Cuban born pianist Elio Villafranca has spent a lifetime observing the space between different worlds. He spent his childhood in the small Piñar de Rio region on the Western coast of Cuba and then jumped into the centralized bustle of Havana. He went through a broad and varied musical education that not only focused on the piano, but also included intensive investigations of the guitar, percussion, and composition. He immersed himself in the complex musical constructions of Havana's academic classical music world, and then struggled to explore jazz and Cuban popular music on his own. He moved from the island life of his childhood into the urban settings of Philadelphia and later, New York. He experienced massive crowds of crazed fans while performing with Cuban artist Carlos Varela, and then transitioned into small intimate crowds in American jazz clubs. As a stateside musician he has worked in traditional Latin jazz settings and free-form exploratory modern jazz groups, both as a performer and composer. In so many ways, Villafranca is a man with a very broad perspective.
It seems only natural that Villafranca's musical concept explores relationships between musical worlds. The connections between musical genres appear naturally for Villafranca, whose songwriting devices touch upon modern jazz, Afro-Cuban traditions, and classical composition techniques. Where many of us see differences between musical worlds, Villafranca sees similarities. He can see a single composition through a variety of lenses, placing it easily in a straight ahead jazz setting or within the world of Afro-Cuban rhythms. He understands these musical relationships on an instinctual and academic level, making his genre-bending experiments both natural and informed. His two albums as a leaderIncantations/Encantaciones
(Universal Latino, 2003) and The Source In Between
(Ceiba Tree, 2008)reflect the duality of his musical personality, with each album focusing upon a different musical world. Yet the strength of his musical foundation and highly developed artistic personality bursts through stylistic borders, providing a steady guide as Villafranca explores the source in between musical cultures.All About Jazz:
You grew up in San Luis on the western coast of Cuba, where your primary exposure to music as a child was cultural. One of the cultural elements that you've mentioned in the past was the Tambor Yuka tradition. For our AAJ readers not familiar with Cuban culture, can you explain a little bit about the traditionwhat makes it unique to the Piñar del Rio region and how it impacted you?Elio Villafranca:
Cuba as many other people know was one of the last countries to liberate the slave. Actually the slave trade in Cuba lasted way longer than after all the slaves were "officially" free. In Cuba the freedom of the slaves was not a pact or a treaty like in the United States where they decided to free the slaves and just move on and use machines for labor. Cuba, since it was not very advanced in machinery, was still treating people like slaves for a lot of years after everything was already over. What that means is that we were still receiving slaves from Africa
You see these movies like Amistad
(1997), and all these horrible stories, where the British put all these ships on the seas just to punish those who were still trading slaves. All these horrible stories where they were bringing boats of slaves and they would see the police ships so they would throw all the slaves in the seaI mean, those horrible stories. At the same time, what that says is that we had a lot of slaves coming into Cuba. And that's what made Cuba, in this particular sense, very special. Because we had more opportunities to integrate into our own culture all these beautiful traditions from Africa.
San Luis, being close to Havana, one of the main ports of Cuba, received a lot of slaves to work in the fields. It's pretty much flat with numerous sugar cane and tobacco fields, and other small crops. I noticed that every time there was a celebration in town, people from many areas of the San Luis region would come into the middle of the town and would make all these huge fires and bring these big drums; for me, it was very interesting. As a kid, it was not necessarily a cultural thing, but this whole event that transpired between the drums and the fireit was so very intense. And it was not until much later when I went to music school that I discovered that these were people from the Congolese culture. Then I realized that since I was a very young age, I had been exposed to those elements, not knowing exactly what they were.
And then, as for all the regions of Cuba...from my hometown, we have the Congolese culture which has several different branches. You have the Tambor Yuka, which is the drum festival that they do in Piñar del Rio. You have also Tambor Makuda, and then you have Tambor Palo. In those three, you have different kinds of drums, but they are all encompassed in the same culture. Then you have, in other regions, the Abakua, which is a kind of a culture that came from a different region of Africa. Then you have the culture of the Lucumi, which is the culture that encompasses the Yoruba, which has a tremendous amount of Orishas. Every Orisha has their own chant and their own dance, and their own dresseverything. And then you also have the Arara which is similar to the Yoruban tradition, just becausebefore they even came to Cuba, the Arara, who were based in Dahomey (now Benin), were conquered by the Yorubans.
