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Elio Villafranca: Epic Journey in search of Cinque

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Elio Villafranca: Epic Journey in search of Cinque
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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Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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Interviews

In Conversation with “Drum Poet” Pazcual Villaronga

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Pazcual Villaronga

PAZCUAL VILLARONGA was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. He attended Haaren High School and New York City Community College and graduated from Hunter College, earning a degree in Communications and a Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education. 

Known as the “Drum Poet,” Pazcual recites poetry while accompanying himself on the congas (often joined by other musicians), creating an innovative fusion of poetry and discussion that takes his verses to a new level. 

Pazcual is the recipient of the Golden and Silver Poet Awards in California and placed third in La Canción Bilingüe – The Bilingual Song Competition in Washington, D.C. He has read poetry at Columbia University, Teachers College, Hunter College, Hostos Community College, Manhattan Community College, and Connecticut’s Housatonic Community College. 

His published works include the highly successful “Caracol” (Poems For The Children), “By The Music Inspired,” “Poet,” “Fire From Hell,” “Compendium,” and “Stereotypes and Cycles.” His most recent collection of poems and CD is titled “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens To Fall.” Pazcual’s work has also appeared in “Around the Mulberry Bush – An Anthology,” “Windfall – An Anthology,” and “Fahari.”

Now retired after over three decades of teaching, Pazcual is preparing several collections of poetry and a children’s book and performs with The Lehman College Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Victor Rendón. 

Pazcual Villaronga and the New Drum Poets: On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
Pazcual Villaronga and the New Drum Poets: On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall

TOMÁS PEÑA: Welcome, Pazcual! Tell me about the project. 

PAZCUAL VILLARONGA:  “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” is my salute to the musicians and their creative souls. Also, to the percussive rhythms and melodies, they share with us each and every time they perform. Also, it is my way of sharing with the world, through poetry, how they inspire me and the power and beauty of their musical creations.

TP: Thank you for sharing an advance copy of the book and CD with me and for taking me on a fascinating bilingual literary and aural journey. Before we delve into the project, I’m curious to know what drew you to poetry and the spoken word.

PV: Growing up, I was shy and introverted. Poetry was my way of expressing myself. When I was in high school, my friend Jose showed my writings to a teacher (Dr. Richstone) and the teacher replied, “There are better things you could do with your time.” Undaunted, my friend showed my writings to another teacher (Mary Lamboss), and she said, “You are the Poet Laureate of Harren High School!” Later, I formed the “Drum Poets” and began reciting poetry with percussion and music.

TP: How did the project come about, and why did you choose this title?

PV: It began with Víctor Rendón’s “Fiesta Percusiva” (2008), where I recited the poems “Soy Chicano” and “In the Pocket.” Shortly after, Victor appeared on José “Joe” Massó’s “Con Salsa!,” who played selections from the album on the air. He encouraged me to “make more music like this.” Shortly after, Víctor asked if I was interested in pursuing the project, and I immediately said, “Yes!” Victor Rendón agreed to produce the record with the following conditions: Trust him implicitly and don’t breathe a word about it to anyone until the project is completed. The rest is history!

The title, “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall,” is inspired by trumpeter John Walsh, who composed the song “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall” (the tune appears on Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band’s “Paradise in Trouble”) and whose philosophy is, “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall, musicians must answer the call and give their all.” Walsh’s philosophy resonates with me because it applies to poets and creative souls who must be in the moment when the muse appears.

The New Drum Poets: Paz Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzó, Victor Rendón and Wilson "Chembo" Corniel
The New Drum Poets: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzó, Victor Rendón and Wilson “Chembo” Corniel

TP: The recording contains a collection of your poems set to music: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, Jazz, and Latin Jazz and features an impressive lineup: Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Louis Bauzo, Yasuya Kimura, Mike Viñas, Amy Quint Millan and José Luis Armengot. Additional guests include Andrea Brachfeld, Henry Brun, Ariel De La Portilla, and Roman Diaz (see below for specifics). Tell me about the poem, “Right Pocket/Left Pocket.”

PV: My mother was concerned about my dad, who drank excessively and played pool at a local social club. She asked me to check on him and bring him home. When I arrived, my father was intoxicated and staggering. Shortly after, a neighborhood hustler and “aprovechao” (exploiter) named Chano challenged my father to a game of pool. My father immediately asked me, “How much money do you have?” And demanded I give it to him. Then, miraculously, he took a breath and straightened up. After that, it was “right pocket, left pocket!” Long story short, my father and I left the social club fifty dollars richer! When Victor and I arranged the tune, he had just acquired a set of “timbalitos” (9-1/4 and 10-and 1/4 timbales), which have a very distinct sound. If you listen closely, you will hear Victor mimic the sound of the cue ball striking the billiards.

TP: Your words conjure up images. I felt like a fly on the wall! I also enjoyed the poem, “El Chembito,” where percussionist Wilson “Chembo” Corniel masterfully accompanies you. 

