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In Conversation with Multi-percussionist, Composer, Arranger, Producer, Educator Fran Vielma

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Fran Vielma by Herman Berney

Fran Vielma has toured around the continent with his star-studded Venezuelan Jazz Collective. His latest release Tendencias includes Vielma’s original works and arrangements featuring Miguel Zenón, Michael Rodríguez, and Luis Perdomo. It was included in the Best of 2018 lists by Downbeat, Latin Jazz Network, & NYC Jazz Record.

As an in-demand performer, he has shared stages around the world with John Medeski, George Garzone, Paul Winter, Simon Phillips, Antonio Sánchez, Miguel Zenón, Sean Jones, Michael Rodríguez, Mango Blue, Eguie Castrillo, Chuchito Valdés, Los Van Van, Yoruba Andabo and Luis Enrique to name a few. He’s a current member of César Orozco & Kamarata Jazz and has been featured in two releases.  

Vielma is currently a Jazz Department Faculty of Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and has been World Music faculty at Salem State University, MA, artist resident at Florida University, Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, Baltimore School of Arts, and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra among others. Additionally, he directs the Hidden Treasure Music Workshop.

 Fran Vielma endorses Meinl Percussion, Vater Drums Sticks, Istanbul Mehmet Cymbals and Africatedra Venezuelan Percussion.

Fran Vielma by Lorena Salcedo

Tell me about your beginnings in music. When and how did you start being interested in percussion?

I started at the age of 10 singing in the Children’s Choir of the Andes University and studying Venezuelan cuatro and theory at the School of Music of the Arts Center of the same University in Mérida, Venezuela. When I reached adolescence I began to study complementary piano, classical percussion, Caribbean percussion and mandolin.

I was very lucky to be exposed to different instruments at the Music School of the The Andes University Arts Center (CUDA), since many of my classmates in the Children’s Choir played one or two instruments, and in many cases some percussion.

At the age of 13, while studying classical percussion and piano, I asked the brother of one of my classmates from music school who played congas to give me private lessons.

My mother – Maritza Vielma, who always wanted me to be a pianist, was not very convinced when I told her that I liked percussion better… However, after a short time, seeing my seriousness in the matter, she decided to buy me my first congas. One day she even brought me a newspaper clipping announcing the first international percussion festival of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, and he told me: “check this Francisco, because you should be at this event.”

So, at the age of 18, I went alone to Caracas for the first time to attend the aforementioned festival where I met several of my idols, such as the drummer legend Arístides Soto “Tata” Güines, and the masters Giovanni Hidalgo, Carlos “Nené” Quintero, and Frank “El Pavo” Hernández, among many other prominent percussionists on the Venezuelan music scene.

The various traditional and avant-garde proposals, not only from Venezuela but also from neighboring countries present at this festival, convinced me to move to Caracas to deepen my percussion studies with international musicians.

When and how did you start your musical studies formally in Venezuela?

My formal music studies began at the age of 10 thanks to my Mother, who encouraged me to enroll in the School of Music of the Arts Center of the Andes University. Later, I decided to join the Youth Symphony Orchestra in Mérida, and then I continued my studies, this time in classical composition, at the Experimental University of the Arts in Caracas and Afro-Caribbean percussion at Cátedra Libre de Percusión de Caracas.

Additionally, from the beginning I was in contact with traditional Venezuelan music. For several years I was part of the Ensemble Kimbandú, with which I made research trips on Afro-descendant music from various regions of Venezuela. I was also part of the Mérida State Venezuelan music student group, and groups of aguinaldos and gaitas, with which I was performing Christmas repertoire. And before moving to the States, I was a founding member of the contemporary Venezuelan music collective: Movida Acústica Urbana.

My connection with Afro-Caribbean popular music came from my participation in different groups of Cuban son, salsa, and Dominican merengue from the local scene of Mérida and Caracas.

Fran Vielma by Herman Berney
Fran Vielma by Herman Berney (bassmintphoto inc)

Now we jump to Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. What is the importance of this training in your musical and artistic career?

Deciding to go to study at a university abroad, especially in the United States, required great financial, logistical, and personal planning for me.

