In conversation with elio villafranca
By Tomas Peña
You grew up in a town called San Luis in the Province of Pinar Del Rio, where the Tambor Yuka culture is strong. Could you talk about the Tambor Yuka culture and explain the impact that it had on you?
I grew up in a small town in the Southwestern part of Cuba where the main culture was Congolese, more specifically the Tambor Yuka culture. When I was a kid I experienced the culture in a very indirect way because I was too young to understand what I was witnessing. Whenever there was an activity or a festival there would be this huge bonfire and drumming in the center of town. It was amazing!
The Congolese culture has three different subcultures: the Tambor Yuka, the Tambor Makuta and the Tambor Palo. What makes these cultures similar are the instruments, a similar system of tuning (the drums), the way the drums are constructed and the dialect. I didn’t realize the impact that the Tambor Yuka culture had on me until the influences came out in my playing.
You also grew up next door to the House of Culture, where you were able to observe all of the rehearsals for the concerts, carnivals and groups and take music (guitar) lessons. Given the circumstances, do you ever feel that you were destined to become a musician?
It’s funny that you should say that because there are no other musicians in my family. So yes, that is definitely a possibility.
El Pelotero, watercolor by Elio Villafranca
After studying the guitar you moved on to percussion at the Art School.
In Cuba they interview and select students in the main provinces first. By the time they got to San Luis the only instruments that were left were the trombone and the drums. Of the two, the instrument I was most familiar with was the drum, for all of the reasons I mentioned before, so I chose percussion.
You studied percussion, symphonic composition and the piano at the Instituto Superior de Arte.
In the Cuban system you have to learn to play the piano no matter what. After the third year in school I started taking the piano seriously. The reason I took it seriously was because whenever there was a jam session the drum set was usually taken so I agreed to play the piano. In time I became the “house” player for all the jam sessions and I started hanging out with other piano players and taking the piano more seriously. Then I spoke to my piano teacher and told him that I was interested in learning what the classically trained pianists were playing (Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, etc).
Most of your instructors were Russian, correct?
Yes, many of the teachers were educated under the Russian system. They were excellent teachers.
Like many Cubans, you learned about popular music – rock, jazz and rumba - in the streets.
Are you familiar with The Real Book? (Interviewer’s notes: Today there are scores of Real books, however, The Real Book, Volume 1 refers to a semi-underground series transcribed and compiled by students at the Berklee College of Music during the 1970s.).
At that time there was no Real Book in Cuba. We would get music by transcribing what he heard. Let me give you a little background on the subject.
By all means!
I came from Pinar del Rio, so when I arrived in Havana my family was my only means of support. They gave me 45 Cuban pesos per month to survive. At the time the cost of a cassette tape was fifteen pesos! Sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s house or Chucho Valdes’s house to see what new music had come out and I would ask them if they could make me copies (sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t). Once I had a copy in my possession I would listen to it over and over and transcribe the music. That’s how I learned all of the standards.
About what year was that?
That was during the late 1980s. Surprisingly, Cuba was pretty up-to-date in terms of new music. I remember having the first Chick Corea Electric Band recording before it was sold on the street.
Where did you get it?
From Chucho (Valdes), he was very popular in American and people would trade music with him and send him demos. At the time there was only one cassette player in the entire school so we would compile a list of names and take turns listening to the music. If your turn came up at 3 AM, that’s when you listened to the music! Often times I would take the cassette player outside and connect it to an electrical outlet (in the street) and listen to the music over and over. Once you returned the cassette player there was no telling when you would get it back -- so I memorized the music. That’s how I learned jazz. During that time I was studying classical composition, my teacher used to kid with me and say, “I know you like jazz” because I had a jazz ensemble and we performed at the Havana Jazz Festival. We were very lucky to be selected.
What was the name of your ensemble?
Ferjomesis, the name is made up of the initials of the band members. To perform at the Havana Jazz Festival you have to compete with anyone and everyone who also wants to perform, be it a trio or a big band. Fermojesis was an excellent group, every once in awhile Gonzalo Rubalcaba would join us on stage.
