Elio Villafranca: In step with time – past, present and future

Elio Villafranca 01

It is three days before my scheduled interview with the musician and pianist Elio Villafranca. I have long been fascinated by his ferocious talent—indeed his genius—not only as a pianist, but also for the depth of his musicianship. Mr. Villafranca is subsumed by the Afro-Caribbean tradition. His knowledge and love for the music of his ancestors has led him to acquire a deep knowledge of the history not only of Cuban music, but also of its African roots as well. His music has been informed by a unique perspective of the tradition to which he is so inextricably linked. He performs like a man possessed. His music bristles with genius. He continuously takes the road less travelled. As a result his performances unfold with dramaturgy that is so new that listeners and audiences are often left breathless… even speechless. And understandably so… you become drawn into his performances… his virtuosity is riveting and once you are sucked in his brilliance knocks the wind out of you as his takes possession of your very soul. I too am mesmerised by Elio Villafranca.

Elio Villafranca and the Jass Syncopators - Caribbean TingeI have long since been studying the Afro-Caribbean tradition and continue to be stunned by the fact that as I listen to the music of Elio Villafranca I constantly discover something new. As a performer—live or on record—he has certain qualities that are very special, aside from the fact that he has a sovereign “voice” that is instantly recognisable from the first note he plays. That is always necessary for a musician approaching greatness. Sometimes it takes a few lines to identify a pianist and his compositions. With Elio Villafranca it takes a few seconds. His technique is unassailable; his work distinctive. People talk of him today in awestruck tones. His “voice” has grown as his career and technical accomplishment has progressed as has the brilliance of his writing. And he has mastered the higher reaches of the Afro-Caribbean tradition like few of his peers. There is an intensity to his performance that marks his music-making with a spiritual dimension. This glows through in his work. He thrills with his virtuosity, his dynamics and the colour palette that he uses. This is a sheer gift. Nothing can make those particular qualities and the thrill of listening to him bring all of it to bear in expressions of wounded pride, hurt, sorrow and unfettered joy. The experience is literally coruscating.

Elio Villafranca 05When we speak, I am eager to understand the significance of his latest record, the Caribbean Tinge and even more than that, the intriguing name of his latest ensemble. I discover that it is something he has thought of and approached in line with the tradition to which he sees himself belonging. He sees himself, not only as steeped in Afro-Caribbean music, but in Jazz as well. I get my cue from this. I ask him where the title of his band, and the music on his recording, Caribbean Tinge come from. His answer tells me what I sense: that he digs deep into Jazz as well. He goes back right to Jelly Roll Morton and early Duke Ellington (Serenaders aka “The Coloured Syncopators”)—a combination of “Jass” and “syncopation”. This is clear from the rhythmic majesty of the music. But deep into the tradition that it is, it is far forward-looking. It brings alive the unfettered celebrations of Congo Square and the streets of Cuba at Carnival time. It revels in the joyous music and dance of free men. It swings with rhythmic intensity and soars with melodic and harmonic invention. And it sounds authentically “Jazz” and authentically “Afro-Caribbean” as well. And it is not only the compositions, but the composition of the very musicians who perform them.

Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
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.

More from author

Related posts


Featured Posts

Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums: A Film by Soren Sorensen

Anyone approaching this film about the iconic Cuban composer and pianist Omar Sosa, by the award-winning filmmaker Soren Sorensen will be almost immediately struck...

Danilo Pérez featuring The Global Messengers: Crisálida

Danilo Pérez began forming his worldview - and aligning his music to it - ever since he came under the sphere of influence of...

The Feeling Messengers, Past and Present (Part II)

Miguelo Valdés & The New Messengers Of Feeling Miguel Valdés, or “Miguelo”, as he has since become known, was born in the province of La...

The Feeling Messengers, Past and Present (Part I)

Preamble Within the current renaissance of popular Cuban music, coupled with the seemingly eternal presence of its first cousin American Jazz, we are once again...

In Conversation with Carlos Cippelletti

Pianist, composer and arranger Carlos Cippelletti, is a promising young Spanish, Franco-Cuban artist from the last generation of Afro-Cuban jazz musicians born outside the...

Celebrating Jane Bunnett: Spirits of Havana’s 30th Anniversary

After dark they gather, the spirits of Havana. Is that a ghostly, but fatback-toned rapping down in the barrio where the great composer and...

Piazzolla Cien Años: Lord of the Tango@100

There is a now famous photograph of the great Ástor Piazzolla that is iconic for so many reasons. Chief among them is the manner...

Omara Portuondo, Multifaceted Gem of Cuban Music

My moon app announces that in 14 hours the Supermoon of May will be here. During a full moon I often get inspired to...

Ray Barretto · Barretto Power

Barretto Power: A Celebratory Reissue on its 50th Anniversary It was 1970 when Fania Records released Barretto Power, one of a series of seminal albums...

El Gran Fellové: Part 3- When my Parents…

When my parents bought their home in 1968, Sunset Beach was just another sleepy little beach town It spanned about one mile in length, sandwiched...

Join our mailing list

Participate in contests, giveaways and more