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Elio Villafranca: Epic Journey in search of Cinque



Elio Villafranca: Epic Journey in search of Cinque
Elio Villafranca: Epic Journey in search of Cinque

The African slave and Amistad mutineer Cinque stands defiant in court. In the foreground, Roger Baldwin whispers to Arthur Tappan; behind them are Simeon Jocelyn and a self-portrait of the artist, Hale Woodruff. Detail from ‘Trial of the Slaves,’ the second panel from Woodruff’s Amistad murals, at Talladega College in Alabama, c1938.

RdG: The music is authentic: African, Afro-Caribbean, Classical and Jazz. How helpful was your classical background in making the music come together in one contiguous whole?

EV: Classical music is always very influential in my work, and so is painting. Although I only painted at a very early age, I always think often of shade, shapes, form, colour, composition, and story. These elements are present not only in painting but in every art form. When I compose it all comes together as a unit. But most importantly as you have rightly determined, I don’t make a distinction between classical music and jazz when it comes to composition.

RdG: The narrative is expertly woven into the music. Was there some inspiration from other epic poetry? (I’m thinking of the Homeric epics really, because the matter of slavery is one that seems like the epic Greek wars – in The Iliad and The Odyssey – that war lasted decades, and slavery now more than four hundred years and counting – if not visible in America, certainly under the radar and elsewhere in the world too).

EV: The narration was created with the music from the very beginning stages of the composition. During the composition period, the suite was playing in my mind like a movie, with music, narration, images, sound effects, and dance. Yes, dance! I always have dance in my mind whenever I’m reflecting on music of the African Diaspora, so I can approach music in a more holistic way. I also did lots and lots of reading, which made it very challenging to choose what information I was going to share without overwhelming the listener or reader. Then I went through a process of trying to find the right voice which could narrate and deliver the information in a meaningful way. I feel blessed with having the voice of Terrance McKnight in this project. I knew Terrance’s work so I asked him by email, not knowing if he even would reply back. He showed a real interest in this project, delivering lines and story with deep emotion and beautiful energy at the studio. He created a truly heartfelt performance.

RdG: Have you published the music? Also have you performed it in any form before?

EV: A few years ago I was invited by Maria Alicia Parkerson to present the first movement of Cinque in Santa Cruz, Bolivia with the Youth Symphony Orchestra from that city, directed by Boris Vásquez. The piece was conducted by guest conductor and violinist Kenneth Sarch and I had the opportunity to invite musicians from the Afro-Bolivian community. To my surprise, a beautiful cultural integration happened during this performance since the Afro-Bolivian musicians had never performed with classical musicians before in a theatre or elsewhere.

RdG: Did Amistad, the Stephen Spielberg film, play any role in the inspiration to write the piece?

EV: Yes, I didn’t know much about the story before the Spielberg movie. The story presented by his movie moved me to investigate more about the Cinque story and to write “Troubled Waters”, which became the third part of the First Movement of Cinque.

RdG: I know that Spielberg took some liberties in telling his story. Did you? Or have you just stuck to the facts?

EV: Before I startet writing the music, I did a lot of research and read a lot of materials related to Cinque. I wanted this project to be as authentic as possible, not only in the historical facts and the music I created, but also in the use of the actual instruments and rhythms from those islands. As I said before, my roots are in Congolese music, so I wanted to focus on different manifestations of this tradition throughout the Caribbean. I was not familiar with the tradition of Congo music in Haiti, so in order to compose the music in the most authentic way, I travelled to that country and visited the Lakou Badjo in All Cap “Cap Haitian” and other Lakous in Limonade, Port au Prince, to experience first-hand their own version of Congo, Rada, and Voodoo religious and music practices. I had also previously visited the island of Puerto Rico to experience their Congo rooted tradition of Bomba. Santo Domingo shares similar Congo traditions with Haiti and Cuba such as Palo, and Palo Muerto, and these research trips provided me with the information to create the musical concept for this project.

Cinque – Movement II “The Capture” with Santa Cruz Symphony Orchestra and Union Afroboliviana

The research materials I shared throughout the suite, makes this project very authentic and unique. For instance, the chant that divides Part II “The Capture” and “Troubled Waters (Part III”, is a rare song from the culture of Gangá, which was originated in the region of Sierra Leone and Liberia, Cinque’s place of birth, and that particular song was according to the two sisters Magdalena Mora Herrera and Eleonor Mora Herrera, a farewell chant that the people in the village sang to those who were captured and forced to board the slave ship. I even travelled to New Haven CT where they have Cinque’s statue and where every summer a replica of the ship La Amistad is stationed in the port of New Haven.

RdG: What was your vision for this composition? How do you hope it will shape modern music?

EV: I wanted for this composition to be different than my previous works, and yet a continuation of my mission or artistic statement, which is to share music in a holistic way, the same way I experienced it growing up in Cuba. In a way I wanted to make this my “requiem,” the piece where I would lay all of my interest and passion in music, jazz, classical music, drumming, history, dance etc. Although dance was not captured in this recording, the dance element presence in each of the styles manifested in this suite was always present during the entire composition process.

In jazz I was traveling from a more traditional to a contemporary sound, integrating everything with my own classical approach to composition. I was also determined to create a project that corrected and broadened the general understanding on Latin jazz and its many ways in which it could be manifested.

RdG: What’s next for this work – in terms of performances? Are there plans to, and the possibility of, taking it on the road? And how do you think you’ll accomplish it seeing as it requires a large ensemble?

EV: At the moment I’m working on a Cinque World Tour, starting in Australia with the collaboration of a great group of Australian musicians and dancers, led by saxophonist Gai Bryant, one of the leading voices in the jazz and Latin jazz community in Australia. Cinque will be performed at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia in September 7 and 8, in Sydney University on September 11 and Eternity on September 12. Cinque will be also premiered in Guadalajara, Mexico in November 7th, but this time I will bring my entire band plus Jon Faddis as a guest. I’m also working on presenting this suite one more time in NYC. Not sure on what stage yet but, I would like to do it at a place where the suite can be presented at its fullest potential, that is with music, dance, video, and narration included.

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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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