To say that Elio Villafranca is a jazz pianist doesn’t quite capture the enormity of what the piano represents to him. For Elio, playing the piano is the embodiment of his soul. It lies at the core of who he is.
In his words, “It’s a liberation, piano is like my other half. It’s true, it’s not a cliché. When I get to play the piano, I feel one half already full, but if I do my things (daily routine) and I haven’t played the piano, I feel completely half empty, unbalanced.”
Elio is quite centered, disciplined and gracious. With years of classical piano training in his homeland, Cuba, and a daily practice routine of at least 4 hours, Elio Villafranca has earned the distinction of being at the vanguard of the current generation of Cuban pianists and musicians developing an international modern jazz sound.
His most recent album, Dos y Mas, is a piano and percussion collaboration with fellow Cuban musician Arturo Stable. Released last year to great critical acclaim, Dos y Mas honors the musical heritages of Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Spain and Cuba.
Elio served as pianist, composer and co-producer for the 2010 Grammy Nominated Best Latin Jazz Album Things I Wanted To Do by Chembo Corniel. He has been lauded for his technical skills. Steve Bryn, a reviewer for the Philadelphia Tribune once wrote, “…Villafranca emotes an expressive, emotional quality enhanced by his technically brilliant approach to the keyboard and his rhythmically complex original compositions…”
His unexpected Grammy nomination brought a new approach and philosophy to his music, ”From that nomination, from that point, I tend to think everything I do is special, whether it’s something that I did, whether it took me 2 minutes or whether it took me a year. Sometimes when something comes quick, you tend to value it less than something you worked on for a long time. At this point, I think I’m going to value everything as it should be. If it comes out of you, it’s special.”
Although Elio’s piano prowess is obvious now, his arrival at the keyboard was not so defined and determined. To the contrary, playing the piano for Elio Villafranca was interestingly enough, accidental.
Growing up in San Luis, a rural town in Cuba’s westernmost province of Pinar del Río, Elio’s family was not musical. His first introduction to music was from the rhythms and sounds emanating from the Casa de Cultura, adjacent to his family’s backyard patio. “I grew up next to the Casa de Cultura, places where anybody can walk in and get an education in music for free. My patio was next to the patio of Casa de Cultura, I could look over the wall and see anything that happened.” Like many Cuban youth, his musical journey began with the drums. Elio enjoyed the percussion but found it difficult to secure a set of drums during school jam sessions.
He explains, “When I was at the school, I’d participate in a jam session but there was only 1 pair of drums at the school and they were always taken. So, I played the piano, eventually I was called to play piano for jam sessions. Then I got a call to do a jam as a piano player, then I realized I had to get serious.”
As Elio’s talent and skills on the keyboard flourished, he left San Luis for Havana to study at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba. After spending his entire life in Cuba, Elio Villafranca relocated to the United States in 1996. He currently resides in New York City.
Despite hundreds of miles separating Elio from his homeland, Cuba is close at heart. His most recent trip home, December 2012, was a personal crusade to document one of the oldest forms of Afro-Cuban music in Cuba – Tambor Yuka.
This centuries old musical tradition, Tambor Yuka, was one of the many sounds Elio heard emanating from the Casa de Cultura and saw performed on the streets of San Luis. In Cuba, Elio says, “We live culturally.” Seemingly, music can be heard on every street corner, plaza, bar and hotel. Music and culture are much more integral parts of daily living than in other countries.
“I grew up listening to these people and seeing them but I didn’t know what it was… I never paid too much attention when I grew up, but this is my tradition, where my ground is,” Elio adds. Tambor Yuka’s sound is centuries old, originating with enslaved Congolese, believed to be one of the largest African ethnic groups brought to Cuba.
Unlike many other Afro-Cuban musical genres, Tambor Yuka has not transformed much over the centuries. Its purity can be attributed in large part to the relative geographical isolation of Pinar del Río. Unlike Cuba’s two larger and better known cities, Havana and Santiago de Cuba, this tobacco growing region welcomes relatively few tourists and visitors, limiting opportunities for outside influences. “What is interesting to me is that until today, it (Tambor Yuka) still seems very old, it hasn’t evolved that much… in the way they construct the drums, the way they dance, in the way they play…”
While the drumming is quite complex, the process of making the drums is relatively simple. Most often, the wood from an avocado tree is used and animal skin is stretched to create the drum’s tone. The drums are not religious and are played at festive celebrations.
Elio credits Tambor Yuka and Cuba’s percussive culture with his style of playing music. “The way I play the tradition, the whole rhythmic concept, the whole approach, came at any early age witnessing these people, I feel like more people need to know about this….There is always a risk, that if (only) a small group of people know about this, the tradition dies off.”
Upon further reflection, Elio says Cuba’s percussive culture explains the following: “Why is it that when I play the piano, not just me, but why is it that when Cubans play the piano it is so percussive?” He believes this approach to music is not just exhibited by piano players but saxophonists and other musicians. “We treat the piano almost as if it were a drum with 88 keys. Coming up with a background like that, there is nothing you can do… We live the music through the drums.”