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Cuban Jazz Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba

ED GORDON, host:

When jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba was in school in Cuba his teachers told him not to listen to jazz or traditional Cuban sounds. Instead European classical music was embraced by the Communist Party and taught to young musicians. Today that's changed and Rubalcaba's new CD explores the native melodies that were once off-limits. NPR's Rolando Arrieta has this profile of the Cuban keyboardist.


Gonzalo Rubalcaba's neighborhood in the heart of Havana was filled with music and culture when he was growing up.

Mr. GONZALO RUBALCABA (Jazz pianist): It was very easy to see all kind of traditional Cuban representation. And for Cuban, religious activities are something normal.

(Soundbite of Cuban music)

ARRIETA: But this was the 1960s. Religious chants and traditional Cuban rhythms were not what socialist authorities wanted musicians to be playing. The officials were more interested in having their artists perform music like this.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. RUBALCABA: They were very serious about make us learn about the European everything, the European musical tradition. The whole history, you know, the Renaissance, baroque, romantic, impressionist, expressionist, the contemporary's composers. But nothing about Cuban composers, even classical Cuban composers.

ARRIETA: It might seem odd that the socialists would favor music from Europe over the work of their indigenous artists. At first the Cuban government celebrated local folklore. But as the country became closer to the Soviet Union, cultural ideologies started to change, says Robin Moore. He's a professor of music at the University of Texas and author of the book Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba.

Professor ROBIN MOORE (Music, University of Texas): The revolution was trying to sort of create the most educated population they possibly could. And people associated hand drumming and African traditions with kind of crass, primitive, somewhat barbaric forms of expression that just weren't the highest kinds of culture around. And it was considered much more fulfilling or much more edifying to tell people about Bach and Beethoven.

ARRIETA: So at the Institute of Superior Art in Havana, Rubalcaba learned composition from teachers who came from eastern Europe.

Mr. RUBALCABA: That was ridiculous, one point that we knew more about the European traditions than about the Cuban tradition, in term of classical music.

ARRIETA: Rubalcaba grew up playing drums with his dad, mostly dance and popular music. He also listened to American jazz from the 1940s and ‘50s. And when he asked about jazz in school his teachers told him to forget it.

Mr. RUBALCABA: To play jazz music in Cuba between the ‘60s and beginning of beginning of the ‘80s had meaning to be playing the music of the enemy. That simple.

ARRIETA: But he and his friends started to play it anyway at local bars and clubs.

(Soundbite of jazz piano)

Mr. RUBALCABA: So we couldn't play that music at the school, but they knew that since the moment that we finish our activities school every day, we would be playing different music on somewhere around the city.

ARRIETA: By the late 1970s jazz was everywhere in Cuba. Well known groups like Vida Guerra(ph) were mixing jazz with afro Cuban rhythms so the government decided to host an annual jazz festival which drew crowds from all over the world.

Mr. RUBALCABA: It was a great moment because the Cuban authorities, they had to play the game, which is give the image to the people that they were hoping to support their talent people, young people. But at the same time this proposition was coming from the enemy.

ARRIETA: Rubalcaba formed his own jazz band, Grupo Projecto.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

ARRIETA: The band played at the jazz festival. People outside of Havana started to take notice of Rubalcaba. A German label offered him a recording contract. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Hayden wanted to hire him. In 1993 Rubalcaba finally felt it was time to leave the island and says he worked out a deal with the Cuban authorities.

Mr. RUBALCABA: I went to the Cultural Ministry in Havana. I was honest with them. I said I did everything that I could do here in Cuba and I need to develop my career, and I need to spend my life, and I need to do what I have to do. So I'm coming here to say that I have to move outside of Cuba. I don't want you to read in the paper or watch on TV that I defect.

ARRIETA: For whatever reason officials allowed Rubalcaba and his family to go. They moved first to the Dominican Republic and now live in Southern Florida. From there he's toured the world and recorded nearly 20 albums since leaving Cuba.

(Soundbite of piano)

ARRIETA: His latest is a solo piano recording in which he ties together all of the elements that he says make him who he is as a musician.

Mr. RUBALCABA: We're talking about the Cuban music influence, the classical training, the jazz improvisation - define in some way, my musical personality.

(Soundbite of piano)

ARRIETA: But most importantly, he says, this album is a chance to play music from the classical Cuban composers he wishes he'd studied in school.

Mr. RUBALCABA: I think there's a lot of things to do about those composers in term of how to perform their music. It's not only to be able to play their music or to promote their music but at the same time to learn from them.

ARRIETA: But to learn their compositions Rubalcaba had to rely almost exclusively on sheet music because there are very few recordings of this work. He hopes his latest will inspire others to explore this almost forgotten aspect of Cuban culture. Rolando Arrieta, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of piano) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rolando Arrieta
Rolando Arrieta manages the Ops Desk, the team that handles the day-to-day content production and operations for the Newsroom and Programming. He also works closely with software developers in designing content management systems in an effort to maintain efficient production and publication workflows for broadcast newsmagazines, podcasts and digital story presentations.