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Interviews David Virelles at Van Gelder Studios. Photo: Ogata. David Virelles at Van Gelder Studios. Photo: Ogata.

David Virelles: thinking (once again) about Cuban music

Santiaguero, resident of Brooklyn, 39 years old, pianist, composer, producer, educator, with a prominent career, awards and recognitions that are already many and leave no doubt that there will be more, David Virelles is one of the most notable names of the Cuban cultural diaspora in the United States and of the great musicians of these times. 

His work, which goes through the obsession for search and renewal, shows the interaction without confrontation of the sound environments of his childhood and adolescence with the experimental music and the inevitable cosmopolitanism of New York and the world where he moves incessantly. Something remarkable: David puts into practice new readings and definitions of what is Cuban, with emphasis on deep-rooted aspects of our culture, which are usually (badly) treated from a picturesque or epidermal point of view. 

David Virelles' music and life are also permeated by this obsessive and honest search for an excellence also committed to the apprehension of his own and the universal, something that begins with his predecessors. He comes from a family of musicians father a troubadour and composer, mother a flautist with strong and simultaneous anchorage in popular culture and classicism without distinction or underestimation, but with an open look to the most experimental and avant-garde of his time.

David has worked with such notable jazzmen as Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Andrew Cyrille, Ravi Coltrane, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Tomasz Stanko, Wadada Leo Smith, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Tom Harrell and Milford Graves, among others. With seven albums as a principal artist, his album Continuum was selected in 2012 by New York Times as the best jazz album. In 2017 he produced an immersive and spiritual work in danzón, son and traditional Cuban trova with the album Igbo Alakorin: The Singer's GroveThe album was chosen as the best Latin jazz album of the year by the jazz critics group of NPR, the U.S. public broadcasting service.

Nunahis new album released in 2022, for which he has received the Aaron Copland Foundation Composition Award, confirms this vocation of exploring ancestral and traditional sound creations through the sounds of his time and under the influence of his contemporary heroes, in whom David recognizes himself. There are his excellent versions of When the bugle sounds and Germaniaworks of two illustrious santiagueros: Mariano Mercerón and Sindo Garay, respectively; their tributes to the guajira-son and the mambo (To the beat of my old tres and Stepped Mambo). At NunaDavid includes a "partial list [35] of pianists and keyboardist-composers [already deceased] [already deceased that I have inspired the development of this music"The program includes Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Duke Ellington, Vladimir Horowitz, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and many others, as well as Antonio María Romeu, Amadeo Roldán, Alejandro García Caturla, Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve), Peruchín, Lilí Martínez, Dámaso Pérez Prado, Pepesito Reyes, Frank Emilio and Emiliano Salvador.

Ignacio Villafrom the album Nunaby David Virelles.

David is also a man of deep thought and sharp eyes, capable of theorizing not only about music and its internal processes, but also about the contexts in which it is created and disseminated. In a particularly singular and polemic year for Cuban music and for Cuba as 2022, I spoke with him, as a continuity of the many dialogues we have been having for years.

Juan Formell, Adalberto Álvarez, José Luis Cortés have died. the coarse and Cesar puppy Pedroso, four pillars of the last great birth of a genre (or subgenre?) in Cuban music. Such losses have brought back into debate the health of our popular dance music and make us wonder what remains of that very creative period of the boom and development of timba, in the 80s and 90s, that is, almost 40 years ago. How would you classify that generation of orchestras, whose leaders had a huge representative exposure and who are now beginning to be gone? Excluding jazz, how do you see the current panorama of popular music at a creative level? popular music being understood as that which is intended for and consumed by very broad human sectors and, in the case of Cuba, irremissibly danceable? 

The death of figures such as Formell, Pupy, Adalberto and El Tosco great pillars as you say acquires a symbolic character when assessing the current panorama of Cuban music. To this list I will add the recent departure of Pablo Milanés, although we know that he is not directly linked to timba, but his domain is too important in the Cuban and Latin American post 1959 imaginary. All of them were true pioneers in a new way of feeling Cuban. Besides, these orchestras you mention have been quarries of formation and experimentation for several generations, spaces where the life of the people has been translated into song. I would like to know the evaluation of the musicians who participated and contributed to that musical period. 

