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Interviews Yosvany Terry Photo: Taken from the artist's official website

Yosvany Terry: the art of identity

Despite the fact that media such as New York Times Yosvany Terry is often singled out as one of the musicians who have redefined and complexified Latin jazz, but his name is not a notable reference among the younger Cuban public. He has been living in New York for decades, although he remains very connected to the Cuban ecosystem and, from there, he defends the foundations of our music. His studies of Afro-Cuban music, the handling of the saxophone as his main instrument, of the chekeré inherited from his father, Eladio Don Pancho Terry, his career as a composer and pedagogue, a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Latin Jazz Album and his career as director of the Harvard Jazz Band, place him on the podium of Cuban music as one of its most prolific sons.

Taking advantage of his short stay in Havana, I was able to get to his house and be received by his mother, who took the opportunity to tell me a little, from her perspective, how she has dealt with the Terry family, a completely musical family... And she made sure that there was no lack of coffee during the conversation with Yosvany.

I have always thought about the special condition of a child born in a home full of music. Especially when a member of the family, in this case your father, is a renowned musician. What happens when you grow up in such a particular environment? 

Well, it's easy in the sense that children have no awareness of it. You're born into a home full of art and you think that's life, that there's nothing beyond that. It's like the child who grows up with lots of toys and thinks that all his peers have lots of toys or, on the contrary, the one who is born without toys and is forced to use his imagination to shape all the characters that live in his head. So, a home where music is at the center has many good things: one is that at an early age it defines the discipline that you will carry for life as a musician; another, the sensitivity and appreciation of the arts. You don't have much choice because, in our case, for example, as my father was a violinist and played chekeré, we always saw him studying, we saw him playing with the Florida Maravillas Orchestra, of which he was founder and director for a long time. A child turns that into his aspiration; you aspire to become a musician, your parents become the role model.

My mother was a pediatric nurse and she had other dreams for us. She wanted me to be a doctor, things like that (laughs). But home was still full of music and of course, you get absorbed in it. So you decide that yes, you want to be a musician, and suddenly you find that you can't go out to play on Saturdays because you have classes on Sundays. And at first you don't understand, all your little friends are outside the house waiting for you and, well, your father reminds you that you decided to study music. At such a young age you learn that in order for the class to go well on Sunday, you have to study on Saturday.

Did you move early to Havana or did you spend your childhood in Camagüey?

No, no, we started with music in Florida, Camagüey. I lived there until fourth grade. From the age of five, the teacher came to the house, we started with solfège. My father traveled and, when he wasn't, he was always at home studying, or playing in the city. So, growing up in such an environment, with active musicians, known composers, helps you a lot.

Besides, those were the times when there were carnivals in Cuba almost all year round. The carnival of Florida was one of the most important in the province of Camagüey, the second after the head municipality. Florida was a town that had two centers: the Central Highway passed through it, the railroad passed through it, it had a rice and tomato industry, it was a center where many people came together looking for work. Precisely for that reason it had a great carnival. Benny Moré, Miguelito Cuní... everybody used to go there. So, of course, at an early age you realize that your home is a musical embassy where great musicians have passed through. For Terry as a child, living with the great figures of Cuba was normal, there is no difference between what he saw on television and the visits to the house. You can listen to them on a record, but you have seen them live. Of course you are not aware of what is happening but you get soaked in it, it enters by osmosis. A child develops even intellectual capacities in a musical home, he learns to handle different, abstract languages. You learn to handle shapes, spaces, silences, you understand the conversation between instruments, you understand the reaction this has on people.

My maternal family, emigrants from Haiti, continued to practice voodoo rituals in Cuba. To my father's music I added the religious drums and I could associate them with the behavior of the people who used them: the dance, the theatricality, the gesticulation. Then we tried to imitate them by drumming on the cauldrons.

This is what happens in so many families of musicians. From the family of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Mozart family, the Marsalis family, the Valdés (Chucho, Bebo), the López-Nussa, the Romeu, the Rubalcaba, the López-Gavilán. In short, music has always been born in the family, conservatories are a new concept. In the past, people used to study with a private teacher, that is why you find so many musicians who have remained in history and do not have an "academy". The study of music in academies is relatively modern, conservatories with this concept of "preserving" what can be taken as heritage, arises in the 18th century, a little more, a little less. Musicians like Haydn, Handel, received students all the time.

Your father, better known as a chekeré player, was also a tremendous violinist. You also studied violin, how was the derivation from one instrument to another? 

