Interview: Conjunto Philadelphia

Our monthly Havana Nights series features authentic Cuban cuisine, cocktails, and music courtesy of Philly’s most exciting Cuban band, Conjunto Philadelphia. If you haven’t been to one yet, we’ve got three Fridays left for the year – October 6, November 3, & December 1. Admission is FREE but reservations are recommended. We caught up with Conjunto’s Musical Director Jeff Torchon – read the full interview below!

WCL: What inspired you to start studying Cuban music and how did you come to form the band Conjunto?

Jeff: It’s been close to ten years now since I started pursuing my passion for Cuban music. During my freshman year of college at Temple University, I was introduced to the Buena Vista Social Club documentary. This film tells the story of older Cuban musicians who were forgotten about after the Cuban Revolution and chronicles their work to showcase Cuban music throughout the world towards the end of the twentieth century. The music resonated with me in such a way no music had ever done before. It was infectious, intriguing, innovative, and – most of all – magical. The sounds were a melting pot of West African, European and Spanish cultures, and this piqued my curiosity – I just had to know more.

I spent a great deal of time exploring Cuban music by listening to recordings, learning the songs on the piano and reading about the music. In 2010, I brought together a group of local jazz musicians and held a concert at a local jazz club performing the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. This was my first public foray into the music and it was a success. After this concert, I had the impetus to travel to Cuba to continue my studies. It was not easy at the time for a college student to travel to Cuba on his own, so I did the next best thing in my mind – I traveled to Miami to research and study Cuban music with musicians in Little Havana. I studied with some amazing Cuban musicians and learned about so much more that Cuba had to offer than the Buena Vista Social Club. My eyes were open to the incredible wealth of music that existed from Cuba – Miguel Matamoros, Beny More, Arsenio Rodriguez, Orquesta América, Enrique Jorrín – and how that music influenced Jazz and other popular music in our country. I came back to Philadelphia with an even stronger passion for Cuban music – wanting to formalize the band that I had put together earlier that year as well as find a way to travel to Cuba legally.

I was able to officially found, Conjunto Philadelphia, my Cuban music group that performs regularly in the Philadelphia area and has become my outlet for exploring Cuban music. This band still exists today and performs all around the Philadelphia region. Our mission is to pay homage to Cuba’s deep and treasured musical history and perform it in a way that is true to its origins. The band, after having been together for seven years now, is an active organization within the Philadelphia area. We have performed at Chris’ Jazz Café, Longwood Gardens, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Penn Museum, the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, and the World Cafe Live (where we perform on the first Friday of each month for their Havana Nights Cuban music series). We have gained a strong following in the region and are lucky to be one of the few groups performing this type of music. You can visit our website for upcoming concert dates or for more information about the band: http://www.conjuntophilly.com

Your Master’s thesis was on “Cha-cha-cha”! Can you tell us a little about this and how do people react when you say you’re a master in Cha-Cha-Cha!

Yes! This was an incredible experience. Here is my abstract from my Thesis:

One of the most distinctive musical genres that originated in Cuba over the last century has been Cha-Cha-Chá, which was created by Enrique Jorrín in the 1950s. The popularity of this music has grown considerably since its genesis, evidenced by the vast array of repertoire associated with the style of music, the multitude of bands performing it and its prevalence in popular culture. The music has traveled the world via aural transmission; advances in technology have helped to disseminate Cha-Cha-Chá and have contributed to its prevalence. Very little research—particularly research written in the English language—exists on this genre and its creator. Due to its musical significance and social impact, it is important to understand Cha-Cha-Chá’s place in modern Cuba and how it has been preserved over time. The purpose of this study is to discuss Enrique Jorrín’s influence on the creation and performance of Cha-Cha-Chá, and to discuss the importance of Cha-Cha-Chá in American music education.

What many people don’t realize is that the Cha-Cha-Chá is a uniquely Cuban music and dance style that originated on the island in the early 1950’s. It comes out of the Danzón style of music that was popular in Cuba during 1940s. These rhythms were tweaked and evolved to become what is known today as Cha-Cha-Chá. My Thesis not only explored the musical style of Cha-Cha-Chá, how it developed and was created, but also how it could be incorporated and used in music education here in the United States. Since my degree was in Music Education and I am a full-time music teacher (Middle and High School) at Germantown Friends School, this connection between Cuban music and Music Education seemed timely and appropriate.

You’ve traveled to Cuba many times, describe some of your musical experiences there.

My trips to Cuba have been incredible. I was also able to travel to Cuba and have since taken five trips to the island. Most of my adventures were categorized as people-to-people trips by the US government and allowed me to explore the music, culture and history of the island. These trips all consisted of a detailed itinerary set by the tour company that promoted cultural exchange between the participants and the Cuban people. We were not able to deviate from these itineraries during the day due to US regulations on Cuba travel (these regulations are still in place today). We were able to go out to hear music at night on the trips – we heard some incredible music! While these trips were enlightening, I did not have the freedom I would have liked to explore on my own. Luckily, I was able to travel to Cuba again as a graduate researcher and was able to move about freely to explore. I interviewed many musicians about their musical experiences, studied the music in-depth, and truly created an engaging and holistically musical experience for myself. The knowledge that I brought back contributed to the writing of my Masters Thesis on Cuban Cha-Cha-Chá and its implications for use in United States Music Education as well as my general understanding and studies of Cuban music.