It sounds as if it was a good time in your life.
Yes, learning about jazz and embracing the music. But it wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I realized what “real” jazz is.
You mean when you moved to Philadelphia. . . . You stated in a past interview that you left Cuba for musical, not political reasons? Given the situation in Cuba, how do you make the distinction between politics and music?
I guess you could spin it that way, but Cuba affects different people in different ways. There is one musician (who will go unnamed) who says that Cuba deprived him of his family. The truth is, when we were in school we didn’t see our families for months, we couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to go home and often times we went hungry. But somehow we still managed to have a great time. We were discovering jazz and I was playing in a rock band and touring outside of Cuba with (Cuban singer/songwriter) Carlos Varela. Just to clarify, I didn’t make the negative aspects of the situation in Cuba the center of my life. In the case of the musician I mentioned, he was a classical musician and was unable to travel outside of Cuba; so he didn’t have much of a choice. For me it was such a joy to perform at the Havana jazz festival, seeing all the people and all the different musicians. We would leave the festival hyped and spend the next eleven months preparing for the next festival; it was the center of our lives.
But when I look back I also remember being part of the hunger strike in the east. It was a crazy time and things got really ugly when the government got involved. Keep in mind that it was the first time that anything like that had ever happened. So we all went through that and it affected different people in different ways. If something like that ever happened in the United States, it would be a different story; but in Cuba there was none of that. If you got sick, you still had to show up for school the next day. If the school had learned that I was playing at the jazz festival until 4AM I would have gotten into a lot of trouble.
So you made the move. . .
For the record, I wasn’t doing too badly. I was performing with Carlos Varela and we were signed to a record label and doing a lot of great stuff, including participating in concerts with Pink Floyd and Kool and the Gang. I was the co-director and musical arranger for Carlos Varela’s band. But it wasn’t my music; it was his music, and he was so demanding that I didn’t have time to create my own music. Also, as the band got more popular, the band started developing this attitude, I don’t know if it has something to with rock (music) …
The rock scene is a totally different mindset.
Things kept getting progressively worse and I thought to myself, “You know what? This is not for me.”
When was that?
On the other hand you were well received in Philly. In retrospect, was relocating to Philly a good move?
Philly is a city where you do a lot of stuff (career wise) but nothing really happens. It’s not like back in the day, when John Coltrane and the Heath Brothers were there. Back then there was a lot of activity.
I performed at some of the most important venues in Philadelphia and nothing happened. Musicians like (pianist) Oscar Hernandez used to ask me, “What are you doing here?” And suggest that I should move to New York.
Which eventually you did.
Musically, I was ready. Also, my wife decided to go to graduate school in New York. But when I moved to New York I had to start from zero. It was like everything that I had accomplished in Philly didn’t count!
So you began the process of re-establishing yourself and shortly thereafter, you recorded Incantations / Encantaciones, your first recording as a leader.
When I moved to the U.S., I was labeled as a “Latin jazz artist.” At the time I was missing Cuba so much that even though I wanted to do something more creative there was bound to be a Cuban influence in my music. During that time I was listening to (pianist) Danilo Perez and lot of jazz and I kept thinking to myself, there has to be more to Latin jazz than just playing Tito Puente style. The whole Latin thing is very intricate because you can compose Latin music in so many different ways. Take for example, (the tunes) "Cubana" and "Cacique." If you add percussion, they have a Latin jazz vibe. If you subtract the percussion, they have a jazzy vibe. Either way, the tunes stand up on their own.
When I was creating the Incantations / Encantanciones I saw (guitarist) Pat Martino playing “El Hombre” and I asked him if I could record the piece and he said yes. That’s how he became involved with the project.
It must have been a great feeling to have your recording selected by Jazz Times as one of the top 50 jazz albums of the year (2003).
I was very happy and surprised but unfortunately I didn’t take advantage of the situation. At the time I was very unhappy with my record company so I lost out on the opportunity to take advantage of the momentum.
Let’s move on to your new recording, The Source in Between, which you recorded in “real time.” Was the idea to make it the next best thing to a live recording?