Yoruba was one of the biggest kingdoms in Africa, and when they were expanding, they conquered the Arara people. And then they had to integrate their religious concepts into their culturethat's why in Arara, you have almost the same number of saints or Orishas that you have in the Yoruban culture, they just changed the name. The same thing happened in Cuba between the slaves and the Hispanics. The Cuban slaves could believe in Christianity, but they said, "OK, we're going to name our Orishas after your saints, so we'll know what we're talking about." Basically, they say we're going to call her Chango Santa Barabara, instead of calling her Chango. And Babalu Aye, we're going to call him San Lazurus. They would put a saint in front, and that's exactly what the Arara people didin a way to fool their lords. They didn't use the word saint, of course; they did it in their own native language.
After the Haitian revolution there was a huge migration from Haiti to the Eastern part of Cuba, the Oriente. We got the Tumba Francesa from them that developed in the Eastern part of Cuba at that time. And then we've got some other different groups of culture that are kind of disappearing. One is called GagaI remember interviewing these two old ladies who were the only people remaining from that culture. They had everything written in books and they were kind of afraid that after they passed away, the whole culture would die, if nobody else took over. As you can see, Cuba is amazingly blessed with a great number of songs, chants, rituals, and instruments...you name it. It's very interesting.AAJ:
You also grew up next to the Cuban House of Culture. Was that an exposure to more popular types of Cuban music?EV:
Yeah, I had that opportunity there, which was beneficial, because in my family there are no musicians. When I look at the history of Cuban musicians, it's a blessing to have a father or mother or cousin or uncle that has been in touch with music; it really makes a big difference. A lot of my friendsChuchito Valdes, the Terry familythey all have a family that has been involved with music and it's so interesting, because they have that firsthand. In my case, there were
no musicians in my family; my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and my father was an accountant. My brother was interested in medicine, and that's it, that's what it was. I had double the work! But luckily, next to my house was la Casa del Cultura. When the carnivals were happening in Cuba, in San Luis, they would do the rehearsals right there. I remember going into my backyard, because you could see from my backyard to the wall, and if you went over the wall, you could see all the rehearsals and everything. I remember spending afternoons just watching rehearsals for the carnival and the comparsas and everything.
And then also, they would give classes there. I started as a painter. That was my very first introduction into art. I did a year of painting, and then after that picked up the guitar. I was playing guitar for two years; I had a really great teacher. In Cuba, the system is kind of interesting, at least it was at that point, because when you are becoming a musician, it doesn't matter what level you are atyou can be one of the best guitar players, but you still have to serve in whatever place was handed you. And my teacher, who was graduating as a musician in Havana, was a really good guitarist, and they just sent him to serve as a teacher in la Casa del Cultura and to teach us how to play guitar. So at a very early age he was introducing me to Leo Brauer guitar pieceswhich I still remember! It's very interesting, because if I were to play the guitar now, that's the thing that I would know how to play! And then we also formed a bandwe were like eight to nine years oldand we were going to festivals and playing together. In that group, I was playing guitar and bass, all these interesting things. And that's how I got into music.
When I was old enough to apply to a music school, we didn't have a whole lot of opportunities in my hometown. This big commission would go through the entire island having auditions to get kids. By the time they got to San Luis, which is a town in the middle of nowhere, most of the fun instruments for me were already taken. I wanted to apply for guitar, but when I got there, there were no more guitar spots. You know in Cuba, they say, well we have 10 places for guitarif in the music school in that year 10 guitar players had graduated, that's how many beds they have available to accommodate people, that's it, they only have 10 people. There was nothing for guitar; there was nothing that I wanted after guitar, there were just percussion instruments left and trombone, and some other kinds of instruments.
