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Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between

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AAJ: You also grew up next to the Cuban House of Culture. Was that an exposure to more popular types of Cuban music?

Elio VillafrancaEV: 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 friends—Chuchito Valdes, the Terry family—they 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 at—you 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 pieces—which 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 band—we were like eight to nine years old—and 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 guitar—if 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 that—I 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 it—sometimes 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 club—the 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 both—we 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.

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