We studied violin, yes, my father was the founder of the Orquesta Maravillas de Florida and he played in it for 35 years. He also worked with the Camagüey Symphony Orchestra and, of course, when he wrote works for the Symphony Orchestra the copyists were us, the three brothers, we were an army for such a complicated job (laughs).

Then, we each chose our own path: Yoel, our older brother, chose the flute, I, in the middle, the saxophone, Yunior the violin and then he began to study double bass.

You had a moment in your career where you made a transit through the trova. You accompanied our beloved Santiago Feliú, Silvio Rodríguez... where did trova end up in Yosvany Terry's career?

Trova is an experience that you don't leave, it accompanies you. It is like a way of seeing music, of understanding the interdisciplinary in art. We are talking about poetry, music, theatricality, how they fit in a given historical context. It's something you don't abandon; if I haven't done more, it's honestly because I haven't been given the opportunity, because they call me and I do it with pleasure.

Of course, at that time of the Nueva Trova's growth, the musical arrangements used were extraordinary.

Indeed, Silvio with Afrocuba, at times with Irakere. Pablo and his group, where Emiliano Salvador played at some point. Santi and Estado de Ánimo. There is a shared history between trova and good music. Not only because of the Nueva Trova but since before: Sindo Garay, María Teresa Vera, Pepe Sánchez. They are movements that evolve and become other things. Then there was bolero, filin, with all this harmonic sensibility, colors and musical environments that developed there.

I also have in my mind that beautiful relationship of Cuban trova with Chico Buarke, Caetano Veloso, Fito Páez -with whom I had the pleasure of working-, Charly García, Spinetta, Donato Poveda, Mercedes Sosa... If you like trova, you like the transnational part of the movement, which crosses the continent, and I include Spain, although I followed less Sabina, Serrat... maybe because of how I identified myself with those who shared a geographical space, the Latin American experience, the south, the same ancestors, the same roots. In Spain I had other sensibilities, Galician music for example, and flamenco.

Well, flamenco, which has so much of Africa in it.

Of course, understanding flamenco takes us to the Moors and their trade routes: one relates flamenco to North Africa but it has a great influence from Mali, from Senegal. When you go to the literature and you see the gestures, the melismas of flamenco, you see it in those other countries. I learned this recently, actually, with a professor of African Art History who taught me that what we know about Africa is always little.

Yosvany, you left for New York in 1999. How did the phenomenon of migration influence you in the search for your place in a city like that?

There are several answers to that. My family is marked by emigration. On my mother's side, they all came from Haiti. On my father's side, from Jamaica and Spain; my grandfather was from the Canary Islands. Emigration is already in our blood. We came from Florida to Camagüey, to La Lisa, to Marianao... now we are in Kholy... and I won't stop until Coppelia, as a good friend says.

For me the relationship with emigration goes somewhere else, through the understanding that a musician must pass through the mecca of the arts. Mozart spent his time traveling, looking for contracts in different cities; you find out, if you read his letters, that he traveled through a large part of Europe. The origins of the arts have always been on the move, they have that soul on pilgrimage. I associate it with an opportunity to grow as an artist.

My original idea was to live in Paris, the mecca of the arts in the 19th century... all the great artists had to pass through there. So I applied to La Sorbonne and everything. Luckily I didn't get accepted (laughs), because then I had another race ahead of me. I changed my plans for New York. The first time I went I had no idea of staying. I was traveling frequently to the United States with the Stanford Jazz Workshop and I had the opportunity to meet great musicians there. I remember the first contacts with "older" musicians, architects when it comes to building the musical language; I realized how all this knowledge was being transmitted in a given community from the experience of working, playing and sweating together. You understand that if you really want to grow, to have mastery, to be authentic, you have to go through the mecca. That's how I became interested in living in New York.

And a city like New York, so active, so diverse, with the confluence of so many identities, so many different forms of music?

Exactly; Europe, Asia, Middle East, Israel... working with Japanese, with people from all the Americas. The exposure to so many styles makes you different.

I imagine that a city as lively as that can be imposing. One can feel diluted among so many influences. Did you feel that way at some point?

No. I believe that this feeling -which does exist, it is a fact- pushes you a little bit towards definition. You develop an interest in defining your own identity, searching for it, visualizing the contributions you are going to make to such a diverse phenomenon. Cervantes went to Paris, José White went, but none of them was more French, but they reached more deeply into their Cubanness. I started then to see the tools I had with me to create a language, to leave a little mark. I think it helps you find yourself, yes, you realize that the only way you have to fly higher is to go deeper into the foundations.

