Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Clave

Latin Jazz Finally Gets Its Due

But the flurry of high-profile recognition for many Cuban musicians also dances around some troubling political developments. The story of cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba has long been told along lines of political turmoil. Over the past two years, due to anti-terrorism initiatives as well as some specific anti-Cuban sentiment, the American government has tightened border restrictions. The standard-bearing Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés was forced to cancel a North American tour last fall due to a visa denial. This spring, the Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets tightened the regulations regarding travel for educational purposes between the U.S. and Cuba.

O'Farrill has begun to get e-mails and calls from anti-Castro Cuban Americans, some of them musicians, to make sure he's aware of the recent jailings of dissidents in Cuba. Still, like many musicians on both sides of the situation, he tries to maneuver around it. "People are always attaching political agendas when people visit Cuba," he said from his home in Brooklyn. "When I went to Cuba it had nothing to do with pro- or anti-Castro, pro- or anti-embargo. It was about culture and family, about my roots.

"And the turning point came the day we went to my father's house in the country. I remember first turning off the main road onto a dirt road, and looking at the rolling countryside, dotted with palm trees and some mangy-looking cows. I remember thinking that this is where it began, this is really what it's about: Here was a little white boy, basically, growing up in the Cuban countryside and falling in love with these rhythms and these sights."

Arturo O'Farrill, music director of Lincoln Center's new Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.
photo: Aaron Diskin
Arturo O'Farrill, music director of Lincoln Center's new Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

If the political climate does not prevent it, O'Farrill is planning to bring his father's orchestra to his family's Cuban hometown. "Even though Chico never made it physically back to the island, his music will be played there," he says. "I feel like he'll be there with us. The people will embrace his music, and it will be played and embraced here. And somehow, to some degree, all will seem right with the universe to me for just a split second."

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