So I decided to go and do percussion because a cousin of mine was with a group of kids that were playing together, and he was the drummer. So then I said, at least I'm familiar with thatI know what percussion is. I thought that I was going to be playing trap drums, so I signed into percussion. But my surprise was, when I got into school it was a classical training. So I keep thinking, "when am I going to see the drums?" It was all classical training, a pure European classical thing. And eventually I fell in love with it. I did my Masters in Percussion and down along the way, that was when I picked up the piano. And then when I finished my school as a percussionist also doing piano, I got the opportunity to go to the University and do my Masters in Composition. So basically I did all of that, and here I am.AAJ:
And so you were doing piano the whole time then? It wasn't like you made a conscious switch, it was just kind of natural?EV:
Well, at some point I had to make a conscious switch. You have to take piano, but again it's classical piano. So it's kind of like you have to take itsometimes it felt like you were taking medicine, you have to do it. It's not by choice. But I remember when I made that conscious choice of really being a pianist.
In Havana, the music school was built out of this very fancy old country clubthe only country club that was really famous in Havana before the Revolution, and they made it into a music school. It's called the Cubana Cantalan area, and it has beautiful houses, and what the Revolution did is to say "this house is going to be for trumpet, this house is going to be for percussion," so basically you have all these small campuses, one just for the instrument that you are practicing. But the dorms were still in the same place, so everybody slept in the same place.
I remember the percussion faculty campus was right on this big intersection and it was a very key location, so that's where we used to do all the jam sessions and everything. Because the percussionists were the ones that leaned towards popular music. The pianists were all classical, and everybody else was really into classical music. The percussionists could do bothwe could do the classical part, but we would also do a rumba, do a this or that, you know. And then we used to do the jam sessions there. Since there was no pianist that could really do jazz or anything, everytime we would go in to do the jams, there was no pianist, so I'd say, "OK, I'll play the piano." Because there was no one to play the piano.
Then when I started to play the piano, it got to the point that every time there was a jam session, people would start directly looking at me, saying, "OK, you're going to be the pianist." I was thinking "But I want to play drums!" But there were so many drummers already, so I said okay. And then I started to get so used to being the pianist for those events, that I decided to make a conscious decision: if I really want to do this, then I want to study jazz, and I want to do it really well. And that was when I really started to focus in on jazz and then I got my first gig as a pianist.
First I made my own jazz ensemble and started going to jazz festivals in Havana, the festival that they do every year. And then I got a gig from Carlos Varela, who was an up-and-coming artist. He asked me if I wanted to be the pianist for his band and then my whole career as a pianist just started taking over to the point where most people in Cuba know me more as a pianist than they do as a percussionist. And then for me to get into jazz, I started going to people's homes, such as Chucho Valdes' home, and Pucho Lopez's home; all these pianists that I really admired at that time.
Just to ask Ruben Gonzalez or Rubalcaba to teach me something or I could write something. They had access to Real Books and then I would go there with a pencil and a lot of blank music sheets and just sit there for hours just writing things. Writing either a Chick Corea solo or Herbie Hancock solo. It was very tedious, but I was willing to just go, while they were practicing I was just writing music. Then I'd come back to the school with some new music that I could learn.AAJ:
So these guys like Chucho and Gonzalothey were pretty available to you then, to serve as mentors?EV:
They were, yeah. They were really open about those things. They were really busy though, so of course you would have to plan it. And you would not believe how many times I missed the meeting, because we don't have a phone system that really works. And sometimes we'd agree on one day and then they wouldn't be there. I would just sit around in their house waiting. But I'm telling you, it would take you the whole day. For example, Gonzalo used to live more in the central Havana area and I used to live in the Playa, which is not far if you own a car and you just go. But it's far if you take the busit would take you two hours to get there, assuming there was a bus there waiting for you in the first place. Because most of the time, you have to wait for another hour just to get the bus.
So in many cases, it would be another two or three hours, I mean it was completely crazy. And then you would go in the bus, very excited, get there, knock on the door, andoh, he's not here. I'm just going to wait, you sit down, and it's five o'clock, oh my god, I have to go back to school because I'm going to miss my dinner. At school, if you didn't go at exactly dinnertime, you miss your dinner. And constantly, I'd have to be making all these choices. Do I stay here longer to wait until they come, so I can copy some music, or do I go and eat? And the system was set up in a way, for us, so that we never had money, because it was illegal for any student in Cuba to work and to earn any money. So basically, we were really relying upon all the food that the school was giving us.AAJ:
I've heard stories of limited access to tape players and having to get up at certain times of the night to listen to music, just because you had the opportunity. Since you had limited access to listen, who were some of the American jazz artists that you were able to check out who influenced your early concept of jazz?EV:
Well, our first love affair was Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. We were so in love with them. We were always asking who's music you felt more comfortable withwas it Herbie Hancock's music or Chick Corea's kind of Spanish touch? We really wanted the CDs that really impacted us, and I say us, because there was a group of musicians that were impacted by the music. For us, that was impressive.