It is an experience that one cannot share, cannot translate into words. Since I started going to Stanford in '95, exposed to the great masters of jazz, I began to have a big problem: how to tell my friends here about that experience. You have to live it, there's no way to explain what you feel when you hear McCoy Tyner in a keynote lecture. It started to create these intellectual conflicts, that's why I tell everyone who can choose their path to come to New York, even if it's just for a little while.

You have traced a whole line of influences in contemporary jazz with projects that defend the Afro-Cuban. I have read very good reviews in the New York Times about projects such as Afro-Cuban Roots, which mixes music with folkloric dances, backed by your own studies on the subject, innovating. Have you ever feared being pigeonholed into a certain style, as big as jazz is?

The answer is no. Since I started studying, the concept of music for me is very broad. Music was seeing my father conducting the orchestra or when he played in the Symphony Orchestra. It was all the classical music I had to study at the conservatory. It's everything, and since I conceive it that way, I have no disjunctions. I also have many groups: a quartet that does contemporary jazz, a quintet that does something similar, Afro-Cuban Roots that is divided into two different projects, one that works the Arará tradition, another that works the Lucumí, which I have not yet recorded but we have played a lot. I have another project where we are twelve musicians and we play compositions that I have developed around the theme of the Parrandas de Remedios, which has not been recorded either, but it is there. I have a trio of piano, cello and saxophone, and we play classical music.

I don't see how I can be pigeonholed into just one project, although I understand that, highlighting one more than another, it is difficult to associate myself with all styles equally. Luckily, after 24 years living there, they have understood it a little better (laughs).

El albúm New Throne King (5 Passion Records, 2014), a celebration of Arará music, recorded with your band Ye-Dé-Gbé, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album. Can you tell me about the experience with this album?

It is an album that I dedicated to the study of arará music. I had been working on the subject since Cuba, actually, not arará music specifically, but Afro-Cuban music in general, but one thing leads to another. Here I had a project with the musicians of Danza Nacional, where there was Óscar Bolaños on percussion, Santa Cruz, Angelita Rodríguez, Ciro, Regino Jiménez -drummer-, my father, my brother, Roberto Vizcaíno... the cream of the crop of Afro music... and I did the arrangements. That project is completely unknown in Cuba. Things happen: we went to record at the ICRT studios; we had about eight numbers planned, arrangements of palo monte, lucumí, the Trinitarian tonada, rumba... We were all extremely happy. At that time we recorded on tapes. When we returned the next week to mix, a tape recorder had taken the tape and recorded another project on top of it. It was all lost. You can guess what that means.

That helped me to establish connections with the study of arará culture, especially when I started working with Steve Coleman and AfroCuba from Matanzas. We always asked them to do their own stuff on tour, especially in Europe, and they always did Arará stuff. I had heard some songs but I wasn't that familiar. From then on, with the opportunity of a grant for the project, I started researching the topic.

Tracing a little bit my roots I realized that I have connections with this culture because of the Haitian origins, the voodoo that comes from Dahomey, like the arará. What happens is that in Cuba it is segregated; the Haitians stayed in the eastern region (Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey), there they stayed in the sugar cane and coffee. The Arará didn't expand so much, they stayed in Matanzas and surrounding areas... So you realize that musically it is very similar, the drums, the deities, the language, etc.

The result of all this study is the album you were telling me about, New Throne King.

Going into the subject of teaching, directly to one of the most relevant and recent projects, how has the experience at Harvard University been, both lecturing and conducting the Harvard Jazz Band?

This adventure began in 2015. Eight years already. I always liked teaching. I was teaching from Cuba, at the National School of Arts (ENA) I taught a subject that I don't even know if it still exists: Teaching Methodology. I gave classes at the University of the Arts (ISA) to students from other countries who came to study popular music and things like that. Then, in the United States, I gave classes at Standford Jazz Workshop, at The New School, also private lessons over a period of time. Teaching has always been present in my life.

