Elio Villafranca: Epic Journey in search of Cinque

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Elio Villafranca: Epic Journey in search of Cinque
Photograph by Kasia Idzowska

There has always been a healthy restlessness to Elio Villafranca. When I spoke to him in February 2015 he was about to debut a new suite with a group he called The Jass Syncopators, in honour of the broad musical heritage into which he had been born. The music of the album Caribbean Tinge (Motéma Music, 2015) was first performed and recorded live from Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. The excitement in his voice was palpable. His research had taken him to fine islands, each with a unique Afro-Caribbean influence, one that was part of his own musical DNA, growing up in Cuba.

But there were much larger forces at work even then. At least that’s what he told me. These forces turned out to be his quest to discover and re-tell – in music – the story of Joseph Cinque, the legendary slave-turned-mutineer who seized the ship La Amistad, commandeered away from Cuba in an attempt to steer it back to Africa, but who was tricked into going to America, where he was arrested and tried for mutiny. Cinque’s polarising trial drew in the advocacy of former U.S. President John Quincy Adams who, together with Roger Sherman Baldwin, was critical to the Cinque’s and the rest of the African mutineers’ defense. In a landmark ruling the court ordered the Cinque and the other Africans freed and returned to Africa, if they wished. This decision was against the protests of President Martin Van Buren, who worried about relations with Spain and implications for domestic slavery. Cinque and the other Africans reached their homeland in 1842.

It is now June 2018 and Mr Villafranca’s dream of re-telling the epic story of Joseph Cinque has finally come to fruition in an masterfully produced two-disc, five movement magnum opus. It is a composition – and a performance – that will go down in the history as one of the most important works in contemporary music. Mr Villafranca is currently working on putting together a large ensemble which will no doubt comprise many of the musicians who have performed on this recording and will undertake a Cinque World Tour. The group will take Cinque all the way to Australia. Meanwhile, Mr Villafranca is fulfilling a busy schedule at home in the US. He took some time off from preparations that he was making to travel to the West Coast, to answer a few questions about his epic project. Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

Raul da Gama: When did you start thinking of Cinque? When was the idea first born?

Elio Villafranca A long time ago, actually. Cinque is just a portion of a larger picture. Ever since I came to this country, I made it my mission to share the richness not only of my culture but the entire Afro Caribbean culture. I began researching and documenting different traditions from all over the Caribbean particularly those of Tambor Yuka, Congolese traditions from my hometown San Luis in Pinar del Rio, Cuba. I’m talking about nearly 15 years of research! Then in 2012, inspired by reading about the Cinque’s revolt over the ship La Amistad I wrote “Troubled Waters” as part of a commission piece by Jazz at Lincoln Center. This piece was premiered that same year at the Appel Room (in Jazz at Lincoln Center) with the Nuevo Jazz Latino, a group created by the producer of this album Jason Olaine. The success of this piece inspired me to write a more complete story about Cinque. I wanted to describe his life musically, from his birth as a free man, to his capture before he was sent to Cuba, and later from when he led the revolt over La Amistad while on his way to a sugar plantation after being sold as a slave. That became the beginning of my journey to compose this five movement suite.

RdG: Why Cinque? What drew you to his story?

EV: Cinque also means five. Since I (also) wanted to write about five of the most central islands in the Congo legacy in the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Haiti), I used Cinque as the title of the suite. Growing up in my hometown of San Luis, the first time I was exposed to the drum was in a form of Congolese music known as Tambor Yuka. This form of music is very rare in Cuba, and it is only practiced in few towns in the region of Pinar del Rio, such as “El Guayabo” in San Luis where I was born. One of my main purposes was to share this tradition that I was exposed to and others Congolese traditions from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, as seen in the manifested in the aforementioned five islands. Also, what drew me to the story of Cinque was his resilience and determination to fight for his freedom. I then looked at similar stories throughout the Caribbean in order to create the four movements. So, I used Cinque’s name as a symbol of such a display of courage, but I looked at other enslaved people during the brutal time of colonization who, like him, also fought for their freedom, such as Leeward Islands Headman “Cudjoe” the great maroon leader of the Akan people, who led what is known as The First Maroon War against the British colony in 1730; and the Haitian Vodou Mambo High Priest, Dutty Boukman, who presided over the religious ceremony at Bois Caïman (Bwa Kayman) that sparked the 1791 Saint Domingue (current Dominican Republic) slave revolt. To this day, Boukman is recognized by many as the beginning of the so called Haitian Revolution, the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the western hemisphere.

RdG: How did the music come together? It’s not a piano record; it’s truly symphonic.

EV: You are correct! When I wrote this suite I approached it with a classical mindset. Before jazz, I was trained in classical composition by Russian teachers and other Cuban teachers who studied in Russian Conservatories. In other words, I first composed the music as if I was writing a classical piece, considering colours, instrumentation, orchestration, etc. then I worked out the solo sections with the specific soloist in mind, depending of the story.

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