Pianist Returns to Cuba's Forbidden Music

Gonzalo Rubalcaba is one of the most popular pianists on the jazz scene. The Cuban expatriate's latest CD touches on some of the music he was forbidden to learn in Communist Cuba: the work of Cuban classical composers. Rolando Arrieta profiles the artist.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. And now a story about freedom of expression and how an artist who was once stifled by his Communist government is embracing his national tradition. Cuban-born Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns heads with his jazz piano playing.

When he was a student, much of Cuba's traditional music was off limits. Now, Rubalcaba has brought back those once forbidden sounds. His latest recording is called Solo. NPR's Rolando Arrieta has this profile.

ROLANDO ARRIETA reporting:

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

(Soundbite of music and singing)

Mr. GONZALO RUBALCABA (Musician): It was very easy to see all kind of traditional Cuban representation (unintelligible) activities as something normal.

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 classical music)

Mr. RUBALCABA: They were very serious about make us learn about the European heritage, the European musical tradition, the whole history, the Renaissance, Baroque, romantic Impressionists, Expressionists, the contemporary 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 (Author, Music and Revolution): 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 Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Rubalcaba learned composition from teachers who came from Eastern Europe.

Mr. RUBALCABA: It was ridiculous. At some point we knew more about the European tradition 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. 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 the 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 music)

Mr. RUBALCABA: So we couldn't play that music at the school, but (unintelligible) that soon as the moment that we finish our work activities at the school everyday, we'd be playing a different music from somewhere around the city.

ARRIETA: By the late 1970s, jazz was everywhere in Cuba. Well-known groups like Ketageta(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 open 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 music)

ARRIETTA: 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. Dilly Gillespie and Charlie Hayden wanted to hire him. If 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 Culture Minister in Havana. I was honest with him. I said I did everything that I could do here in Cuba. And I - I need to develop my career and I need to expand my life. I need to do what I had 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.

ARRIETTA: 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 music)

ARRIETTA: 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 just improvisation, defined in some way my musical personality.

(Soundbite of music)

ARRIETTA: 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 that a lot of things to do about those composers in terms 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.

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

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