I was fortunate to receive a partial scholarship to complete my degree in music at Berklee College of Music, but unfortunately it did not cover all my expenses, and my family did not have the resources to support me. So, for a year I collected a large part of the money from the tours, from my salary as a teacher at Taller de Jazz Caracas, and from the sale of most of my instruments to be able to take my flight to Boston.

Once at Berklee I had incredible mentors like Jamey Haddad, Bertram Lehmann, Casey Scheuerell, Terry Lyne Carrington, Dave Johnson, Jackson Schultz, Randy Felts, among others, who greatly influenced my development as a person, artist, and educator.

Then came my stint at the New England Conservatory of Music, where I completed a master’s degree in jazz studies. In fact, this was the institution where I wanted to study since I started planning my move to the United States, however, I always knew that Berklee would make my path to it easy.

At the NEC, I dedicated myself to developing my artistic discourse and vision as an educator under the mentorship of Ken Schaphorst, Billy Hart, Bob Moses, Frank Carlberg, and Jerry Bergonzi among others. I led the ensemble of the Jazz Department Ambassadors, and with them I participated in the International Jazz Festival in Panama, and traveled to Venezuela to take part in a jazz seminar that I produced in conjunction with the Venezuelan-American Center, and the University of the Andes, VE.

Then come the recognitions and projects commissioned by prestigious organizations such as Chamber Music America…

Last year I was awarded the New Jazz Works Grant from Chamber Music America, to compose a suite that I am currently working on. In this work, I want to make a small sample of the relationship between Venezuelan music and that of various neighboring countries, both in the southern cone and in the Caribbean. The suite is called “Common Grounds” and will be premiered in November of this year at the renowned SFJAZZ in the city of San Francisco.

Prior to this, in 2019 I had the honor of being part of the first promotion of artists awarded with the South Arts Jazz Roads Grant, which allowed me to tour the Caribbean and the United States, and to show on different stages and locations my vision about Venezuelan Jazz with my all-stars Venezuelan Jazz Collective. This attracted the attention of the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities, which has awarded me the Artist Fellowship on two occasions to develop different composition projects, in the educational area, participation in festivals and conferences, and more recently the creation of my Jazz Orchestra with which I pay tribute to Pan-American jazz alongside world-class musicians based in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Fran Vielma and his Venezuelan Jazz Collective: Tendencias
Fran Vielma and his Venezuelan Jazz Collective: Tendencias

Now tell me about your album Tendencias and about the Venezuelan Jazz Collective. How was the experience, the process of conceptualization, creation and the recording of this important project?

In Venezuela I was already working with my group Nuevas Almas on the fusion of elements of the country’s music with jazz, and of course with what is known as Latin Jazz or more widely called Pan-American Jazz.

And moving to Boston in 2010, I wanted to continue to develop this. Composing the music for Tendencias took several years to materialize and take shape on an aesthetic level, as I have set out to explore things in the composition not only of jazz, but also of academic music of the 20th century, and especially in the way of presenting them together with the Venezuelan genres.

In 2015, I invited Venezuelan artists and artists from other countries to New York, mostly based in the US, who had a solid background in the traditional language of jazz and, at the same time, knowledge of Afro-diasporic music from the continent. For the rhythm section, I invited the Venezuelans Roberto Koch on double bass, Pablo Bencid on drums, and Luis Perdomo and César Orozco on piano and Rhodes. In metals, Michael “Mike” Rodríguez on trumpet (Cuban/Ecuadorian), Miguel Zenón on alto sax (Puerto Rican), and Ángel Subero on trombone (Venezuelan). Each one in their corner have developed outstanding careers worldwide, within contemporary jazz and classical music, as well as growing up with strong exposure to the music of the Americas.

Tendencias came out in 2018 and was very well received by specialized critics, and was among the best releases of the year in Downbeat Magazine, Latin Jazz Network and New York City Jazz Records, being an independent production.

Tell me about the members of the band and how you work with them to carry out your musical work…

As they say out there, music is not only the art of combining sounds, but also schedules… And in the event that the schedules do not coincide, I have a list of colleagues of the highest artistic level who identify with my aesthetic search, and have great human quality. The most frequent on our tours today are Santiago Bosch on piano, Peter Slavov or Gabriel Vivas on acoustic bass, Pablo Bencid or Tiago Michelin on drums, Alex Norris or Sean Jones on trumpet, Antonio Orta, Román Filiú or Erena Terakubo on alto sax, and Marshall Gilkes or Jacob Garchik on trombone.

