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Arturo O'Farrill: Putting activism in jazz

Published: 
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Afro Latin jazz master Arturo O'Farrill.

American jazz pianist and composer Arturo O'Farrill, rotund and bespectacled with greying curly dark hair, is earnest and eloquent. Watching him interact with 15 or so young musicians during a workshop in Port-of-Spain just before Carnival brought to mind the “inspiring teacher” character from countless films and television shows.

“I started believing that your art is not your art until you speak out on behalf of those who fight for justice and against those who fight to infringe justice,” he said, discussing a turning point in his career.

“Every time you pick up your horn you're doing something subversive. You're speaking out for good. You're speaking out for people unable to speak out for themselves,” he continued.

“You're trying the make the world a better place to live, and that's the most beautiful thing a human being can do.”

And using his place as a musician to send a message is exactly what O'Farrill has been doing, particularly since the rise and subsequent election to the US presidency of billionaire Donald Trump.

“I'm very outspoken politically. I think you have to be,” O'Farrill said in an interview after the workshop. “I think this is a really frightening, horrible president. I think he's a despicable man. He's a small, petty, vicious man with no humour and no love. I don't know how this happened: a minority of Americans elected a fascist demagogue.”

O'Farrill's compositions have often been influenced by social issues. During a 2013 appearance with his octet on the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert series he introduced a piece called Mass Incarceration Blues.

In May last year, he and his band appeared for one night only at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem with counter-culture hero Dr Cornel West performing spoken word over a concerto O'Farrill wrote for him.

O'Farrill joined other jazz artists in New York, where he's based, for a Musicians Against Fascism Concert the day before Trump's inauguration.

His outspokenness can rub some folks the wrong way. During the course of the election campaign last year he performed a piece called Trump? F--k Trump that caused listeners to walk out. But he doesn't intend to stop.

“I'm advocating doing more concerts, doing more civil disobedience,” he said. “Right now I'm trying to figure out if I can get a pro-bono tax lawyer to advise us on how Americans can refuse to pay taxes and declare April 'don't pay your taxes month'—just like the president.

“The United States was founded as a result of a tax revolt by the people, who refused to pay the British government their taxes. So we know it can work,” he explained.

O'Farrill's attitude isn't surprising considering his background. His mother was Mexican and he was born in that country in 1960. Trump famously said of Mexican immigrants to America: “They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.”

O'Farrill's father, jazz musician and composer Chico O'Farrill, was Cuban. O'Farrill visits the island regularly. He recorded his Grammy-nominated album Cuba: The Conversation Continues there. He's spoken in the past of the suffering the American embargo has caused average Cubans. He welcomed previous US President Barack Obama's steps to thaw the relationship between the US and Cuba.

Now...

“It's inevitable this idiot will go backwards with Cuba,” he said of Trump, “and that my people will suffer further pain and economic starvation.”

O'Farrill tries to challenge listeners' perceptions of jazz. Besides his collaboration with West, he teamed up with hip hop artist/spoken word poet Chilo and turntablist DJ Logic for the pro-immigrant screed They Came, a track on The Offense of the Drum, which earned O'Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra the 2015 Grammy for best Latin jazz album.

“Some of the earliest examples of jazz were protest songs,” said O'Farrill.

“Some of the greatest jazz—A Love Supreme, John Coltrane; Fables of Faubus, Charles Mingus; Strange Fruit, Billie Holliday-those were statements of revolt.

“What happened is that jazz has been co-opted by very powerful individuals to engorge themselves and to engorge the institutions that they come from,” he said.

“Most people want to be cajoled. They want to be affirmed. Most people want to treat music like wallpaper,” he continued.

“They don't want it to challenge them or distract them.

“I don't think art should sooth. Wallpaper should sooth. A drink should sooth. Art should not sooth. Art should challenge and enrage and demand from you a response,” he said.

“Too many people hear music, whether it's jazz or otherwise, as a way to affirm what they already think about how great they are, and that's a problem,” he said. “And jazz musicians have bought into it.”

O'Farrill is carrying on the Afro Latin legacy of his father. The genre came out of the teaming of African-American and Latino jazz artists in the 1940s and 50s.

There's an intensity to O'Farrill's music that makes it stand out, as well as the occasional unexpected touch, like DJ Logic's scratching on Vaca Frita, a track on the Cuba album.

“Jazz without the hand drums is barbaric,” he said flatly, discussing what distinguishes Afro Latin jazz. “Without the conga, without the djembe, without the bongo-all this music comes from Africa. We should get on our knees every day and thank the music of Africa for making our lives liveable.”

O'Farrill founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance in 2007 to promote the music and support the orchestra. That year Trinidadian percussionist Sean Thomas also founded the Jazz Alliance of T&T, which organised the recent workshop and concert at Queen's Hall featuring O'Farrill.

“They provide an alternative to the jazz institutions that normally rule,” O'Farrill said of the jazz NGOs.

“The big institutions, the big competitions, the big festivals, the big record companies-they're all run by the same people and they're not privy to letting us have a voice or power or share in it.

“Organisations like the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and the alliance that Sean created is about letting others have a chance to shape culture and thought. So I think they're vital,” he said.

While he was here, O'Farrill experienced pan for the first time.

“I sat in the midst of Desperados while they were performing and it was one of the most sacred experiences of my life,” he said.

“That sound is so powerful,” he added. “It's a lot of people playing very fast, but it's like being in an airplane. You don't feel the speed. All you feel is the grace, the beauty, the movement.”

He believes the influence of the region is what will keep moving jazz forward.

“The best and most wonderful things done in jazz are done by Caribbean and Latin artists,” he said, mentioning Miguel Zenón, Pedrito Martinez and Emilio Solla.

“These are people that are doing really interesting music, and I think mainstream jazz has really kind of stayed the same,” he said. “I'm not worried about the future of jazz because it's in the hands of Afro Latinos.”

Art should not sooth. Art should challenge and enrage and demand from you a response.

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