That wasn’t the original intention, but when I got to the studio the engineer suggested that we do a live recording and I agreed. It’s a very daring idea because doing a live album only makes sense if you are surrounded by great musicians and you really trust them. At the time I was listening to (saxophonist) Ornette Coleman, who is a strong believer in the idea of listening to everyone’s individual voice and I embraced the concept.
You composed all of the material for this project. Let’s go through the tracks and perhaps you could tell me what was on your mind when you created these tunes. First “The Source in Between.”
It’s my way of demonstrating the fine line that exists between jazz and Latin jazz. The source represents my roots and my background.
“The Lonely One.”
I was asked how I composed a beautiful melody and I explained that I composed it at a time when I was lonely.
Oddua Suite. “Three Plus One.”
I was thinking of odd structures, Monk, that kind of thing.
“In the Dark.”
Sometimes I close my eyes when I play. It’s about listening and enjoying the music with your eyes closed.
“Faces, not Evil.”
The tune is based on a program that I heard on National Public Radio, but I think it was originally called “The Faces of Evil.” It’s a play on words.
“Resurrection of the Incapacitated.”
It’s my take on an Afro Cuban ritual, or dance dedicated to Babalu Aye (Saint Lazarus), where the deity struggles to get to his feet and dance.
“Don’t Say Never.”
It’s sort of a hit song with different elements of syncopation.
“Luna” is just “Luna.”
In a past interview you talked extensively about your struggle with the concepts of commercialism vs. art.
It’s a common theme among musicians. I honestly believe that if you are honest with your art you will get better results. When I say better results I don’t mean money, what I mean is, you will get better results from the people who approach you and appreciate your artistry.
Your music doesn’t sound “compromised,” if you know what I mean. In fact, it sounds quite “free.”
When you look into the lives of all the great artists, painters, composers and musicians in the world you see a certain amount of selfishness. By selfishness I mean that their art has to please their soul regardless of whether people like it or not. Your artistry represents who you are and it shouldn’t be compromised. At least that’s what I’m trying to do with my music.
You are also an educator.
I just returned from Guadalajara, Mexico, where I am involved with a group called Tonica. We conduct music programs and teach jazz. Also, I used to teach at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Let’s talk about your upcoming concert at the Caramoor Jazz Festival (in Katonah, New York), where you will be performing solo and with Chuchito Valdes, Jr. Do you know each other or have you ever performed together in the past?
No we don’t really know each other.
You mentioned that you know his father, the great Chucho Valedes.
It sounds like it’s going to be an interesting meeting of the minds.
I have to touch base with Chuchito and discuss with him what we are going to play! It’s going to be great because he is a great piano player. The only thing that concerns me is whether we speak the same “language” or not.
You can have a great chemistry with someone but if you don’t speak the same language you can’t communicate. In other words, when we both sit down at the piano, are we both going to have the same conversation? [Interviewer’s notes: Since the interview was conducted I spoke to Elio and the concert was a resounding success!]
What’s in your CD player or I Pod as we speak?
I have been listening a lot to Oblique by (vibraphonist) Bobby Hutcherson. It’s an old recording but it’s really beautiful. I also went through a phase where I listened to a lot of (pianist) Andrew Hill. I enjoy his philosophy. And of course Monk, Art Tatum, Ornette Coleman and classical music, there is a lot of stuff that never gets old.
I read somewhere that you like to paint.
My co-producer Ron Berg is a painter. He has a beautiful piano in his studio and sometimes we get together and I play while he paints. I recently picked up a brush and collaborated with him on one of his paintings.
Whenever I travel or wherever I go, the first thing I always ask is, “Where is the nearest museum?”
You obviously draw a lot of inspiration from art in general.
I understand that you will be celebrating the release of The Source in Between at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
Yes, I will be celebrating the release of my new recording with my quartet: Eric Alexander (tenor saxophone), Matt Brewer (acoustic bass) and drummer Dafnis Prieto.
I should also mention that the Source in Between is dedicated to your father, Eliobaldo Villafranca. Good luck!