PV: The poem was born while listening to Chembo’s solo on the tune “Lagos” which appears on Victor Rendon & the Bronx Conexion Latin Jazz Big Band’s “True Flight” (2016). I realized that in Chembo’s hands and in the hands of the masters, you feel and hear the connections between past and present and are privy to a glimpse of the future. Chembo has a way of taking you along for the ride as he time travels between rhythms, feelings, and emotions! His hands never falter, and his ideas are always fresh!

TP: The poem, “I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)” talks about a unique experience you shared with trumpeter José Luis Armengot onstage.

PV: Yes, Jose was standing to my right, and he was soloing on the tune “Fragile.” I turned to Jose; he was wearing dark glasses and leaning back like Miles used to, and I saw Miles! At the time, I was not aware that Jose idolized Miles. Later, I read the poem to Jose and I said, “You are Miles!”

TP: Tell me about the poem, “In the Pocket.”

PV: The poem is inspired by Omar Castaños, who said, “Some musicians express themselves and don’t say a lot. But every once in a while, you will find an artist who sits in the pocket, and everything is pushed away. I saw it happen when the masterful Luis Bauzo took a solo at “Gonzalez y Gonzalez” (NYC) in front of a packed house and stopped the room. The poem was born at that moment!

TP: The poems mentioned earlier are examples of what listeners and readers can expect. There is much more to savor! The CD and book will be released on December 1, 2022. Is there a CD Release Party or a live performance in the works? 

PV: We have yet to set a specific date, but, yes, it is in the works. 

TP: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” will be available at: http://amazon.com via https://cdbaby.com, and all the major digital streaming, and download sites (iTunes, Spotify, etc.). Also, readers can listen to and download the CD on Pazcual Villaronga’s Website: http://conceptovillapaz.com.

TP: Closing thoughts?

PV: If I have touched you with one word, phrase, or poem, I have done my job as a poet!

TP: Indeed, you have! “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” recalls the writings of the Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, playwright Tato Laviera, activist, journalist, media personality Felipe Luciano, and Latina poet Sandra Maria Estevez, among others. Rarely has the spoken word, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, and Latin Jazz come together as organically and beautifully as it does on this exciting and innovative project. Highly recommended!

The Original Drum Poets: Jorge Alicea, Davis Alicea, Roxanna Rodriguez, Pazcual Villaronga, Ray Alicea, and Omar A. Castaños
The Original Drum Poets: Jorge Alicea, Davis Alicea, Roxanna Rodriguez, Pazcual Villaronga, Ray Alicea, and Omar A. Castaños
TRACKS

1. Drummers Prayer
2. By the Music Inspired
3. In the Pocket
4. What Do You Do?
5. El Chembito
6. How Many of Us Listen?
7. Bongo Habla Otra Vez
8. Que No Se Te Olvides
9. Right Pocket/Left Pocket
10. On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
11. I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)
12. Alma Jibarita
13. Puerto Rican Trilogy
14. Puerto Rican Trilogy
15. Puerto Rican Trilogy
16. Speak Easy
17. Soul Riffs
18. Entendian Voz
19. Another Night in Tunisia
20. En Las Manos de Los Maestros
21. Afro, Is That You?
22. Now and Then

THE NEW DRUM POETS

Pazcual Villaronga – Executive Producer, Poetic Voz, Conga and Shekeré
Víctor Rendón – Producer, Drum Set, Timbales, Pailitas, Shekeré, Batá (Okonkolo), Coro
Wilson “Chembo” Corniel – Congas, Batá (Itótele), Guataca, Coro
Louis Bauzo – Bongos, Congas, Barril (Primo), Batá (Iyá), Bonkó Enchemiyá, Güícharo Puertorriqueño, Coro
Yasuya Kimura – Congas, Bongos, 1st and 2nd Cajón, Maraca, Coro

SPECIAL GUESTS

Michael Viñas– Bass
Amy Quint Millan – Piano, Coro
José Luis Armengot – Trumpet

ADDITIONAL GUESTS
  • Andrea Brachfeld – Flute
  • Henry Brun – Conga, Shaker
  • Ariel de la Portilla Acoustic Bass
  • Roman Diaz (Batá and Various Percussion)
  • Diego Lopez (Batá and Various Percussion)
  • Allan Molnar First Marimba
  • Yumi Suehiro Second Marimba
FEATURED PHOTO

LEFT TO RIGHT: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzo, Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel.

POETRY BY PAZCUAL VILLARONGA
  • COMPENDIUM (1991)
  • POETRY (1995)
  • BY THE MUSIC INSPIRED (2002)
  • FIRE FROM HELL (2004)
  • CARACOL – P0EMS FOR CHILDREN (2009)
  • ON WHATEVER DAY SATURDAY HAPPENS TO FALL (2022)
ARTIST WEBSITE
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