Latin workshop w/ pianist Elio Villafranca

This weekend I attended a workshop taught by Elio Villafranca, Reinhardt Melz, and Randy Porter. This was the second workshop at Randy's studio that I've attended, the last one was with drummer Alan Jones. I have played all types of Latin music professionally since I was in college, when I worked with Salsa, Merengue and Cumbia bands. Since then I've worked with Cuban Son, Brazilian, Mambo, Latin-Jazz and Flamenco groups. I have even led Latin-Jazz groups of my own for about five years. During the entire time I've been playing Latin music I've never studied it formally. I still couldn't tell you the exact difference between a Cha-cha-cha and a Mambo, other than tempo. I've just kind of absorbed the music through osmosis, just by playing and listening to it. I always felt that if I knew a little more about the rhythmic structure of different styles then I'd be able to solo better over Latin rhythms. At one time I had even planned to take Latin drum lessons in order to get inside the music more, of course that never happened. As soon as I heard about a workshop being taught by a master Cuban pianist I jumped at the opportunity.

Elio Villafranca
has been described as a 'thinking man's Cuban pianist'. Here what the press has to say about him:

  • “It is not difficult to sort out Villafranca’s musicality, brute force, effervescence, topicality, virtuosic independence, patience, candor, and brazen delicacy… This recording is a welcome relief among both recent jazz and Latin jazz releases and it makes one wonders where Villafranca will go next. Wherever he goes, one must follow.”All About Jazz

  • Elio Villafranca fits the mold set by Ruben Gonzales and those Cuban pianist before him, but you never doubt his originality. [Incantation/Encantaciones] is an adventurous study of feelings. Until you see Villafranca perform, with eyes zonked out in contemplation of the keys, you may not put him in the same serious light as Monk, Corea or Mingus, but he warrants the comparison.Splendid Reviews
Elio began the workshop by giving us a nutshell history of Cuban music. He talked about the two different types of claves, the Son clave and the Rhumba clave. For many years there very two very different and separate types of music being played in each of Cuba's two main cities, Havana and Oriente. There was practically no musical interchange between these two cities until a troop trade happened in 1909 when soldiers brought the clave to Havana, which was a major element of the musical styles for Oriente, the Nengon, Changui and Araqua. Up until that point the Son had no clave in it's makeup at all. This new style of Son was called Son Montuno.

The clave became the element that held this new music together and still permeates Cuban music to this day. Elio said that Americans are always asking,"Where's one?!", but for Cubans the only important question is," Where is the clave?". For many years the clave was the ever present immovable and always expressed form that everything else was dependent on. In more modern Cuban styles the clave has become more flexible and not always overtly expressed.
Elio also talked about the brother of the clave, the Cascara, which always went with it.

From Son Montuno came Cha-cha-cha, Mambo, Songo and many other shorter lived styles of music. Everyone was trying to innovate new styles of music and there were countless styles that immediately faded into obscurity. Each style was always introduced with a new dance that went with it. People had to really like the new dance and the new style of music for the musical innovation to have any staying power.

Elio said that it's always hard for him to readjust when he goes back to Cuba because the music is changing so fast there. Here in the States we are still stuck playing the Cuban music of forty or fifty years ago. In Cuba they have moved on to a new hybrid called Timba. Timba was developed in the early 70's mainly by a band called Los Van Van. Timba was even more syncopated than Son Montuno, though it stressed down beats much more. Los Van Van started incorporating more American Funk and Fusion rhythms, using drum machines and relying more on the drum set. While some elements of Timba were straighter then Son, element like the bass lines and piano montunos became much more complex and syncopated. Instead of the piano montunos just repetitively outlining chord changes they became much more melodic and displaced. Elio had the students play some of these Timba claves, breaking the class up into bass lines and upper lines. We got to blow over these Timba montunos also. They felt much different than the more predictable Son montunos, more syncopated and more composed sounding, at the same time you could imagine a straight 16th Funk groove being played over them.

Elio really encouraged us to get inside the clave, to play off the rhythms that were being played.
"Don't be afraid of Clave, it is your friend!", Elio told us. This was just what we needed to hear.
So often as Jazz players when Cuban music gets too complex as we're blowing over it we tend to just sail right over the top of everything with 8th note lines, as if we're playing Bop. We need to carefully listen to everything that is happening rhythmically while we're playing and react to it. You can't just pay attention to any one part or instrument because all the parts are interlocking, together forming a whole rhythmic picture.

Elio suggested some bands for us to check out:
N.G. La Banda
Charanga Havanera
Y Su Trabuco
Paulito F.G.


MonksDream said...

Interesting posting. I wish that I'd have known about the workshop. What is the difference between the Son clave and the Rhumba clave??

I remember going out with a Catalana, who forced me at knife-point (not really...) que "tienes a apprender la Rhumba." It wasn't until I realized that you had to let go of the preternatural yankee 4/4 attitude of where in the hell is one?? to get anywhere.

I realized later that all of her admonitions to make me wipe the grin off of my face, stare straight ahead and not move my upper body were all based around attempts to get me to lead her into the clave.

I've still always thought that if we didn't have these forces of commercial music shoving all of this crap down our throats, the growing Latin population of america might more rapidly inject some more complicated rhythms like those that I grew up with in West Africa, hopefully fomenting the "jes grew" to spread throughout the American population once again (I have to give credit to the novel "Mumbo Jumbo" for this) further liberating people from their xenophobic complacency. But this is probably just my crazy Sunday pipe dream talkin'.

MonksDream said...

I guess I'm just nerding out on this stuff today. I found the following link


will send more.

cheers, Bill

Miguel said...

For a top notch history of Cuban music (which includes excellent analysis of sociopolitical factors as well), pick up Cuba and its Music by Ned Sublette. He starts all the way from 16c Spain and Africa and goes up to mid-20c Cuba. Stops along the include New Orleans. Sublette wrote a masterpiece. His second volume from mid-20c onwards hasn't appeared yet.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Great tip, thanks Miguel.