Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between


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Elio VillafrancaAAJ: 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 notes—that'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 that—the 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 performance—now 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 that—going 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 paid—I 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 song—because 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 courses—there 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.

Elio VillafrancaAAJ: 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 AMLA—Associacion 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 played—and 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.
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