We also really got into George Benson, we really loved Miles, and later on, we started getting into Branford Marsalis. We were more into the advanced kind of jazz thing, because for some reason, that was what we were getting. Because we didn't have a radio station, or a magazine that talks about jazz. Basically what we got was whatever any famous musician from Cuba was bringing into the island. And then the access to a tape player, and even just tapes was very limited. Sometimes when I teach, my students say, oh, it's too much, or whatever, and I say, "You have no idea how blessed you are with all these possibilities. My mother and father used to give me 45 Cuban pesos to live for a month or 45 days. When I went to school, they were selling tapes at 15 pesos each! And then usually you have two tapes that you wanted to record. And you were like, 'Oh my god, well, OK, I'll give you thirty pesos. Give me two blank tapes so I can tape some of my favorite music.'"
And then, once again, you would keep making choices between eating or music. Because once you do that, once you have only 15 pesos, there nothing you can do except maybe for five pesos get like three or four ice cream scoops. But you know what, in a sense, making those choices, for some reason helped us develop a sense of community. All these people would benefit from me having those tapes. We would share the tape player, we would share the tapes, and everybody was listening to everybody else's music. Then if somebody was going to the ice cream place, they would maybe say, "OK, don't worry about it, I'll treat you for that." We kind of developed that sense of community; friends helping each other out. Those are moments in life that you basically laugh about, and you remember with a tremendous amount of joy.
And that's how we were basically raised in the music environment in terms of making choices, trying to learn jazz in particular. Because of course, we were getting almost the best classical education that you could ever get. For example when I went to the University, a lot of my teachers were Russian. They would speak to us in Russian and we'd have a translator telling us what he was saying. Even on the tests, every single thing was in Russian. I mean, I remember going to this classroom and this was the most stressful part for us; he would have soooo much information for us that you would leave the classroom soreyour hands would be sore. Because he would be talking on and on and then stop, and then the translator would go on for awhile and you would have to interrupt just to question the translator, and then the translator would ask the question to the guy. Back and forth. It was very intense, and most of the classes were like this for two hours.
My composition teachers were some of the greatest, because they were from the same generation as Leo Brower, and the same generation when they were really pushing to create their own identity in classical Cuban music. Some composers respected the Lecuona style. Lecuona is our biggest composer in the twentieth century. But some other musicians were trying to go more towards the experimental. They created the workshop of experimental musicGrupo de Experimentación Sonora. All these people were my teachers. At the same time I was learning all these things, I was going to festivals of really contemporary music, where you have to create your own sound from nothing. They would give you a keyboard and then they teach you to manipulate sounds and how to create you own thing. And then after you create your own sound, you have to write a piece and use magnetic tapes, and then they would have a festival. Our education at that point was really intense. Oh yeah, and in the meantime, we were trying to learn some jazz.AAJ:
You put together a jazz group, Ferjomesiswhat type of material were you playing? Could you tell me a little bit about that group?EV:
Yeah, we were doing original music. At that point, we were doing a lot of fusion. Like Michael Brecker, he was another guy that impacted us. Michael Brecker and Randy Breckerthat kind of sound. Mike Manieri, the electric vibraphone; we used to really love that sound of fusion. In our group we used to also have a vibraphonist and used to do all kinds of interesting things. And I have to say I'm surprised because still I hear news from friends when I go to Cuba who say, "We saw you guys when you were with Ferjomesis at a festival." They are still playing those tapes, even nowadays from those years. They remember that we worked so hard, because that was the only festival that was in Cuba. So basically, we would work all year just to prepare for that festival.AAJ:
Was that the Jazz Plaza Festival?EV:
Yes. Before they made it so that everybody could come here and present their thing, it was very competitive. You had to go and compete with all the national groups, regardless. We never knew who we were going to be competing against. It could have been professional groups that had already been on the street as professional musicians. We were all students, but we were offering a different sound from what everybody else was offering. And we got to be popular in that sense. A lot of people used to come to our shows, and even Gonzalo sometimes would come to our shows, and would sit with us, and play with us. That group was very, very good. And most of the musicians that were in that group are now professional musicians, doing very well in music. But they all went completely different ways.AAJ:
You eventually got the gig with Carlos Varela, which you mentioned. How did you get into that group and was the rock influence something that you had studied or were interested in at that point?EV:
I got into that group, because two of my friends who were at school were in it too. Carlos was looking for a pianist and they recommended me. In Cuba, when you do that, you never get paid for those services, because, you know in Cuba once again, if you are a student, you are not supposed to get paid. And every single payment system comes through the government. It's not like you can go to a club and maybe do a gig and they will pay you under the table. No, because every single bit of money that goes out is government money. So basically, you don't get paid. But it was fun and they described it to me like, "This guy can really sing and the songs are very interesting." The way we looked at it, the songs were harmonically interesting to us, which made us want to play with him. It was kind of like folk/rock, which in Cuba at that point was a thing that was not really very popular, in terms of a government thing. The government didn't like that kind of music, because it represented the enemy as they say. To them it represented the United States.
