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Ramon Valle: The Amsterdam transplant remains rooted in Cuba

Joan Gannij By

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If you surrender to the music, then the people are going to feel this. It doesn't matter if you play one note or a thousand.
After transplanting himself to Amsterdam 20 years ago, Ramon Valle's island roots still run deep. Valle was raised in the eastern part of Cuba, in Holguin, in a musical family, with a trumpeter father, a mother who sang and recited poems, and five sisters; four who played piano, and another who was a multi-instumentalist, playing saxophone, clarinet and flute.. He started studying piano and trumpet at age seven, under the tutelage of his father, and muses. "I was playing the trumpet, while playing the piano with my left hand," conjuring a memorable image.. He discovered Gerry Mulligan and Louis Armstrong when their recordings got passed around by friends of his father. "These days people can access music so easily on the internet. In my time I had to wait to borrow an LP or a CD, then I would listen to it, and then practice learning it. I didn't have time to transcribe. I had the whole thing in my head, at my fingertips. And then I had to give it back." "We would listen to the radio and sometimes in the middle of the night when the signals come and go, you could get a connection to a station in America. I'd be listening and hear a few chords, then it would fade, then come back again. It was a kind of exercise. We didn't have the possibility to listen to the whole thing. You had to use your imagination. Ba da da da da, da da doo da."

His father, who passed earlier this year, soon followed by Valle's mother, was a member of a local orchestra and there were always jam sessions at the house. Ramon speaks of descarga, which is an improvised jam session (descargar means to discard, let go, purge, or release). He contrasts the structure of his classical studies at the conservatory in Holguin, with the freedom he experienced at home with his father's music. "There was no learning, just playing, being there," Valle has just completed a series of gigs throughout the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany as part of his Celebration Tour of 20 years in Holland, with compatriots. Bassist Omar Rodriguez Calvo from Matanzas and drummer Liber Torriente, from Havana.

We are sitting in the café of Amsterdam's historic Concertgebouw and Chopin is suddenly part of the background music. Valle remarks how "improvising came so natural to the Polish composer, and Bach, too. He was able to do whatever he wanted with the piano. We have to remember that music is all about communication and not about this scale or this chord. As a jazz musician, you have to take risks. We have the mission to translate the music to the people. The music comes through you. You are channeling it, and you are like a translator. It's not about ego or what you learned at the conservatory, and all the notes you played yesterday. It's about information now, what are you going to play today. If you surrender to the music then the people are going to feel this. It doesn't matter if you play one note or a thousand. I take it very serious, but it's a joy. I'm at the same party as you are and I want to enjoy it."

Each gig certainly seems like a party, and his exuberance is contagious. "Every time that I play, I'm singing on the inside, and often scatting on the outside. Sometimes I feel like a troubadour, except I tell stories without using words. The piano is a beautiful instrument, but I don't see it as an instrument. It's like a choir or a mini orchestra. You have a combination of chords and they can make any sound that you want, whereas the cello or a trumpet has one specific sound. I play the piano like a trumpet or a saxophonist, not a pianist." He elaborates further. "It's a conversation, like a dolphin soaring through the waves," he moves his hands up for emphasis. "I don't see the piano as being on the floor, but to be played like a horn. Sitting down, you can get used to the notes, like typing, because it's easy to disconnect with mechanical memory. With piano it is easy to fall into that trap. So I stand, I move, and with every note I play I'm singing, seeing a film before me. There's a different film for every song. If I had the time and the money, I'd like to be able to show the people the visual images that I have in my head, along with the music."

When he was considering Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for his Take Off CD, the challenge was how to bring the same amount of power without the lyrics. "I knew I wanted to make a story, telling it the slow way so you can hear the blues and a bit of the gospel. I didn't want an arrangement with all the clichés. I would kill myself, ciao! It's not only the composition of Leonard Cohen, it's more than that. It's the cosmos. You can feel the freedom to go crazy and play in an abstract way." How did he approach that? "First I listen to every detail of the arrangement, then I dream. Then if I have enough inspiration I can express myself. I want to stand 100% for the song and if I can't, I don't do it cause it would be fake."

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