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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.'

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