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.'

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.

'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.'

'In that regard, it doesn't differ from North American jazz. In Cuba, Latin jazz doesn't work in economic terms. It isn't very popular. Most of the musicians that play Latin jazz have to make a living playing popular music or Salsa. Over there, only a highly selected group of musicians that play Latin jazz are supported by radio and TV broadcasts. They are the better-known stars from Cuba. Often times, for ideological reasons, they are the ones allowed to go out of the country. That's why they are better known internationally. Their music is transmitted because there are only two broadcast stations and, if the government airs them, the stations benefit. It is not because the Cuban people want to hear such music. Due to the lack of support, there are in Cuba many talented musicians unknown in the island and inexistent internationally speaking.'

Villafranca doesn't seem destined to the void of artistic inexistence, although leaving his native land was, and is, a painfully necessary step into living recognition. 'I wanted to leave Cuba because of music and not politics, as many assume every time they see a recently arrived Cuban in this country. While there, I accepted an invitation from the Asociaci'n de M'sicos Latino Americanos (AMLA) to teach in Philadelphia. I owe my arrival to the U.S. to my ex-wife and AMLA. Because of the way I left Cuba, I am allowed to visit my family and friends every year. Returning also let me keep close contact with my roots, something very important for my spirit and music. For instance, when I go to Cuba I observe the people, attend Afro Cuban religious ceremonies and walk through the streets, the beachfront and the tobacco farms. All that revives my nationalistic sentiments, that soul of mine that gives sense to my existence and grounds the foundations for my art.'

'Once I arrived to the U.S., I was fortunate to be welcomed by the Philadelphia community right away. Many friends and families gave me a hand and made my stay more enjoyable. Nevertheless, not everything was like that. As all recently arrived musicians, I had to make myself known and prove myself among musicians in jazz clubs to find work. I experimented bitter moments when other musicians tried to block my progress. The strongest difficulty has been the welfare of my family in Cuba. Since my youth, I have had to practically sustain them, even while being in this country. On the other hand, that's my main motivation to keep ahead helping them. In spite of all the inconveniences and the challenges of learning how the music industry works in this country, my personal development as a musician continues, I am working and have being able to present my art in different national and international forums.'

The City of Brotherly Love has proven to be so to Villafranca, although he's currently readying for a full frontal assault into the Big Apple. "Philadelphia," he says, "served me well as a starting point in this country. There is great community support for the arts, linked to several institutions and organizations. That's why many artists claim Philadelphia as their originating point. There are many talented musicians, whether it is jazz or Latin music. As far as I can tell, however, professional artists have to leave it in order to achieve a certain level in their career. Because Philly is a small city, it is good for gaining acceptance among musicians and become known in local places. The musical scene, on the other hand, lacks the venues where musicians can present their art. Here the artists can't grow professionally and that is the reason why many, myself included, have the need to migrate to New York in order to further their careers. Another problem that I see in Philadelphia is that the media doesn't celebrate local artists, showing more interest instead on musicians from other cities or countries."

It is rather obvious that this young musician is growing and he is quite aware of it. When asked how he had grown personally, intellectually and musically since leaving Cuba and how that influenced his Pimienta records release, he responded by saying: "I see a musical change, as well as an intellectual one. I have also noticed a personality change when dealing with musicians and friends that remain in my country. Because of the different cultures in the U.S., for example, my music is no longer an enclosed product as it is now free from the endemic musical restrictions of a culture that has lived isolated for so many years. I feel that my music and my intellect have expanded while exploring other terrains and musical possibilities. I not only assail popular Cuban music, or the integration of Afro Cuban music into jazz, but also search for roots from other Caribbean, South American and Asian cultures. I feel better freedom of expression and that's why in Incantations I wanted to reflect the diversity of what 'Latin' is, while understanding that it is impossible to represent a host with so many specific elements."

"The goal was to create a cultural and musical fusion, a sound and a Pan American language featuring jazz, European and regional influences. Such a goal explains why I selected musicians with backgrounds as varied as their strengths. If I had used only Cuban musicians in this recording, it would have been purely Cuban and inherently limited. I preferred to integrate jazz figures with little experience in Latin music, mixing them with Puerto Rican, Canadian and Cuban musicians. This strategy demanded that the group congealed through the process of fusing each individual's talents and foundations rather than through coming together to vibe in one obvious Latin groove. The musicians were excellent. With their talent, they put soul and feeling to my music. They wished everything would come out as Larry (Cramer) and I wanted it. They broadened the concept I had for my compositions, as if they would've written them. It truly was a pleasure to work with Pat Martino, a jazz legend. He came to record one of his compositions, although I had changed the melody and harmony, which I embarrassingly explained to him before we recorded. I was rather impressed to see him perform the piece with such skill, including every change, without blinking. He's an incredible musician. The musicians made the two recording days, with only four hours of rehearsal, something unbelievable."

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