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Elio Villafranca: Five Islands & A Revolt

John Ephland By

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Ever since I arrived in the U.S. in 1995 I have been fascinated with the range of musical possibilities in jazz. The idea in my first recording project, Incantations/Encantaciones [Universal Music Latino, 2003], was to reflect the nostalgia of having to leave my country of origin. But even then I started to present the idea that Afro-Caribbean music shares the same roots with jazz. My album Caribbean Tinge [Motema, 2014] is my latest work in which I emphasized this point even more in pieces like "Caribbean Tinge," "Sunday Stomp by Congo Square," among others. Now, in regards to Cinque, I consider this project to be the embodiment, or culmination of this argument, and how my exposure to different forms of Afro-Caribbean music, especially Congolese music, classical music and jazz, shapes my artistic voice. I have made the point to focus in the Congolese traditions while creating a project that reflected our heritage and the wide variety of rhythms from the Caribbean. Among the rhythms I covered include tambor yuka from my hometown, bomba from Puerto Rico, guaguanco from the Cuban rumba, bata from the Yoruba tradition, palo and salve from Santo Domingo, palo muerto, Haitian danza, Afro and conga from Santiago de Cuba, and others. 

AAJ: How did you write with each of the islands in mind?

EV: The inspiration to write about these islands came from the story of Joseph Cinqué, a West African man of the Mende people, born in Sierra Leone who, in 1839, led a successful revolt aboard the slave ship La Amistad after being captured illegally and brought to Cuba to be sold as a slave to sugar plantation owners. Containing five separate movements, Cinqué showca ses the cultural diversity of the five Caribbean islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, while simultaneously highlighting the African traditions woven into the fabric of each of these nations via the forced migration of Africans to the Americas. I chose five related stories, one from each of the islands that inspired me for the creation of the five musical movements. Each movement focuses on the influences of the Congolese fundamentally, and other traditions of rhythms, melodies, and dances through exposing their unifying music and culture, despite their diverse histories. 

Cinqué is a work that encompasses comprehensive field research of music and rhythms of the Caribbean and my rich Cuban musical heritage, fully encapsulated within the classical music canon and the language of jazz. 

We live in a world of labeling, and when the term 'Latin Jazz' is presented, only a few musical forms come to mind from the Afro-Cuban palette—i.e., yoruba, rumba, and son. But the Caribbean is a region very rich in history and musical traditions, in which the Congolese, despite its unfamiliarity, is one of the most influential. As previously mentioned, my roots are in Congolese music, so I wanted to focus on different manifestations of this tradition throughout the Caribbean. I was not familiar with the tradition of Congo music in Haiti, so in preparation to developing the music, I traveled to that country and visited the Lakou Badjo in "Cap Haitian" and other Lakous in Limonade, Port au Prince, to experience firsthand their own versions of congo, rada, and voodoo religious/music practices. I also previously visited the island of Puerto Rico to experience their Congo-rooted tradition of bomba. Santo Domingo shares similar Congo traditions with Haiti and Cuba such as palo, and palo muerto. These research trips provided me with the information to create the musical concepts for this project.

AAJ: Apart from your piano playing, how did you decide to orchestrate, when certain players would solo, ensemble passages, and shifts in instrumentation?

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