U.S-Cuba: Freedom, In Two Languages

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Pianist Arturo O’Farrill performs with trumpeter Yasek Manzano during “Cuba: The Conversation Continued” at Symphony Space in early May/ photo: David Garten

I’ve been following the coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba, and thinking that the cultural exchanges among classical musicians resulting from a changed political landscape will likely be as powerful as the ones in the jazz world.
Michael Cooper’s most recent New York Times piece about that trip ended this:
After the break, Guido López-Gavilán, the conductor of the Youth Orchestra, took to the podium to lead the two orchestras in one of his own compositions, “Guaguancó,” a symphonic rumba. This time it was the students who taught the Minnesotans a thing or two.
 At first the rhythmic foundation of the piece — the five-beat repeated pattern called the clave, the basic building block of Cuban music — confounded some of the American players. They had all played clave rhythms before, explained Sam Bergman, a viola player in the orchestra, but the Cubans played it a little differently — delaying the third beat a bit.
Mr. Bergman said that at first the Minnesotans were off. “The kids were looking at us like, what’s the problem here?” he recalled. But the Minnesotans were able to follow the youth players and soon got it.
Wendy Williams, a flute player in the orchestra, said that she loved the piece so much that she hoped the orchestra would play it at some point when it returns to Minneapolis. “I just want to share it with our audiences back home,” she said.
I know that pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill is in Havana right now, working on plans for a U.S.-Cuba educational exchange. Below is my recent Wall Street Journal piece about his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s collaboration with Cuban musicians in Havana and New York City.THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 14, 2015
Freedom, In Two Languages
From Havana to New York, Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra play tunes with cross-cultural fluency.
By LARRY BLUMENFELD
New York
To end his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s season at Manhattan’s Symphony Space earlier this month, pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill staged a long concert of sweeping ambition featuring nine guest artists.
The most stirring moments that night arrived, however, with the stage largely empty, as Mr. O’Farrill and trumpeter Yasek Manzano played in duet. Here were two musicians of successive generations whose lives have crisscrossed the U.S. and Cuba. Mr. O’Farrill, 54 years old, is the son of the late, celebrated Cuban composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. He initially forsook his father’s musical legacy for jazz’s more experimental reaches while growing up in Manhattan, but later circled back and found ways to combine both paths through a large ensemble of his own design. Beside his piano stood Mr. Manzano, 35, who left his native Havana for a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music, where he met Mr. O’Farrill, and then returned to Cuba a decade ago, where he is among the most creative voices within an active jazz scene.
At Symphony Space, Messrs. O’Farrill and Manzano began Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney,” a classic of Cuban repertoire, in straightforward manner. The song quickly dissolved into an exchange of improvised ideas grounded in musical dialects from both Cuba and the U.S. and yet beholden to neither. Mr. Manzano displayed unusual articulation on the fluegelhorn, the trumpet’s mellower-sounding cousin, as Mr. O’Farrill delighted in his instrument’s lowest rumbles and uppermost range. The back-and-forth of their performance seemed drawn less from the architecture of Lecuona’s composition than from the inscrutable bonds upon which friendships are built.
Such was the prevalent sentiment—the mission, even—of “Cuba: The Conversation Continued,” a concert preceded by a panel discussion involving Mr. O’Farrill and his Cuban guests: Mr. Manzano; trumpeter Kalí Rodríguez-Peña; pianist and composer Alexis Bosch; and Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi, a master of the guitarlike Cuban tres who is better known as simply “Cotó.” Mr. Bosch compared walking around New York to strolling through Havana—both cities share a common spirit, he said. Mr. Manzano spoke of rhythmic and emotional truths embedded equally in Cuban and American music. Mr. O’Farrill shared his inspiration for the December Havana residency that gave rise to the concert’s new repertoire, during which his orchestra’s next CD, planned for August release, was recorded.
“All this began in 2002, when an idea took root in my heart,” he said. “I wanted to create an ongoing conversation between musicians, to continue the one started decades ago by Dizzy Gillespie and [Cuban percussionist] Chano Pozo. People think revolution and ideological differences put an end to this conversation, but we’re pursuing this thing that Dizzy called a ‘global music,’ which has a multiplicity of opinions.”
As supported by his nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance since 2007, Mr. O’Farrill’s orchestra has pursued an expansive aesthetic. His most recent CD incorporated traditions from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Spain. Here the focus was squarely on U.S.-Cuba collaboration. The concert’s lack of a unified theme and consistent flow could also be considered its strength: It represented an enduring connection through varied points of view, sometimes within a single piece.
Mr. Manzano’s “Cojin used horns and reeds like rhythmic chants, which cohered into melody largely by way of his brilliant trumpet solos. Mr. Bosch’s “Guajira Simple” reflected a restraint sometimes obscured by caricatured presentations of Cuban music, and showcased his own elegant yet forceful pianism. Cotó’s “El Bombón” acknowledged the tradition of the great Cuban tres player and bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez before delving joyously into realms of jazz and blues guitar. “Alabanza,” composed by New York-based pianist Michele Rosewoman, whose New Yor-Uba ensemble blends unfettered improvisation and undiluted Cuban folklore, set a rhythm for the Yoruba deity Changó within swirls of modern-jazz context.
If Mr. O’Farrill positioned U.S. and Cuban musicians as close relations, he also revealed the cross-cultural understanding that flows through his actual family. The central melodic figure of “Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” one of two original compositions by Mr. O’Farrill, provided the kernel for alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s forward-leaning improvisations; but its stretches of pastoral melody and punches of dissonance made overt reference to his father’s signature piece, “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite.” His eldest son, drummer Zack O’Farrill, presented an original composition, “There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park,” that captured in separate passages the sounds of both New York’s avant-garde and carnival celebrations of Santiago de Cuba. Elsewhere, Zack’s younger brother, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, played with startling imagination and technique, sometimes alongside his Cuban counterpart, Mr. Rodríguez-Peña, a Manhattan School of Music student whose bristling tone and bilingual fluency has commanded attention in New York.
One obvious subtext to Mr. O’Farrill’s current project is the newfound path toward normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba. His orchestra was in the midst of recording at Havana’s Abdala Studios when Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced this policy shift in December.
Mr. O’Farrill revels in the practical opportunities suggested by an open door. He leaves for Havana this week to discuss creating a U.S.-Cuba educational exchange. Yet he sees this moment most clearly in terms of aesthetic liberation—toward a relationship in which Afro-Cuban music is not exoticized here, he said in his preconcert discussion, and in which musicians from both countries are “true partners with one shared legacy.”
He made no reference Friday night to the historic Obama-Castro meeting during April’s Summit of the Americas in Panama. Instead, he described his son Adam’s earliest encounter with Mr. Rodríguez-Peña in Havana, when both were in their early teens.
“They didn’t talk about politics or even this style or that,” he said. “They just picked up their trumpets and played.”

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