NYC Pianist Arturo O'Farrill Finds Himself In Cuba, and Brings His Father Home

Chico O'Farrill never made it back. His music did.

If the U.S. was never quick to accept Latin jazz as its own, neither was Chico’s son Arturo. Born in Mexico, raised in New York, and educated at, among other institutions, the Manhattan School of Music, Arturo toured Europe in the big band led by avant-garde composer Carla Bley while still in his teens. “When I first began to play music, I rejected my father and my inherited culture,” he said. “I didn’t want to play no clave,” a reference to the elemental five-beat pattern that grounds Afro-Cuban music. “But a magical thing happened when my father got elderly and he needed help. I got past all the resistance and the fear, and I heard the music as if it was new to me.”

In the mid-’90s, Arturo approached Marsalis with the idea of creating a repertory group specifically for Latin jazz. In 2002, Marsalis took him up on it. Much like Jazz at Lincoln Center’s flagship group, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (a separate ensemble from the one in Chico’s name) was a working band meant to reinforce and extend historical repertory, including Chico’s own ambitious works. But after five years, the two groups parted ways—Arturo created his own organization, with a performance season hosted at the Upper West Side’s Symphony Space. He still feels pride and debt toward Marsalis and Lincoln Center, “But ultimately, as in the larger American culture, the Latin group became nothing more than a stepchild,” he said. In the liner notes to the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s new CD, 40 Acres and a Burro, he writes, “We are grateful to our hosts for our birth home, but it is definitely better to be the master of your own tidy cottage than a guest in someone else’s mansion.”

The 19th-century neoclassical building on the corner of Cuba and Chacón streets in Old Havana was once a mansion, built by Ricardo O’Farrill's grandson, Rafael, and now refurbished as the Palacio O’Farrill hotel. When Arturo showed up in 2002, “I just assumed that since my father is an expatriate, the people of Cuba would bear resentment toward him,” he recalled. “Or maybe that Castro had filtered out his memory.” The last thing Arturo expected was a royal reception, but hotel staff lined up in the street to welcome him. The warmest greeting came from Rafael Fernández Moya, a dark-skinned man with a warm smile and an air of authority—the author of such studies as The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba.

Arturo O'Farrill
Erika Goldring
Arturo O'Farrill
On the final night of the Havana International Jazz Festival, the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra played an emotional set at the Mella Theater.
Erika Goldring
On the final night of the Havana International Jazz Festival, the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra played an emotional set at the Mella Theater.

In front of the Palacio on Wednesday morning, the O’Farrills pack into a small bus with Moya, heading out of Havana proper. As a tour guide describes points of interest—“Here’s the house Ernest Hemingway bought in 1940”—Moya delves into more focused history. The first O’Farrill in Cuba was Ricardo O’Farrill O’Daly, whose ancestors were from County Longford in Ireland. Born on the island of Monserrat, he arrived via Jamaica, and worked for the South Sea Company—a slave runner and, later, a sugar-plantation owner.

The bus stops. Suddenly, Moya and Lupe exchange heated words. “This can’t be right,” Lupe insists. “It looks different.” Of course it does. The lovely house on what once was Casañas—or, as they’d call it, simply la finca (the farm), where Chico and Lupe spent most of their first year of marriage—is now a tannery’s headquarters. Gone is the bell atop the central house that distinguished the place. Most of the walls are now in ruins; one is covered by a pro-Castro mural.

We head to the town of Tapaste, where Arturo gets a tour of the church built by another O’Farrill ancestor. By the time we get to San José de las Lapas, his orchestra is warming up around a cement gazebo filling up with plastic chairs. Bassist Gregg August sandpapers the fingerboard of his borrowed instrument. Children fresh from school, dressed in white shirts and tan pants or skirts, mill about. “Chico’s father was born here,” Moya says, “and Chico’s grandfather is buried here.” Before long, the town’s historian has unfolded and laid on the ground a handwritten genealogy tracing eight generations of O’Farrills. Soon, a crowd of some 200 assembles and, just like that, a concert commences, the orchestra jammed into the gazebo, with Arturo on a Korg electric keyboard. The hour-long performance ends with “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite.” Afterward, Oberstein sets off to connect with his own personal history. A cousin of his leads us to the teal-colored house nearby, where his mother was raised (she moved to the U.S. as a child). It was built by his grandfather, whose father had owned tobacco farms in the area.

“I’ve played that suite so many times,” drummer Vince Cherico says during the bus ride back to Havana. “But when we went to that town, I saw some old women who clearly have lived through it all—the revolution and everything since. They had their eyes closed, and they were swaying. I felt like I understood something new about the music.”

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