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Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between

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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.

AAJ: So these guys like Chucho and Gonzalo—they 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 bus—it 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.

Elio Villafranca

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, and—oh, 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 with—was 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 sore—your 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 music—Grupo 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, Ferjomesis—what 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 Brecker—that 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.
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