It's their first show as an ensemble, and Elio Villafranca's Latin Superstars are playing Chris' Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia. On "Take the B Train," saxophonist Yosvany Terry unfurls a series of melodic flourishes; pianist Villafranca cranes his dreadlocked head to read the sheet music; drummer Francisco Mela contorts his face in apparent ecstasy. You'd never know the compositions were new. Since their immigration to the United States, the band members have been taking on fresh musical challenges -- new performing opportunities and audiences. That, after all, is why they left Cuba.
"I'd like to introduce the band one last time," Villafranca says, after the final chorus. Having lived in the U.S. for almost a decade, his accent is hardly detectable. "This is the Cuban crew. And over here" -- gesturing to the fair-skinned bassist, Peter Slavov -- "this is the Bulgarian crew." The crowd laughs, most of them college students and young professionals.
Then the band takes its break. Villafranca greets friends and fans. Mela and Slavov take seats at a table by the bandstand. Terry steps out for a smoke.
It's another night of work for the busy expatriates.
Cuban jazz isn't new to this country. Before the Revolution and subsequent closure of borders, American musicians embraced Cuban music. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie famously fused Cuban rhythms with jazz harmony in "Night in Tunisia," starting one of the most important trends in American improvised music. In turn, Cuban musicians introduced American jazz harmony into their repertoires. When the U.S. government declared its embargo in 1961, the influences still seeped across forbidden borders. Invited to Cuba in 1985 under improved relations, Gillespie found a Cuban jazz culture teeming with virtuosity and inventiveness.
In the past 15 years, the Cuban/American musical symbiosis has risen again. In 1990, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was granted political asylum in the United States. In 1995, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba was signed by American jazz label Blue Note and allowed to move with his family to Miami. Then there was 1997's Buena Vista Social Club album, put together by jazz/blues guitarist Ry Cooder. The American brought together music legends from pre-revolutionary Havana for a revival, which, in 1999, was made into a documentary film by director Wim Wenders -- a project that spearheaded the "world music" movement. It was in this flurry of excitement that Latin Superstars Elio Villafranca, Francisco Mela and Yosvany Terry defected from the island.
As fortune would have it, 1996 had seen the introduction of the Cuban Adjustment Act, under which "Cuban nationals or citizens, and their accompanying spouses and children, could obtain a haven in the United States as lawful permanent residents," according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Under the new regulations, Villafranca and his colleagues were able to secure employment-based visas and, after one year, apply for permanent residence in the United States.
"I wanted to see more jazz," Villafranca says. "I wanted to experiment more with my own music." In a Starbucks on Broad Street, an hour before a show, the pianist sips chai tea and reflects on 10 years in the U.S. The new immigrant had no problem adapting to Philadelphia. In the past 10 years, he has composed film scores, toured Europe, Latin America and the United States and taught music courses at the University of the Arts. He attributes his success to the schooling he received on his native island.
"We Latinos have received a meaningful education," Villafranca says. "Because of it, we can play anything."
In Cuba, each province has a full-time vocational school for music. As an adolescent, Villafranca attended the school in Pinar del R‹¨«o, and at 14, was accepted to the highly competitive Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana, where he honed his talent on piano. The education was strictly in European classical music, and many of Villafranca's teachers were Russian virtuosi who didn't speak Spanish. Translators were used to conduct many classes, and improvisation was not part of the curriculum.
"You learn the jazz part whatever way you can," Villafranca says. "You learn on the street."
While completing his education, he performed locally and toured with Havana's most prolific popular musicians, including singer/songwriter Carlos Varela, "the Cuban Bob Dylan." These shows and tours took the once sheltered musician away from Cuba, awakening him to new artistic possibilities.
"I started wanting to do my own music," Villafranca says. By the time he completed his education in Composition at the Instituto Superior de Arte, the pianist harbored ambitions bigger than his native island. Invited to teach in the U.S. by the Asociacion de Musicos Latinoamericanos (Association of Latin American Music, in North Philadelphia), he seized the opportunity.
Living in the U.S., a few events would change Villafranca's positive opinion of Cuba. "I used to defend everything that people would say against Cuba," he says. "I used to say that it was a better system than this country." Seeing American racism and blatant inequality for the first time, Villafranca thought he had been in a better place before.
It's no longer that simple for the musician. Cuba has its own problems, he admits. Villafranca has grown tired of his home country's bureaucratic issues. Three months ago his father died, and the Cuban government wouldn't grant him the necessary stamps in time for the funeral. "Nobody takes responsibility," Villafranca says. "Everybody's afraid to make the wrong decision and lose their job ... afraid of Fidel."