One of the highlights of my trips was the ability to interact with Cuban musicians in the various music clubs, bars and restaurants. So many of these places have live music in Cuba and it was so incredible to listen to the music (all traditional Son, Cha-Cha-Chá and Bolero) as well as share that I am a jazz pianist from Philadelphia and like Cuban music. As soon as I mentioned that, I was invited to play with them. Much to the shock of many of the musicians I met, I was able to play the Cuban songs that they knew and played regularly! We had a lot of fun in those moments. One place in particular, Café Paris, which is a small club/bar in Old Havana, gave me the opportunity to play many times during my travels. I had gone in there a few years back on one of my first trips to play and then hadn’t been back for a few years. When my wife and I went back to Havana in December 2016, we went to Café Paris. I hadn’t remembered the musicians’ names or anything at all and we were just listening from our seats. The bass player made eye contact with me and motioned as if to ask me if I wanted to play the keyboard. I nodded my head and he invited me up. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak enough Spanish to have a full conversation – but we communicated with the language of music. It was pretty awesome!

How’s the food?

The food is wonderful. Cuba has a unique endeavor called Paladars. These are privately-owned restaurants (which is not very common in Cuba because everything is owned by the government). These restaurants started out being 3 or 4 tables in people’s private houses (living rooms). Now, many Paladars are what we would consider in the US to be normal restaurants with full dining rooms and reservations taken well in advance. The food is heavy with rice and beans, seafood and meat. These Paladars get quality ingredients from local organic farms and have great tasting food. The food isn’t always the spiciest because of lack of resources, but it is quite good!

Do they really drink mojitos in Cuba?

Yes! The Mojito is a very popular drink in Cuba and Rum is very cheap in Cuba. While Mojitos are popular among the tourists, I’m not sure how many Cubans drink Mojitos as opposed to straight Rum (Havana Club brand – which you can bring back from Cuba now!). Sugar is one of Cuba’s largest crops and because of that, it is cheap to have and cheap to make rum as well.

List the 5 essential artists/albums you would recommend to introduce people to Cuban music and why they are so important.

Beny More – one of greatest band leaders and vocalists ever to come out of Cuba. Popular in the 1940s – he was the lead singer for his own group that had a banda gigantic (big band) similar to the Jazz Big Bands. Popular song to check out: “Como Fue”

Arsenio Rodriguez – popular três guitar player in Cuba in the 1940s and the 1950s. Great dance band that would perform all over Cuba, and especially in Havana. Ruben Gonzalez, pianist of the Buena Vista Social Club, got his start in this band. Arsenio’s group was the original “Conjunto” format, incorporating the piano and tres as well as Congas into an ensemble with the clave rhythm being very much a part of the groove. Popular song: “Rincón Caliente”

Buena Vista Social Club – this iconic group from the mid-1990s brought traditional Cuban music (Son, Cha-Cha-Chá, Bolero and Danzón) back into the world spotlight. Musicians in this group were some of the most famous ever to exist in Cuba and were all brought together to perform this timeless music. Notable songs include: “Chan Chan” or “El Cuarto De Tula”

Bebo Valdes – One of the best Cuban pianists ever to live. He was the director of the Tropicana Nightclub orchestra in the 1940s and 1950s – left Cuba shortly after the revolution and ended up in obscurity until the 1990s when he was rediscovered and recorded many albums. He is the father to the great Chucho Valdes and is one of the most underrated Cuban pianists of all time (in my opinion). Song to listen to: “La Comparsa”

Enriqure Jorrín – Known as the creator of Cha-Cha-Chá, he played in both Orquesta America and then his own group, Orquesta Jorrín. Great bandleader and violinist and composer. Notable songs include: “Silver Star” and “La Engañadora”

What’s next for the band? We hear you’re working on an album.

The band and I are currently embarking on a new project to travel to Cuba and share our music with the Cuban people. This cultural exchange opportunity would be an amazing chance to bridge our two cultures and tear down the walls of politics, bringing us together as humans to share music and cultural ideas. It would also be an incredible opportunity for us to show the Cuban people that a group of musicians from the United States is trying to uphold their musical heritage to the best of our ability. While in Cuba, we plan to record the band’s first album at EGREM studios, where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded their music in the 1990s. This is also the studio where many other famous Cuban musicians recorded their music during the twentieth century. If you are interested in helping us achieve this project, please consider giving to our GoFundMe project at http://www.gofundme.com/conjuntophilly

We love it, you love it, why should everyone love Conjunto’s Havana Nights at WCL?

Havana Nights have really become a great way for Conjunto Philadelphia to bring their music to World Cafe Live and reach a wider audience. The nights have been packed with reservations at the tables and full dance floors as well. It’s really quite a success and we are looking forward to continuing to offer our music at World Cafe Live moving forward. Each time we do Havana Nights we make it more and more culturally connected to Cuban culture. There are Cuban drink specials, Cuban food specials that hint at Cuban food items, a place for folks to dance to the Cuban rhythms and sounds and a band (the only one in Philadelphia) that performs solely the music of Cuba from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. We are honored to be a part of this event series and can’t wait to play again!

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