This Album Shows Why It's Time To Stop Isolating Cuba

Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra have been building bridges to Cuba since long before the diplomatic thaw.

When American and Cuban officials gathered on Aug. 14 to formally reinaugurate the U.S. Embassy in Havana after half a century of severed diplomatic relations, pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill was among those in attendance.

It was important for him to be there. Long before diplomats began secretly hammering out a deal to normalize relations between the Cold War enemies, O’Farrill -- who was born in Mexico and raised in New York City -- had started cultivating relationships with a group of innovative Cuban musicians, most of whom are relative unknowns in the United States.

The product of those efforts is the new album “Cuba: The Conversation Continues.” On Oct. 17, O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra will debut the album in a performance at Hostos Center for the Arts in the Bronx.

The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra recording at Abdala Studios in Havana in 2014.
The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra recording at Abdala Studios in Havana in 2014.

Originally released in August, “Cuba: The Conversation Continues” is an album that encapsulates the historic rapprochement. Continuing the musical dialogue that began in New York in the 1940s with American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, the album highlights the common ties between the two countries by showcasing musical traditions that fuse African and European roots.

“This is a beautiful moment in history,” O’Farrill said. “I think the great lesson of this era is that what we have appropriated as jazz in the United States is actually about a greater story that is not about national ownership. This is part of a larger pan-American movement.”

Listen to the first movement of the "Afro Latin Jazz Suite" above.

The 10 Cuban musicians who joined the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra last year to record the album at Havana's Abdala Studios represent the diverse sounds and styles that have percolated in Cuba over the last five decades, but have rarely made it across the Florida Straits to U.S. listeners.

Pianist Alexis Bosch, who adopts an elegantly restrained style on “Guajira Simple,” bucks the traditional idea of the almost excessively flamboyant and virtuosic Cuban pianist. On “El Bombón,” the flashy musician Cotó offers punchy and percussive solos on the tres, a guitar with three double strings that helps anchor the rhythm in some traditional Cuban music styles. 

Cotó’s solo begins around the 3:00 mark in this video of a 1997 performance for Cuban television. 

The American musicians also shine, with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s snaking lines appearing throughout. And, of course, there's O’Farrill himself, who composed the album’s four-part “Afro Latin Jazz Suite.” It’s an album that symbolizes what can happen when the barriers that separate the United States from Cuba fall.

For O’Farrill, the album is more than a professional accomplishment. O’Farrill is the son of Chico O’Farrill, a great Cuban bandleader and composer who died in New York in 2001. When Arturo O’Farrill traveled to Cuba to record the album, he went with his two sons, Adam and Zack -- both of whom are accomplished musicians in their own right and perform on the record.

“I think that’s one of the great surprises,” O’Farrill told HuffPost. “The Cuban culture, the pace, the speed, the aesthetic of Cuban culture really resonates with Zack and Adam. And sometimes I watch them interact with other musicians either here or in Cuba -- it’s almost like watching them access parts of themselves that they didn’t have access to before. I wish my father were here to see it, and to see that they still are Cuban on some level.”

Watch the making of “Cuba: The Conversation Continues” at the top of this story.