Elio Villafranca: The Source In Between
AAJ: You put together a jazz group, Ferjomesiswhat type of material were you playing? Could you tell me a little bit about that group?
EV: Yeah, we were doing original music. At that point, we were doing a lot of fusion. Like Michael Brecker, he was another guy that impacted us. Michael Brecker and Randy Breckerthat kind of sound. Mike Manieri, the electric vibraphone; we used to really love that sound of fusion. In our group we used to also have a vibraphonist and used to do all kinds of interesting things. And I have to say I'm surprised because still I hear news from friends when I go to Cuba who say, "We saw you guys when you were with Ferjomesis at a festival." They are still playing those tapes, even nowadays from those years. They remember that we worked so hard, because that was the only festival that was in Cuba. So basically, we would work all year just to prepare for that festival.
AAJ: Was that the Jazz Plaza Festival?
EV: Yes. Before they made it so that everybody could come here and present their thing, it was very competitive. You had to go and compete with all the national groups, regardless. We never knew who we were going to be competing against. It could have been professional groups that had already been on the street as professional musicians. We were all students, but we were offering a different sound from what everybody else was offering. And we got to be popular in that sense. A lot of people used to come to our shows, and even Gonzalo sometimes would come to our shows, and would sit with us, and play with us. That group was very, very good. And most of the musicians that were in that group are now professional musicians, doing very well in music. But they all went completely different ways.
AAJ: You eventually got the gig with Carlos Varela, which you mentioned. How did you get into that group and was the rock influence something that you had studied or were interested in at that point?
EV: I got into that group, because two of my friends who were at school were in it too. Carlos was looking for a pianist and they recommended me. In Cuba, when you do that, you never get paid for those services, because, you know in Cuba once again, if you are a student, you are not supposed to get paid. And every single payment system comes through the government. It's not like you can go to a club and maybe do a gig and they will pay you under the table. No, because every single bit of money that goes out is government money. So basically, you don't get paid. But it was fun and they described it to me like, "This guy can really sing and the songs are very interesting." The way we looked at it, the songs were harmonically interesting to us, which made us want to play with him. It was kind of like folk/rock, which in Cuba at that point was a thing that was not really very popular, in terms of a government thing. The government didn't like that kind of music, because it represented the enemy as they say. To them it represented the United States.
So I started rehearsing with them and really enjoying the group, and we were pulling all the repertoire together. I remember, we didn't even have a rehearsal space, so on the weekends I had to organize to go to the school and rehearse there. And the rehearsals were just me on the piano, Carlos on the guitar, and then our drummer would just have a piece of wood or something so he could bang on top of it just to create a rhythm. And a trumpet player and a saxophonist; it was very acoustic. And we had a keyboard player and he would come and just listen, watch and take notesthat's how our rehearsals went.
At the same time, he was singing just with guitar around town, because he was a professional already. And his songs were so controversial, and he got so popular, that finally, they gave us a chance to do a concert for the first time ever. And of course, we never had any formal rehearsal space; we'd only been rehearsing the way I described. They said, "Syntesis is playing that day, and we're going to allow you to play three numbers that day and that's it." So we went there, and rehearsed the three songs that we were going to do. Everybody knew that we were going to do thatthe theater was so packed that you couldn't even imagine. And then, what happened was that already the word was out on the street that this group is crazy, and they're talking about all these crazy political things. So everybody shows up, we start singing the songs.
There were so many policemen in the audience, almost half of the audience was policemen. And then tension was rising, rising, rising. To the point that one of the songs that we used to sing was misinterpreted by the police, and then they tried to stop the group from playing and then people got really angry. And then the whole thing ended with police hitting people, breaking glass, breaking heads. There were arrests, and the whole thing ended. The whole theater was destroyed. And then we were asked to go the next day to an audition with the government where the singer had to go song by song and defend them, just to prove that he wasn't going to say anything against the country or the government. And then they said, you are banned from playing in Cuba for a year. Because people were like completely crazy about the group, a little too crazy.
So we said fine, we're not going to play for a year. But that was even worse, because then for a year, people were like wondering about the group. So finally when we arranged to do a solo performancenow imagine, for a year all this curiosity that everybody had rises up, and when we did the concert, it was even crazier. I mean, it was amazing. I can't remember ever experiencing thatgoing to the stage and a mass of people are running to the stage just like crazy. And then we had to run from the stage because people were out of control again, I mean, it was amazing. And then from that point on, we were a really established group. No one was getting paidI wasn't getting paid; but we could play at the Karl Marx theater and bring up like 7,000 people to listen to our group. But I wasn't getting a dime out of that. My only gratitude was just to know that people liked my arrangements of a songbecause I was doing arrangements for the group, of Carlos' song. Just to know that people were enjoying the way that we were arranging the music was our payment at that point.