Arturo O'Farrill Keeps the Afro-Cuban Musical Dialogue Going

Brooklyn-based pianist Arturo O'Farrill, leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, is a Cuban-American whose family was forced from the island by the revolution and Castro's regime. “My family lost lots holdings and lots of property with the revolution,” he tells us. “To this day, there are people in my family that can’t stand to even hear the word Castro.”

O'Farrill isn't one of them.

For O'Farrill the United States vs. Cuba situation is complicated. The issue isn't black-and-white. “I don't assume that one side is right and that one side is wrong. I don’t think it’s that simple,” he tells us. “I love the United States. I’m an American. I’m proud of that. One of the ways to be proud of your nation is to understand its shortcomings. This nation that I love, I know, is a brutal, violent nation that has created much terror in the world. I don’t love that part of us. But I love that part of us that engages in a discussion about that.”

A Grammy Award winner with multiple nominations, O'Farrill has long been a self-appointed cultural ambassador between the United States and Cuba, a sort of contemporary Dizzy Gillespie. When the United States recently restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, he was in Havana rehearsing for a concert. “It was a wonderful day,” he says. “The streets were filled with people in tears, everyone was hooping and hollering. It was very touching, very moving.”

The two countries still have a long way to go, he notes. “Right now, if I want to go to perform in Switzerland, all I need is a passport. If I want to go to perform in Cuba, I need special permission. I have to start working on that a year or more in advance. Until we get to the point where all I need to go to Cuba is a passport, things won't really be normal between the two countries.

“I’ve made it my life’s work for the last 15 years to bring people down there. People need to see what it is, what it could be. We have no clue, none whatsoever.” The lack of high-tech phones and computers in Cuba, O'Farrill says, force the residents of the island nation to live a more authentic life.

“In the U.S., we're used to typing a few key strokes into our keyboard and having a sofa delivered. In Cuba, it's not like that at all. If you want something, you have to leave your house and go find it. If you want a banana, you have to get up and go get it. And then you might have to visit five or six fruit stands before you find one that has a banana."

“Nobody breaks up a romance with a text in Cuba,” he laughs. “We have our whole lives on our cell phones. That life is a lie. Humanity is about touching each other, about looking at each other in the eye. That has unbelievable and profound implications for the music.

“In Afro-Cuban music, the concept of time is really different from ours. It’s closer to African [approach to] time. There’s a rounder approach to rhythmic patterns. We tend to think of rhythmic phrases by its components — quarter note, eighth note. In Afro-folkloric music, they tend to think in longer phrases. They think of the whole phrase as one thing. It's a huge difference.”

Looking forward to less restrictive artistic and economic exchange between the United States and Cuba, O'Farrill says no one can predict the changes Afro Latin jazz will undergo over the next few years, but he's eager to see what happens. “It's going to be incredible!” he tells us.

Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which have been called “one of the best jazz orchestras in existence” by The New Yorker, open the Da Camera Jazz season. The set list includes cuts from O'Farrill's most recent release, Cuba: The Conversation Continues. 

Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra perform at 8 p.m. October 24 at the Wortham Theatre, 501 Texas. For information, call 713–524-5050 or visit dacamera.com. $37.50 to $67.50. 

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