When Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra travelled to Havana, Cuba in December 2014 to record Cuba: The Conversation Continues, something nearly miraculous happened: President Obama unexpectedly announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, and plans for the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century. It was time, the President proclaimed, to reignite the conversation between the two long-estranged nations.
Just as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong trumpeted liberty abroad during the Cold War, Arturo O’Farrill’s efforts are a symbol of the new political current. O’Farrill is a modern day “jazz ambassador,” who fought for political normalization between the United States and Cuba through cultural diplomacy long before Obama’s announcement. As the founder and artistic director of the non-profit The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, O’Farrill has been on the ground in Cuba repairing the rupture by promoting a cultural conversation despite political disengagement. O’Farrill and members of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (the resident ensemble of the Alliance) have been traveling between New York City and Cuba for over a decade.
Though he is a frequent Cuba traveler, the announcement was still a surprise: “It was an emotional experience for me, a day that I had hoped would come for years,” says Arturo O’Farrill. He was in Cuba performing with his 18-piece Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Havana International Jazz Festival at the time of Obama’s announcement. In fact, the night before the historic news (Dec. 16), Arturo and his orchestra, alongside several Cuban musicians featured on Cuba: The Conversation Continues, performed at the residency of the U.S. Chief of Mission in Havana.
An auspicious moment in the celebrated pianist’s 30-year career, the recording Cuba: The Conversation Continues is a profound statement that’s a touchstone of diplomatic engagement and cultural healing. For this full-length studio album, O’Farrill enlisted four of today’s premier Cuban composers and six world-class American composers/arrangers, including Bobby Carcassés, Alexis Bosch, Cotó, Michel Herrera, Dafnis Prieto, Michele Rosewoman, Earl McIntyre, Gregg August, Arturo himself and his son, Zack O’Farrill.
Executing such an ambitious project was no easy task. O’Farrill and Executive Producer Kabir Sehgal led a delegation of 58 people to make the recording: 24 musicians, 21 producers, 6 staff, 5 videographers, and 2 photographers traveled to Cuba, permitted by the U.S. Treasury Department. All told, 75 people contributed to making this studio album a reality, including the efforts of co-producers Julian Weller and Eric Oberstein. Recorded at Abdala Studios in Havana, Cuba: The Conversation Continues offers a compelling, forward-looking aesthetic – one based on dialogue and cross-cultural collaboration. With the news of political normalization, the musicians grasped the potential significance of the album – to create a cultural compass to guide future dialogue between the two countries. “There was a sizzle in the studio, and the resulting emotional rush made it onto the album,” says Sehgal.
For O’Farrill, Obama’s announcement had deep, personal significance. His father, the late Latin music legend Chico O’Farrill, was born in Cuba, but was unable to return to the island after the Revolution and he subsequently settled in the U.S. He died in New York in 2001, never seeing his homeland again due to Cold War travel restrictions. Arturo O’Farrill’s longstanding devotion to bringing Cuba and the U.S. closer together through the power of music has garnered utmost praise from The Recording Academy. Twice, in 2009 with Song for Chico and again earlier this year for The Offense of the Drum, his efforts have resulted in winning GRAMMY® Awards in the “Best Latin Jazz Album” category.
Musically, the roots of Cuba: The Conversation Continues stretch back to the collaborations between the American jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban conga virtuoso and composer Chano Pozo. Many jazz historians cite their momentous 1947 meeting and later collaborations as the birth of modern Latin jazz. Now, nearly seven decades later, O’Farrill and a cast of celebrated composers are resuming the conversation between Gillespie and Pozo, bringing it into the present at a pivotal time in U.S. and Cuban history.
“The Chano Pozo-Dizzy Gillespie conversation led to a realization that they had much in common. Both their music originates from Africa.”
Unfortunately, that conversation was interrupted by the diplomatic falling out. “But now we can resume and update their conversation,” notes O’Farrill. “This conversation is at the heart of our album.”
Cuba: The Conversation Continues gives new meaning to the ancient truth about music being a universal language. Gillespie himself spoke of a time when there would be neither “jazz” nor “Afro Cuban” but “universal music.” Arturo fulfills Dizzy’s prophecy of creating such a music, breaking down cultural walls. It turns out that musical borders are man-made, just like geographic and political ones.
Featured Compositions – Cuba: The Conversation Continues
On Cuba: The Conversation Continues, O’Farrill ultimately answers the question, “What would the music have sounded like if Pozo and Gillespie (and we) kept talking with each other?” Judging from the resulting compositions, it would have sounded very diverse, very adventurous, and yet reverent to tradition. The double disc set boasts several standout compositions, including O’Farrill’s masterful four-movement “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” a bold reimagining of Chico O’Farrill’s 65 year-old gem, “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite.” Commissioned by Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater for its own 80th anniversary celebration in May 2014, “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite” is propelled by the extraordinarily soulful virtuosity of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.
O’Farrill notes of the track, “Rudresh is a voice that’s changing jazz, and it’s a voice that many jazz students in Cuba aren’t familiar with. He’s broadening the scope of this music. The jaws of these young musicians drop when they see him play. ‘The Afro Latin Jazz Suite’ is rooted firmly in the work and the vision that my father created.”
Envisioning the future, O’Farrill’s “Vaca Frita” features turntablist DJ Logic, the brilliant saxophonist David DeJesus, and Adam and Zack O’Farrill. For Arturo, the opportunity to work with the next generation of O’Farrills on such a momentous occasion was particularly rewarding.
“Watching my sons interact with their Cuban counterparts was one of the motivations for this album,” Arturo says. “There was such a tremendous respect and love for each other. When I saw them reach across borders, I said, ‘There’s a lesson here for every human, especially for the politicians who have divided our two nations.’”
“El Bombón” is another standout, written by Cotó (Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi). The work is a changüí that deals with a very specific feel and rhythm from Guantánamo. “Second Line Soca (Brudda Singh),” by Earl McIntyre features vocals from Reneé Manning and draws a direct line from Cuba to New Orleans. The cultural exchange between one of America’s most unique cities and the Caribbean island nation 90 miles south of our border goes back centuries.
“The roots of jazz are intertwined between Havana and New Orleans. For 50 years we have been denied an essential nutrient in the development of jazz.”
Finally, Cuba: The Conversation Continues leaves off with “There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park,” an epic 13-minute piece written and conducted by Zack O’Farrill in honor of the great Cuban national hero, and again featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa, along with Arturo on piano and Ivan Renta on soprano sax. With shades of free jazz, this song hints at what the future of Dizzy’s “universal music” might sound like.
Even though there’s been significant political progress in the seven months since the announcement, Arturo urges Americans to act:
“Call your congressman,” says Arturo. “Tell them to lift the embargo. It hasn’t worked during the last 50 years. We need a different approach. This album shows what normalization sounds like: there may be tension and discordance at times, but we still find harmony and resolution. It’s time for the politicians to catch up with the musicians.”