Harvard has given me the opportunity to grow as a musician, in terms of methodologies and ways of teaching that you normally do not find here in Cuba, which in a way saddens me because you could teach with a similar rigor. There I have the freedom to prepare the courses I want; then I develop courses that I would have liked to have when I studied and that were never given, nor are they given nowadays. One is on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, for example, using them as a reference point to study the social historical context of their music, the personalities involved and how it became one of the most important jazz institutions of the time. I have another course where I teach West African traditions, including Yoruba, Lucumi, some Arara. I have a course on Cuban music from 1800 to 1950 through six composers: Miguel Faílde, Sindo Garay, Ernesto Lecuona, Arsenio Rodríguez, Bebo Valdés and Enrique Jorrín. There I go through all those genres: dance, contradanza that later became habanera, traditional trova, danzón and all its derivatives, zarzuela, popular song, the development of son, chachachá, etcetera. Together with the director of the symphonic orchestra there, Federico Cortese, an Italian, I teach a course called How does the music work?another envelope performers We develop courses according to our interests and those of the students.

Now I am going to start another one with the Dean of the Music Department, on African traditions. For me these courses are an opportunity to grow, to go deeper into the why of things.

It seems incredible, with how prolific jazz is in Cuba, that the program of the academies is not modified, that this and other courses that could be so useful are not included.

On one occasion I was invited to a musicology conference at ISA and I spoke about the importance of incorporating, if not these courses I am talking about, at least a deeper program where the origins of Cuban music, the African roots, are discussed. I pointed out the need to incorporate jazz in the school to keep it alive, as it happens in the universities there. I encountered resistance from the faculty, "we should not fix what is not broken". In the workshops I have given here I realize that the younger students, even with great mastery of their instruments, are unaware of many of the fundamental figures of Cuban culture, the traditional genres, the foundations of our music.

However, we continue to graduate very good musicians. 

Instrumentalists, yes, I don't know what it's in, it will be in the water (laughs). The long tradition is undeniable, but culturally we are suffering a lot. They could feed the curriculum with the diploma research of musicologists, for example. I hope that at some point these battles will triumph, for the good of Cuban music.

You come to Cuba frequently, however, you are not often seen on stage. Some time ago you were at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, do you have any plans for concerts in Havana?

In the last four years I have kept coming back, yes, I have my mother in Cuba and I don't want to lose contact with the events in the country. I'm not playing, this time I've come to research and compose. I'm writing three scenes of an opera I want to do about [José Antonio] Aponte. I won a grant I am going to dedicate to this work. I am collaborating with Teresita Fernandez, a renowned artist based in New York, with Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, one of the most important African art professors there, who did his doctorate at Yale, with an incredible career... and Cuban (laughs).

I thought of Aponte to do some social justice. Show who he was, what he did. It is known that he was a carpenter and cabinetmaker, then I learned that his paternal ancestors fought in the brown and brown militias that confronted the English in the seizure of Havana. He was among the first to fight against the colonizing power, with ideals that were beginning to form within the Cuban nationality: the struggle to eradicate slavery, the search for a world where Afro-descendants would be free, where equality would prevail. Their rebellion here is little studied, although everyone knows the end: they were killed and their heads hung to discourage possible slave rebellions. For sowing the seed of what could result in a new, authentically Cuban, free society.

The idea of this is to reimagine Aponte, the importance of that rebellion, to narrate an epistemology more centered in Africa, in ideologies, in cosmogonies that come to us from there. It is the opportunity to make history, and to do it differently.

This, together with other projects I have, occupy my time in Cuba for the moment, for the time being away from the stage. I also want to continue promoting young people whenever I have the opportunity. For example, we did a concert at the Abdala Studios, together with Robertico Carcassés, Oliver Valdés, my brother, and other colleagues, and we managed to take a busload of students there. It was very nice.

I'm also involved in the Young Art Fund, together with Habana Clásica and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (COSUDE), which helped me with some workshops I did in January on jazz and popular music, together with the Horns to Havana project. I collaborate with them full of expectations because it seems to me that it could mean a great opportunity for the career of many young musicians at a time when opportunities in the cultural sector are increasingly scarce. It is interesting to see how, as a result of this work, many institutions have begun to manage solutions, provide instruments, etc., and have approached the Fund.

In connection with this association I have some dreams that include teaching in Cuba. I am looking for solutions to take Cuban students and composers to travel all over the country. We are going to Jagüey Grande, Trinidad, Camagüey, Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba, in search of the French tumba, the punto guajiro, the Trinidadian tonada..., in search of the musical origins that are rooted in these territories. It would be nice to make a composition contest that includes those rhythms and to be able to awaken the traditions that lie there, agonizing, almost dead.

But these are only dreams, which I hope can be achieved with the support of this type of projects, which I hope will not be lacking in future Cuba.

Adriana Fonte More posts

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