These sensitive losses leave a feeling of the end of a cycle, which is pronounced when analyzing the social context experienced on the island. In my opinion, the current situation of ordinary Cubans and the nation is much more worrying than any future for our culture. Without society there will be no art, because culture is a direct product of it. Cuban society has been deteriorating for many years, and culture is born of society.

Do you think that musicians have a real interest in renewing popular dance music, in making substantive contributions on a par with their predecessors of several generations?

I believe that this true interest in renewing dance music will always exist, it has always existed. It is in our ancestral memory, in our DNA. Whether the conditions are propitious or not for that interest to manifest and flourish is another thing. If we have a historical exodus of Cubans records for combined migration waves were broken this year—, who is going to renew popular dance music? 

What do you think is the a leitmotiv  What are the challenges that Cuban musicians of your generation might impose on themselves and those imposed on them by society and the environment in which they live and work?

The primary interest of each artist is personal, driven by their experiences, human and cultural values. In my case, my artistic concept is based on experimentation from the roots, always trying to maintain the values of traditional music. My focus is on instrumental development, composition and, within it, improvisation. Improvisation is a type of spontaneous composition, with a tangible language, nothing disorderly or random as many think, and not at all exclusive of the genre known as jazz. Our roots are and will be the starting point in my work, although the abstraction and hidden references in my music may give another perspective. 

The challenge that Cuban artists of my generation must assume is to work on the basis of transcending national codes, to reach originality and universality through our own identity and culture. Our great artists are recognized worldwide precisely for that reason: that legacy is based on originality.

As for the second part of the question, there are obstacles that prevent a truly heterogeneous cultural representation on the island. To achieve this, many elements would have to be represented in a balanced way. If the national culture (including the contribution coming from the diaspora) is not reflected in its totality, many important elements are lost.

We must also consider that, in material terms, it is a real challenge to be a musician in Cuba. The scarcity of instruments, spare parts, technology, audio equipment, access to information in the form of scores, books, records, etc., has always been a disadvantage. 

Do you think that political processes and decisions have had a dramatic impact on music creation and dissemination in the last 50 years?

 On countless occasions, political processes have been tragically decisive for Cuban musical creation and dissemination. Culture today suffers much neglect, and the deterioration did not begin yesterday.

One of the repercussions of these decisions is that young people cannot access our own history-memory; because it was lost, allowed to be lost or intentionally erased. 

As a santiaguero, I must add that in a deeply regionalist society, artists from provinces beyond the capital have very little participation in the national cultural discourse, regardless of their professional caliber. This is reflected in the lack of access, resources and opportunities. Perhaps we will never know all the talent that has been frustrated.

In a country that is tremendously vertical and centralized in terms of decisions, from which the field of art and culture does not escape, decision-makers have chosen to privilege exclusively those expressions that are committed and compliant with the government's ideological line. This translates into access (or not) to spaces, possibilities (or not) of diffusion, and in the construction of a structure of awards and praises that are not necessarily supported by creative or interpretative qualities. How do you think this is influencing the honesty of the creative process of musicians? How does it influence the modes, spaces and ways of expression and socialization of Cuban popular music? 

As you say, favoritism on many occasions is not necessarily supported by the rigor or substance embodied by the recipients. This phenomenon has negatively affected the development of more than one cultural project, has frustrated ideas, has truncated initiatives with a lot of potential. It is unfortunate for everyone when this happens and it is sadder that, as a consequence, some creators choose to mitigate the authenticity of their creative expression in exchange for the various levels of benefit that certain affiliations can provide them. To deny that this is the case for many artists of any discipline in Cuba would be futile.

David Virelles at Van Gelder Studios. Photo: Ogata.