So I started rehearsing with them and really enjoying the group, and we were pulling all the repertoire together. I remember, we didn't even have a rehearsal space, so on the weekends I had to organize to go to the school and rehearse there. And the rehearsals were just me on the piano, Carlos on the guitar, and then our drummer would just have a piece of wood or something so he could bang on top of it just to create a rhythm. And a trumpet player and a saxophonist; it was very acoustic. And we had a keyboard player and he would come and just listen, watch and take notesthat's how our rehearsals went.
At the same time, he was singing just with guitar around town, because he was a professional already. And his songs were so controversial, and he got so popular, that finally, they gave us a chance to do a concert for the first time ever. And of course, we never had any formal rehearsal space; we'd only been rehearsing the way I described. They said, "Syntesis is playing that day, and we're going to allow you to play three numbers that day and that's it." So we went there, and rehearsed the three songs that we were going to do. Everybody knew that we were going to do thatthe theater was so packed that you couldn't even imagine. And then, what happened was that already the word was out on the street that this group is crazy, and they're talking about all these crazy political things. So everybody shows up, we start singing the songs.
There were so many policemen in the audience, almost half of the audience was policemen. And then tension was rising, rising, rising. To the point that one of the songs that we used to sing was misinterpreted by the police, and then they tried to stop the group from playing and then people got really angry. And then the whole thing ended with police hitting people, breaking glass, breaking heads. There were arrests, and the whole thing ended. The whole theater was destroyed. And then we were asked to go the next day to an audition with the government where the singer had to go song by song and defend them, just to prove that he wasn't going to say anything against the country or the government. And then they said, you are banned from playing in Cuba for a year. Because people were like completely crazy about the group, a little too crazy.
So we said fine, we're not going to play for a year. But that was even worse, because then for a year, people were like wondering about the group. So finally when we arranged to do a solo performancenow imagine, for a year all this curiosity that everybody had rises up, and when we did the concert, it was even crazier. I mean, it was amazing. I can't remember ever experiencing thatgoing to the stage and a mass of people are running to the stage just like crazy. And then we had to run from the stage because people were out of control again, I mean, it was amazing. And then from that point on, we were a really established group. No one was getting paidI wasn't getting paid; but we could play at the Karl Marx theater and bring up like 7,000 people to listen to our group. But I wasn't getting a dime out of that. My only gratitude was just to know that people liked my arrangements of a songbecause I was doing arrangements for the group, of Carlos' song. Just to know that people were enjoying the way that we were arranging the music was our payment at that point.AAJ:
Then you went to the University of Arts to teach at that point, is that right?EV:
Yeah, because there was a time that I was at the University that they developed these coursesthere was an interest from Europeans to come to Cuba and learn Cuban jazz. So I started to do those courses, and that was really interesting to me. There were the finest musicians in Cuba teaching those courses, and I was lucky that I was picked to also be part of that group. Chucho Valdes was teaching the piano course, Cesar "Pupi" Pedroso from Los Van Van was teaching a course, I was as well, and there were a few other select piano players teaching. As for percussion, Changuito was teaching a course, Eladio, Pancho Terry also.
