A product of Cuba's incomparable (and essentially tuition-free) music education program, pianist-composer- percussionist Elio Villafranca joined the jazz faculty this fall. One of his typically border-bending compositions, Cinqué: Suite of the Caribbean—a fusion of jazz with Congolese rhythms, melodies, and dances from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica—premiered in February at Jazz at Lincoln Center. In the fall, Elio will be the soloist in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, when the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil under conductor Kenneth Sarch (B.S. and M.S. '66, violin) performs the work. In 1996, Elio was invited to teach in Philadelphia as a result of his work at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, where he taught freshmen— and visiting Europeans and Americans. Now a resident of Riverdale, Elio is also on the faculty of the Esther Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University.
Tell us about where you're from.
I was born in San Luis, a small town in Cuba about 100 miles west of Havana. The region is full of tobacco plantations—you can smell the scent of dry tobacco leaves for miles—but although my hometown is famous for Cohiba cigars, what makes it very special is how the Congolese percussion tradition of tambor yuka is still alive and heard in the streets. This is one of the largest drums in Afro-Cuban music—it's made from hollow avocado trunks with a sheepskin nailed to the side, and it's tuned and tightened with fire.
How did you come to be a musician?
Although I'm considered a jazz musician, my training was mainly in classical music. I began taking guitar lessons when I was 7, and later became interested in percussion and then piano. I went through the 13-year music program in Havana at the Escuela Nacional de Arte and then the Instituto Superior de Arte, where I graduated with a double major in classical percussion and composition with a concentration in piano. At each step of the training, students had to prove themselves worthy of advancement. This all-consuming role of my training in music has indeed shaped who I am today as an artist as well as a person. I cannot imagine a life for myself outside of music.
How do your roles as pianist, percussionist, and composer influence each other?
My approach to each comes out of my classical training and cultural heritage. As a pianist, my rhythmic approach to pianism comes from my roots, training, and exposure to Afro-Cuban music. As a composer, I incorporate techniques in composition from the classical music canon, which I draw on not only when I'm composing, but also when I'm improvising.
Who was the first teacher to have a big influence on you?
I'd say my teacher in composition in Havana, José Loyola, who inspired me to find my voice, which I consider the greatest gift a teacher can offer to a student. I hope to inspire my students to find their own voices in the same way my teacher inspired me.
Recently the U.S. renewed full diplomatic relations with Cuba. What are some pluses and minuses?
I think thawing and opening relations at this time is a much better way [than the U.S. embargo was] to inspire change in Cuban society, and ending the embargo would lessen the possibility of anyone pointing to the U.S. as the reason for Cuban hardships. But while opening up relations has the potential to give Cubans greater access to the world, my biggest concern is how it may dilute the unique musical and cultural roots that have been maintained on the island. For years, one of the most valuable musical jewels of Cuba has been the purity of many cultural traditions inherited during the slave trade. In recent years, there have been noticeable changes in how, for example, the music and religion of Santeria is practiced, and I believe that can likely be attributed to the increased influences of commercialism in contemporary Cuban society. There is much excitement about progress toward more open U.S.-Cuban relations, but for there to be widespread positive impact, the Cuban government must be willing to reform. Without internal reform, only a minority of Cubans will experience change and improvement in their daily lives. People who reside outside of Havana—like my brother, who's a doctor with a salary of approximately $40 a month—won't benefit economically if the government doesn't increase state- paid salaries or allow them to open their own practices.
What are you reading?
For my piece Cinqué, I've been reading Ta Makuende Yaya y Las Reglas de Palo Monte by Natalia Bolivar Arostegui and Carmen Gonzales Diaz de Villega, which is about the instrumentation, language, and symbols of the Reglas de Palo Monte religious practices, some of which come from my hometown. On my way to Bolivia, I'll be reading My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literature, which was edited by John Edgar Wideman.
How do you balance classical and jazz training in your teaching?
To be a good pianist—and I don't mean just a good jazz pianist—it's beneficial to play classical music or at least incorporate some classical elements into your daily practice. Playing classical music helps to develop your technique, sound, speed, discipline, and control. Jazz will give you freedom of expression, but you still need to apply these elements in your solo or ensemble playing. I always encourage my students to listen to and play music from both the jazz cannon and classical repertoire. And so that my students understand it's not just what I say, but how I live, I include Bach, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, and others in my daily practice routine to keep myself challenged and inspired.