Decades later, a father-son correspondence shapes Elio Villafranca's

Elio Villafranca

News | Oct, 7th 2016

When pianist Elio Villafranca thinks of Africa, he harkens back to his childhood in Cuba, where he spent two years dreaming of Angola and an absent father. 

That's why, when Villafranca takes the stage Oct. 14-15 in the Appel Room for "Letters to Mother Africa," he'll be exploring not only a musical legacy but his own personal history. He'll be performing a suite of songs inspired by the continent and leading a band that includes saxophonists Billy Harper and David Murray, bassist Dezron Douglas, drummer Lewis Nash, percussionist Abdou Mboup, and South African vocalist Vuyo Sotashe.

The concert's charts all have a strong message about Africa or are efforts to tie the African-American tradition back across the Atlantic. Listen to a playlist featuring some of Villafranca's selections:

These selections are also no doubt inspired by Villafranca's own youth. When he was in grade school in western Cuba, his father—an economist—was sent by his government to work in Luanda, Angola. During his absence, Villafranca would write his father a letter each Sunday while sitting at his kitchen table. He'd get postcards back, too, and for a long time the images he received back were not just visions of a faraway continent but also his only connection to his father.

Two years later, his father finally returned, and Villafranca was released early from school to see him. Villafranca rushed home, trying to remembering what his father looked like. He entered a house crowded with well-wishers all eager to welcome his father home. Then he saw a man who he instantly recognized as the one he was looking for. What Villafranca calls the "reconstruction" of his father then began.

The program behind "Letters to Mother Africa" investigates a similar process of reconstruction: how American musicians have used their own connections to Africa—its traditions and music—to influence jazz's evolution and reflect back on the land that inspired so much of this music. Villafranca will perform originals as well as songs by composers including Max Roach, Duke Ellington, and Wayne Shorter that all explore jazz's rhythmic and cultural inheritances from Africa.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these songs derive from the 1960s and 70s. “I’ve lived in America for 20 years, and I’ve seen people struggle to recognize Africa as the roots,” Villafranca told PLAYBILL. “But during the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of discourse about liberation referred to Africa. I wanted to reflect musicians embodying different approaches, different styles in celebrating Africa’s legacy.”

On Oct. 14 and 15, those approaches and styles will be on display in "Letters to Mother Africa"—as will, one imagines, Villafranca's memories of a time when "Africa" was a mythical place that meant all the world to him.


Photo credits: Top Elio Villafranca image by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center; bottom Elio Villafranca image by Lawrence Sumulong for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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