due to the consequences of the economic and ideological ineptitude of the Castro regime, the logistics of assimilating jazz were a bit tortuous for Villafranca. One would figure, for example, that by now, an island rightly associated with such veritable musical richness would feature through its state controlled media the best jazz music of the world for its paternalistically protected citizens. Right? You'd be wrong. In addition, any regime that creates such economic conditions in the 21st Century whereupon upcoming musical virtuosi can't even afford to own recording devices such as a tape player, ought to be ashamed of itself 'notwithstanding the ungrounded and self-servingly distracting claims of embargoes creating such state of affairs. Although, for obvious reasons, Villafranca wouldn't let himself state matters as such, he does relate that 'my exposure to North American jazz in Cuba was limited. There was no radio station that played such music, neither was there a store where the music was sold.'

'The only time there was contact with North American musicians was at the Jazz Plaza festival, which was only once a year. Hence, I took advantage of the good fortune of musicians allowed to tour out of the country such as Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Hern'n L'pez Nussa and 'Pucho' L'pez, to record what they brought back and obtain musical information. I was always hungry to record and be updated with the latest jazz recordings, which was difficult, but not impossible to achieve. Since my sources of information and recordings were elite musicians who performed with their legendary peers outside of Cuba, however, my exposition to North American jazz was wide-ranging too as I was able to obtain various recordings from them. For example, I had in my hands the first compact disc of Chick Corea's Electric Band before it went into the market. Recording that music, however, was greatly problematic since I had no means to do it. There was only one person in school with a recorder and we had to take two-hour turns to use it. Some times my turn was in the early morning hours.'

Well, since the government is obviously uninterested in exposing the Cuban population to North American jazz, was it any different in the case of Latin jazz, I asked. Is Latin jazz widely supported and accepted? Who listens to it over there? Could you even find the music in Cuba? His responses reveal all too familiar stories for readers of jazz lore: 'While studying, one had to hide to play Latin jazz because the school was oriented towards Classical music. The professors 'the piano ones above all' did not accept a pianist that played popular music. Latin jazz, nonetheless, was heard in some jazz clubs in Havana, such as Maxim 'where I had the chance to play with the singer and trumpeter Bobby Carcas's. There was also a movie theater called Acapulco where Emiliano Salvador used to play every week. You could, nevertheless, find Latin jazz albums in Cuba. Tourists, students and musicians are the core of the Latin jazz following in the island.'

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