By Marisa Arbona-Ruiz
Pianist, composer and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill was born into Afro Cuban jazz royalty but growing up he rejected his famous musical heritage. Now, he travels the world sharing his late father Chico O’Farrill’s legacy as a principal architect of the mash up of jazz and Afro Cuban music in the late 1940’s.
O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is an extension of his father’s long running NYC-based orchestra and it was chosen to close out Artes De Cuba: From the Island to the World, the historic, two-week long multi genre arts festival at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In signature fashion, he opened the concert with a gorgeous free-style piano improvisation to “put himself on a high-wire.” As O’Farrill explains, it’s his way of journeying into the unknown on equal footing with the audience. What flowed from the maestro’s fingers was wistful and romantic as the orchestra joined in, adding depth and drama. And what followed was a repertoire O’Farrill modestly describes as “modern jazz with a Latin tinge with as wide a palette as possible.”
Among the works performed, he presented a stunning original collection called “The Despedida Suite.” It was a dramatic adventure through five unique movements written for Cuban modern dance troupe Malpaso: “Del Mar,” “Intruso,” “Duo: Your Beauty Cocoon is My Confusion,” “Ensayo Silencio” and “La Llorona.” Each piece had its own intensity — ranging from dreamy to dynamic to abstract — that presented a colorful palette of jazz with hints of funk and harmonic dissonance dripping with Afro-Cuban poly-rhythms. It was topped off by the passionate swagger and swoon of a pan-Latin finale.
O’Farrill’s eclectic and passionate essence also inhabited the popular Cuban classic “Siboney” by legendary Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, morphing it from a sweet, romantic piano solo into a full-on Latin jazz groove with Afro-Cuban guajira infusion. His sparkling mastery continued with “Little General” featuring an onslaught of dynamic bass, horn and percussion solos, the Peruvian festejo “El Sur” that he jokingly described as “pan-Latin, pan-American, pan-interstellar” and a guaguancó -heavy “El Cachita” finale by Puerto Rico’s Rafael Hernandez.
“Virtually every small town and every province has an arts school … And human beings are given great opportunity to rise and rise and rise in terms of their self-awareness, their artistry, the history of their people,” O’Farrill told the audience at the show. “Not a bad lesson at all … In fact, sometimes we think of Cuba as a nation that is in great need. Sometimes I think we are in great need.”
NPR’s Alt.Latino caught up with O’Farrill backstage before the show to discuss the musical relationship between Cuba and the United States and how his music plays a cultural and socially conscious bridge.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Marisa Arbona-Ruiz: Why is Kennedy Center’s Artes De Cuba festival important?
Arturo O’Farrill: It’s huge for The Kennedy Center to have this kind of festival with this kind of investment. This kind of level of involvement in artistry is unheard of. And it sends a message to the current administration and to the public that Cuba and the United States are madly in love, there was a very unpleasant divorce, but there’s still a lot of love there. And the divorce was one of those things that you can’t go back in time and unravel all the elements of. All you can do is hope that you can find a way to salvage the love that’s there and even build upon it. There’s so many things about us besides just music and sports. It’s the common access to African heritage.
You released Cuba: the Conversation Continues, which was recorded in Havana 48 hours after President Obama announced his plan to normalize relations with Cuba in December of 2014. You were invited to witness the US flag-raising over the new US residence and the Cuban Embassy in Havana eight months later. What was your reaction to those monumental changes then compared to what’s happening now, as both countries have new leaders with more hard-lined approaches to the relationship?
You know, everything happens in slow motion when you see miracles taking place or dreams being realized. I will always remember sitting in the synagogue in (the Cuban neighborhood) Vedado where we were rehearsing and watching this unfold, and kind of in a very slow malaise, not really believing it. Show me the money!
You gotta understand, you can talk all the talk you want [but] the barbaric economic embargo that has destroyed my people is still in place. And it was in place then, even as President Obama — God bless him — promised that it would be dismantled. And so I don’t think people realize that the embargo is not only a stranglehold on an already freakishly poor nation but it’s perilous. So when the announcement was made, it was greeted with a fair amount of weariness on the part of the Cuban people and myself. For a second it looked like my people would have a chance to create a different future for themselves. I was very emotional. I was also very emotional for my father because I could see that he would’ve been in tears if he had lived to see that day.
Nothing’s really changed now that we’re back in this terrible dark epoch in American history. They’ve kind of decided they’re going to tighten the rules and then kind of pay more attention to who goes in and out of Cuba. The truth of the matter is that one of the worst aspects of what’s happening now is that Americans are scared to go to Cuba. They’re frightened and they think it’s somehow much harder. Consequently the tourism that had surfaced after the President Obama and President Castro announcement was deeply healthy. Despite the economic embargo Cubans were opening up restaurants and things. Now people are staying away from Cuba because it’s just a little more difficult to go back.
Also, under President Trump, the State Department has been decimated. There are no diplomats or State Department workers in Cuba. You can’t get a visa there. The Kennedy Center knows this better than anyone else. If Cubans want to go work in the United States, they have to go to another country that has a working consulate to get the visas. This is horrendous!
Where do you think the musical relationship between the US and Cuba is headed?
The kernel that is rhythmically germane to Cuban music is also there in jazz. The harmonic sophistication that we attribute to jazz has always been in Cuban songs, and in Latin American songs, throughout history. So I hope we stop exoticizing Cubans and that Cubans stop holding jazz up to some sort of pedestal and instead we just sort of accept the fact that we both owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the cataclysm of the slave trade. And that’s really where we begin to level the playing field. At the root of all of this is Afro-Yoruban rhythms that really shaped everything from hip-hop to reggaeton to salsa to jazz.
What would you like to see for Cuba and for the U.S.?
Cubans are modern; they’re vibrant, they’re at the apex of many of the arts – some of the best dancers on the planet, some of most consummate composers, world class pianists, actors, choreographers. I mean, [it’s not] cigar-chomping, fatigue-wearing, 1957 Chevy-driving — the way that a lot of people would like to look at Cuba. I would like for Cuba to stop being seen as the nostalgic playground of the 1950’s [and] to be accorded its full weight as a modern and relevant people: relevant to us and relevant to the world.
What I would like for the U.S. is a wish list that’s three miles long. I love this country. I love my block. I love Brooklyn. I love walking out and seeing Muslim people next to Orthodox Jewish people, next to gay people, next to straight people, next to women, next to men, next to old, next to young, next to poor, next to rich. That to me is the United States and it looks like that sometimes in Cuba. But I wish that that part of the United States would look the same way throughout the United States … That everywhere in this great land of ours, people would embrace that kind of difference and diversity and not fear it.