Let’s talk about your international projection, the invitations to participate in jazz festivals… what events do you remember in particular?

In 2019 I was with the VJC at the Puerto Rico International Percussion Festival. This presentation was of great relevance, since it was a jazz group fused specifically with elements of Venezuelan music and drums. The rest of the groups that performed were more related to popular Latin jazz, despite the fact that Puerto Rico has a wide variety of musical genres and instruments.

Then, before the pandemic (January 2020), I was with the collective at the renowned Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana, Cuba, and this has definitely been a milestone in my career as a bandleader. This festival is one of the oldest in the continent and through which very important icons of the genre have passed. We had two presentations, Casa de la Cultura Plaza and Jardines del Teatro Mella, in the latter -a full house- we alternated with the renowned group “Yoruba Andabo,” who showed great interest and appreciation for my musical proposal.

Fran Vielma by Herman Berney (bassmintphoto inc)
Fran Vielma by Herman Berney (bassmintphoto inc)

How has the covid-19 crisis affected you? What has this terrible experience left you? Is there something positive that you can value?

I think that like many colleagues, the pandemic and its ravages had several phases. For me, the most representative was reflection and valuing the moments and experiences lived both professionally and personally. There were many icons and loved ones who unfortunately did not survive the pandemic, and others who are still struggling to survive it.

For a moment I thought that we were not going to present ourselves in front of the public again and the financial needs were a factor of anguish and restlessness.

Among the positive things is the support that arose from different organizations for independent workers or artists. I believe that these aids or emergency funds obtained should be better valued and rewarded by our community once we are stabilized in our fields, since a situation like this could repeat itself.

Another positive thing is that technology boomed, and although these tools had been around for a while in our daily lives, in many cases we hadn’t exploited them. Thanks to these tools, I participated and produced several videos together with my colleagues, I developed a series of talks with renowned artists, I did a residency and presented a virtual concert with the Venezuelan Jazz Collective at Salem State University, MA from Maryland, I participated in the Jazz Education Network Conference, and I was invited as professor of the jazz department of the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

What are your projects right now and for the near future?

As I mentioned before, I am in the process of researching and composing the Chamber Music America commission, which will be premiered at SFJazz on November 3, 2022 together with the Venezuelan Jazz Collective featuring Santiago Bosch on piano, Peter Slavov on bass, Tiago Michelin on drums, Sean Jones on trumpet, Roman Filiú on alto sax and Jacob Garchik on trombone, plus a special guest on vocals. In addition to this, we are coordinating other presentations in the western US that include the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and Sam First in Los Angeles, and The 1905 in Portland among others to be confirmed.

I am also working on the music of my Jazz Orchestra making a tribute to contemporary Pan-American jazz with which I will perform on September 26, 2022 during the Hispanic Heritage Celebration at the famed Blues Alley in Washington, DC. In turn, we have been in residence once a month at the local Mr. Henry’s since December 2021. I plan to take this group to different stages around the world.

How was your recent concert at Dizzy’s Club, Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC?

This concert was planned for 2020, so I really appreciate that they rescheduled this date in May 2022. It was a great honor to have brought the Venezuelan Jazz Collective to what is perhaps the most important temple of jazz in the world today. There I presented not only my original music, but also a small tribute with my arrangements of the Venezuelan songbook with the singer and flutist Jeremy Bosch as a special guest. The musicians who accompanied me were Santiago Bosch on piano, Dan Martínez on acoustic bass, Tiago Michelin on drums, Alex Norris on trumpet, Erena Terakubo on alto sax and Marshall Gilkes on trombone. I hope to be able to return to this wonderful setting soon.

Fran Vielma by Herman Berney (bassmintphoto inc)
Fran Vielma by Herman Berney (bassmintphoto inc)

Founder, Editor, Webmaster: Latin Jazz Network, World Music Report, That Canadian Magazine. A passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts based in Toronto, Canada.

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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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