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Elio Villafranca: Schoenberg's Cuban Street

Javier AQ Ortiz By

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I see many composers depending too much on improvisation. They provide a harmonic structure as support for the solos, but they don?t pay much attention to thematic and structural development, or to its motifs, forms and cadences. They think the piece develops and strengthens itself through solos.
As we talked on the phone and exchanged e-mails, enough of a view on Elio Villafranca surfaced. The sight, tinted by listening to his Incantations/Encantaciones over several weeks now, is also awash in universal social commonalities among musicians, their craft, industry and conduct. His is also the stereotypical tale of an 'migr' from a dim repressor and his egomaniacal regime, although he is not overly concerned with politics and much more interested in what you are: music. Alas, it's never just about the music'





Without a doubt, business issues in the music industries of both Cuba and the U.S. occupy his attention now as they have proven to be a reeducation of sorts. When asked how he learned to deal with both, he notes, 'Truthfully, as far as the music industries is concerned, I don't think I have learned to deal with either the Cuban or the North American one. In this country, business issues such as market penetration and selling product are difficult for me. As an artist, I have always concentrated on the creation of music and the expression and diffusion of my art, without commercial sense. While composing and performing, my goal has been to reach people's hearts with my music. I want it to be good, meaningful and to transmit a message. I don't want to be concerned with how to produce a number that it's better liked, or to worry about what type of public I should address my art to. In Cuba is a bit different since, as you know, everything is very centralized and controlled by the government. It is much more difficult to have a commercial sense or direction over there. I came to the U.S. with a lack of commercial experience because in Cuba I played with professional ensembles during a time the government prohibited students from earning money. That's why I would form groups to have fun playing because the government didn't offer any other alternative. Even the jazz festivals in which we participated in Havana were for free. Coming from a country where everything is gratis, while not having the option of making any more money than what the government gives you, held back my commercial adaptation in this country.'



'Then again, things have changed a bit in Cuba. There is more orientation towards business and industry. Since I graduated from the university in '94 and left Cuba in '95, I didn't have to struggle to sell myself as a professional musician in Cuba. As far as the musical industry in the U.S. is concerned, however, I know more now because the commercial system forces you to sell your art in order to live. It is a process of learning how to navigate the industry and it takes years to dominate it. I think it is a life-long process. In this business, I am always learning. When coming here, I had to let myself be known among musicians, form my own group and, as a leader, learn to negotiate everything. That's why I was able to complete my Incantations project. We already know how difficult it is these days to place a recording in the market. In Cuba, you become known by being a good musician. The community of musicians is not that large, and when you are at the University of the Arts, you are among musicians. One gains respect among musicians by playing in events organized by the various institutions that organize festivals and other activities. That way, people know your name and talk about you. That's how you find work and, just as it is here, a reputation. Of course, one wants to play with the best groups and with famous artists at the best musical level. As in the U.S., the artists that make money are the ones that go out of the country. As an artist in Cuba, however, you have to depend on the musical talent whereas in this country it's more important to know how to navigate the musical industry than having talent. Although I am always conscious of the need there is to create commercial art, I am not considering ever compromising my music for any commercial situation. That means that the music always comes out of me in the shape I feel it, without thinking in how to do something that can sell more.'

Talking about his daily relationship with composition and arranging, then, Villafranca states that he is 'inspired to compose by feelings, emotions, places, histories, people, memories and folkloric traditions. The compositions always come from inside. Each of those factors has an effect on what comes out of me. For example, I am conscious of the many things in my music derived from my great interest in romantic music. Often times, my compositions come after practicing music from symphonic repertoires. At times, they come from memories. For instance, I compose when missing my country. I also compose as an exercise. Some times the compositions come complete and I only have to write them. When that happens, it is easy and fun at the same time. Occasionally, only musical motifs are apparent. Then, I have to rely as a composer on the knowledge acquired at the university in order to elaborate upon those motifs and turn them into compositions. At times, I compose based on a title. Many times, the music titles itself out.'



Given such wide and important parameters for his compositional experiences and inspirations, I wondered aloud whose writing he respected. Responding with a bit of soapboxing thrown in, the pianist and percussionist responds saying he respects 'many jazz composers. In contemporary jazz, however, I see many composers depending too much on improvisation. They provide a harmonic structure as support for the solos, but they don't pay much attention to thematic and structural development, or to its motifs, forms and cadences. They think the piece develops and strengthens itself through solos. In a composer, I admire the ability to make something complete, well structured and musically developed, with a rich melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sense. For example, Danilo P'rez knows how to elaborate the Latin theme without abusing it, while creating a composition solidly grounded and with intelligent developments. Because of the colors he could get from a Big Band, within Latin concepts and patterns, one of the arrangers I most admire is Chico O'Farrill. I also like many of the Wynton Marsalis arrangements because of the way he handles an orchestra's language, making you trip to a time you never lived in jazz. I admire some arrangers in Cuba such as Joaqu'n Betancourt and Ceruto, who create marvels within Cuban danceable music. I also admire other great arrangers such as Lil' Mart'nez, Pedro Justiz and Duke Ellington.'



By extension, chatting about some of the material in his first release as a leader, he adds that 'As far as Incantations is concerned, 'Cacique' is a multifaceted composition. The melody comes from an element based on a dodecaphonic system created by a XX Century composer, Arnold Schoenberg. What really motivated me to compose this number, nonetheless, was John Coltrane's composition 'Miles Mood.' It is based on the same Schoenberg principle. While composing this number, I always asked myself what would Coltrane or Mingus have done if they had visited Cuba? What would they have done if they had attended a toque de santer'a or Afro Cuban religious ceremony? That explains the rhythms and the instruments used there. The title has indigenous roots. The cacique was a tribe's chief. When listening to the melodic line of the bass, the image of a seated chief thinking of new rules for the tribe came to mind. I had only listened to the introduction of 'Prende la vela,' the Lucho Berm'dez number. From it, I was inspired to write my version entitled 'Negrita, prende la vela.' Once the composition was finished, however, I wanted to research the composer and his music furthermore. I wanted to hear the original version and, when doing so, I realized that if I had listened to it beforehand, I would have not written the number! In 'You Spoke Too Soon,' I merely wanted to compose something in the Blues format that was more conventional and easy to digest. I wanted to write something simple enough to be first-read, and as a rehearsal piece. When playing concerts and events, it is rare to have time to rehearse more than once. Many of my compositions don't lend themselves for that. This composition is a simple Blues. My girlfriend and I coincided on the title, and it stayed as such.'



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.'

About Elio Villafranca
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