Arts, Culture & Media

For jazz pianist, Obama's trip to Cuba 'beyond what I'd ever thought I'd see'

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

Birdland.jpg

Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra on stage NYC's Birdland

Credit:

Kieran Chapman

Most Sunday nights at New York's Birdland nightclub, you can find Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra on stage. That's where I found them this past Sunday. 

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Before the show, Arturo took a few moments to talk with me about Cuba.  

Arturo O'Farrill speaking to producer April Peavey backstage at Birdland

Arturo O'Farrill speaking to producer April Peavey backstage at Birdland

Credit:

Kieran Chapman

Cuba is an emotional topic for him. His dad was Chico O'Farrill, a famous Cuban jazz composer and conductor, who was born in Havana. 

He left BEFORE Fidel Castro's revolution, but was never able to return because of the collapse of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US. 

Arturo O'Farrill says his dad never got over it.

"He's was one of those people that felt heartbroken that he was never able to return because of political nonsense. And so when he died I was very, very sad because that was the only thing he really communicated to me, was incredible heartbrokenness."     

Chico O'Farrill died in 2001. And it's Arturo who's carried on his dad's legacy, both on the jazz scene and as a Cuban-American. 

These legacies converge on Arturo's latest album Cuba: The Conversation Continues

It was recorded in Havana on the very day President Obama announced the US would begin to normalize relations with Cuba.  Arturo says, "We didn't know and it caught us by surprise. When the announcement came that he was going to open relationships a year ago? We had no idea." 

He and his band were apprehensive when they heard the news. "Cubans are very reserved and conservative and the overwhelming response that I had then and that I have now is "We'll see. We'll see what happens." I love that because that I think is so typically Cuban. After having suffered an economic embargo, an economic blockade, for so many years and having all kinds of promises made, for that moment to arrive was really quite scary for them." 

But now, he says he's thrilled Obama is about to make the first presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years.

"For this to happen, for this to take place next week is beyond what I ever thought I'd see in my time."

It's not clear what all these diplomatic changes will mean for Cuba-US relations, but speaking as a musician, Arturo says it will be great for musical exchanges.

"Once a US passport can be presented at an airline ticket counter and you just get on a plane? That it'll be a miraculous moment. Once a Cuban passport can be presented at an airline ticket counter? And that person can just go back and forth? It's just going to be amazingly easy to break down these walls and to see musicians on both sides experience each other." 

Arturo plans to go back to Cuba very soon. He wants to pay tribute to his dad and do a concert of Chico's music. He'll also be bringing his father's cremated remains with him to bury in the National Cemetery. 

As for how he thinks his dad would've reacted to the changes taking place now?

"I think my father would weep with joy. I think my father would be overcome with emotion. I think he'd be beyond happy. I think he'd be tremendously touched deep inside his soul."