It was very selective for each kind of instrument. And then, those courses were paid in dollars, which was very nice for me, because I was a student. But since those courses were not dealing with school time, from July to August, I would stay in Havana instead of going back home to teach these courses with all those guys. Interestingly that was the first time that we were introduced to the 2-3, 3-2 clave concept from America. We never thought that way about clave. Because, the way we see clave, it's more of a contextual thing. If you tell me this song that we're going to do is a son montuno, we automatically know how the clave should be in the son montuno. If you tell me the song is a rumba feel, we automatically know how the clave is supposed to feel in the rumba feel. Or maybe 6/8...depending on the situation, and even if you don't describe it and it sounds like a son montuno to us, we will take you there.
But when we started doing those courses, and people from San Francisco mostly started asking like, so is this 3-2 or 2-3? We were like, what is that? What is 2-3, 3-2? We had no idea! I remember coming out and Changuito would be there, because he was teaching right next to my classroom. Changuito would come out and we would say, "Did you know that? 2-3, 3-2 what was that?" Everybody was asking, "What are they talking about?!? Oh my god..." we had no idea, and finally they explained to us, well the two side is like this and the three side is like this. Oh, OK, then we got into it. But that was the first time that we heard about it, in those courses.AAJ:
So did you jump from that school in Havana to Philadelphia? How did you make that move?EV:
From those courses, I met this group of people from Philadelphia who were also learning in those courses. I met them and they invited me to come to Philadelphia to teach in a school, called AMLAAssociacion de Musicos Latino-Americanos. And they invited me to come and to teach all their courses. That's how I got into teaching here, and I also got involved with a woman and we got married while I was in Cuba, which made it also possible for me to come to the States.AAJ:
What was the biggest change that you experienced when you moved to Philadelphia? You obviously had more access to jazz musicians, performances, and recordings. What was the biggest change in your musical concept?EV:
Well, the biggest change was actually the size of the audience. I was coming from a situation, playing with Carlos, where we used to play in stadiums. I remember being in Columbia and playing alongside Pink Floyd and all these big bands. And for me, I was coming here thinking, "I really love jazz." And then I go to a jazz club and only play for 20 or 30 people. It was very shocking to me. You know, it's funny because that's when we start to understand that jazz is something so personal and so special.
In this country it's not necessarily what you would consider to be popular music. It's not like you go to a stadium and people just flock to go see you. It's very unique in that sense; it touches people in a very specific and a special way. That was one challenge for me, getting used to that and not thinking that I didn't make the wrong move. Because when you're coming from a country that is much smaller than this country and way less developed than this country, you're thinking that you're going to come to this country and everything is going to be better. But then when you play, you wonder...where did all the people go? You're coming from a country that's under developed, but when you play, you have 600 or 700 people come to see you. It's a whole different thing. It brings you down a little bit.
Also, when I was in Cuba, I thought that I understood what jazz was. I thought, "Oh yeah, cool, I'm studying music all the time, I can understand anything. You know, I can understand jazz and I used play in those jazz festivals in Cuba." But when I was in Philadelphia, I hired a piano tuner to tune my piano. I remember he played something and I wondered "what is that!?" I just fell in love with whatever he playedand I couldn't play it! That was the whole thing. And all he did was play a few blues chords and I couldn't understand how it sounded so great. So I thought, he must be a pianist, he has to be a great pianist that happens to be tuning my piano right now. And then I asked him and he said, "No, I don't play the piano. I basically tune the piano and just play these chords to make sure that the piano sounds good." And then I understood something about what jazz is. Just as we have Cuban music in our blood, and can make rhythms out of anything, and we can have a really deep understanding of this complex polyrhythmic thing, and all of that.
Jazz is the same thing for the people who live here. The blues is in their blood, and it is something that is cultural. It's not just music where you learn a few things and that is it. It's something that you have to really dig in and begin to understand. On the same level, I would advise anyone that wants to learn Afro-Cuban music to dig in. So that made me think I needed to do something about it. I started getting together with all the pianists who were teaching me to get a better understanding of what jazz was. One of the first people that I started taking lessons with was Ed Simon. I went to him and he said, "Oh, you want to learn jazz, well OK," and we started working on Charlie Parker. He took me really down there to get the language and really put me onto the right path.