David Virelles at Van Gelder Studios. Photo: Ogata.

Globally, it is no longer a secret that there is an interest in the media industry in erasing or, at least, attenuating or disregarding geographic and identity borders, diluting a complex whole in a term such as "Latin", for example. What about the autochthonous in today's musical creation? How does tradition operate and how much is it assumed or discarded by musicians today? Is it worth fighting for the presence of a national identity in music and other expressions?

The autochthonous still exists in many of today's Cuban creators, including the contribution of the diaspora. increasingly resistant to lack of recognition—, as I believe it is crucial to understanding our nation as a whole.

Of course our national identity is worth fighting for, our culture is the greatest thing we have. It is probably the only thing we have at this point. We must watch over it and try to do everything possible also to restore, rescue, and once again, look for an immediate way to remedy the neglect, the oblivion. 

On the other hand, the official view of culture is more tourist postcard than reality, in bad taste, poor in spiritual, aesthetic and cultural values. A sort of minstrelsy which, in addition, gives a glimpse of other evils inherited from previous eras that are still not openly discussed today due to social and political taboos. I believe that Cuba, its people and its culture are much more than that worn-out postcard.

In your opinion, do you think that the processes linked to the boom of salsa before and reggaeton now, have had any significance of relevance for Cuban musical creation and its diffusion?

I think so. For example, the relevance of "salsa" in our country could be justified by the simple affiliation of some of our creators to this commercial term. Others went further and adopted an almost total assimilation of certain aesthetic-musical values. Meanwhile in the diaspora, the fact that some of the creators of timba themselves embraced the name "salsa" made musicians like Mario Bauzá look at this process with suspicion, perhaps related to the issue of the empowerment of Cuban creators and the fate of their intellectual property. 

As for reggaeton, it has already been part of the Cuban collective memory for more than 20 years. El reparto, the most recent update of the Cuban reggaeton variant, is very much reminiscent of the timbera atmosphere, but with programmingwhere software is used to create the beats in favor of musical instruments. Nothing is static, and cultural identity also regenerates itself. 

On the other hand, Cuban urban / reggaeton artists have been receiving recognition from the international music industry. The mere presence of Cubans defending reggaeton in this type of high-profile international contests, or that they are exclusively hosted by management The international representation is already an affirmation of the relevance of this genre in the Cuban musical creation and its diffusion. And although it does not always happen the same way, that representation is reflecting what is consumed in Cuba, what has momentum and what, for better or worse, is already beginning to be identified as a fundamental part of today's Cuban music.

You have been living outside Cuba for 21 years now. What has emigration meant for you: evolution, stagnation or regression?

After my initial stage in Santiago, it was essential to be exposed to different sources of information to broaden my knowledge and acquire other experiences. That opportunity came when I was invited to Canada by Jane Bunnett in 2001. The opportunity to be in Toronto for several years gave me a structure from which I could continue my musical development. Experimentation has always been a relevant personal interest; precisely that concern drove my decision to go to a city like New York. There, the music scene welcomed me and I was fortunate to work with mentors, something that has been defining in my growth. 

Emigration is very difficult, because of the distance it imposes between families and because of the new reality to be assumed, the new reality to be integrated. However, along the way I have been able to find a lot of support. In New York I have met like-minded people who have become important collaborators. The opportunity to live in this city has allowed me to grow as a musician and as a human being.

How do you see the future? Is there a social and commercial life for Cuban music after reggaeton?

The history of Cuban music resists a linear assessment. The beginnings and endings are not entirely clear or delineated. Everything is unleashed in progression. The future depends on the work that can be done now. To this end, I believe it is important to rethink the vision of general education. This area would benefit from considerable reforms, both conceptual and infrastructural. Assuming that everything is in sync, seeds would be sown from that starting point. 

Rosa Marquetti Torres Philologist. She is not a musicologist, but she loves to write about music and musicians. Freethinker. Addicted to caramel ice cream. Allergic to illustrated gossip and posturing. More posts

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