In a separate incident, the pianist boated into the Marina Hemingway with a few American friends, and while the Americans were allowed to explore the island, a guard made sure that Villafranca, the only Cuban passport holder, did not set foot on Cuban soil. He was essentially held captive on the boat for three days. Enraged by the circumstances and without anything else to do, Villafranca composed a short memoir piece entitled "Mi ‹¨«ltima Havana," -- in English, "My Last Havana." Villafranca would never see Cuba the same again.
But it's not just a Cuban problem. It works the other way, too.
For several years, the Bush Administration has denied visas to Latin Grammy nominees from Cuba who wanted to attend the ceremony in Miami. Motives were not cited in the NBC report, but the administration has said that supporting the careers of Cuban musicians helps to support Castro's regime. Among last year's nominees were Guillermo Rubalcaba (father of Gonzalo Rubalcaba) and Ibrahim Ferrer, of Buena Vista Social Club renown, who died later in the year.
Arriving in Philadelphia, Villafranca was motivated by the work ethic of his fellow Cuban expatriate musicians. "There are a lot of us," he says. "We're all pushing really hard. We came here hungry to learn and explore. They think that since you're from Cuba you only play Cuban music. We're not about that."
"The most important thing is that we recognize that we have a lot of things to learn," he says. "We're just trying to share what we know."
Villafranca plays every gig he can, including jobs that have nothing to do with Latin music. He recently performed as a sideman on a straight-ahead jazz album with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. "I wanted to stretch," Villafranca says. "I don't want audiences to think that I only play Latin Jazz."And the jazz scene here has always been hospitable to musicians of any background, as long as they have the talent.
Villafranca remembers meeting American jazz guitarist Pat Martino. Martino is a hard bop legend whose style couldn't be more different from Villafranca's. Martino was playing Chris' Jazz Cafe, and Villafranca was in the audience. Martino played an original composition called "El Hombre," and it captured Villafranca's attention.
"I told him, 'Pat I really liked that piece.'"
The simple comment, it turned out, was the beginning of an important musical friendship. Martino later gave Villafranca the sheet music to his composition. And when the pianist recorded his first album, Encantaciones, he took a chance and telephoned Martino to perform on the track. A year and several encounters later, Martino invited Villafranca to join him on his European tour.
That's how easy the exchange can be in the Philadelphia jazz scene.
"There are few people left in Cuba from my generation of musicians," Villafranca says. "I'm more likely to find my friends elsewhere than in Cuba. My generation is touring all over the place. Last year I was in Europe, and everywhere I went there was somebody I knew."
Percussionist Al Aguilera plays with Villafranca on Wednesdays at Philadelphia's Alma de Cuba, on Walnut Street. The musician has been in the U.S. since 1983, but he still remembers growing up in Buena Vista. "I used to run away from the house and go to the clubs and just listen," Aguilera says. The elder Cuban celebrates the fusion of his traditional rhythms with Villafranca's progressive harmonies.
But Aguilera's experience of Cuba was harsher than that of the younger Villafranca. "In Cuba they didn't let you express yourself fully," he says. "You have to say what the government wants you to say. If you express an interest in American music, you might cause trouble. But even under that condition ... I wanted to play jazz."
With family already in the U.S., Aguilera never had to think hard about leaving. "I wanted to get together with my mother after 20 years," he says. She was living in Philadelphia.
"And I think I got out of the country at the right time," he says.
From there, the goateed drummer tells his story with photographs. In each of the photos, Aguilera poses, always a smile, with one or another Cuban musical giant. In a picture snapped at Alma de Cuba: Al Aguilera, drummer Ignacio Berroa (from Dizzy Gillespie's final band), Elio Villafranca and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Grammy-winning pianist). In another photo: members of the Buena Vista Social Club.
"I knew them from Cuba," Aguilera says. "When the Buena Vista tour came to the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, I told them to come to the restaurant." Aguilera has swarms of pictures like this, and he smiles broadly as he points out the famous musicans in each one.
He doesn't need to speak to recount his successful career; it's all there in the images.
Perhaps the jazz community is best described by the man who didn't quite fit into this piece: the Bulgarian bassist of the Latin Superstars, Peter Slavov. The bassist came to the U.S. seven years ago from Bulgaria, looking for the same opportunities as his Cuban counterparts. "Not to underestimate the formal education," he says, "but the real deal is just getting out there and playing with the cats. Free jazz, Cuban, Calypso. Whatever cats you can find."
The possibility of learning and playing brings immigrants to this country every year. It's not an "American dream" story -- it's far more complicated than that. But despite governments and their petty antics, the international musical community continues to share its gifts. And, if nothing else, the possibilities are greater than they've been in 50 years.
After Friday night's set at Chris' Jazz Cafe, Villafranca has to drive 90 miles to New York City. He outgrew Philadelphia a few years ago and now lives in the Bronx with his wife. But he'll be back in a few days. There's another gig on Wednesday night, and Villafranca never misses a chance to perform.