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UNC's Festival on the Hill 

Bringing Latino bands and fans to campus

click to enlarge Totally cool: Gonzalo Rubalcaba
  • Totally cool: Gonzalo Rubalcaba

UNC-Chapel Hill's annual Festival on the Hill aims to bring academics and working musicians together for a weekend-long series of workshops, panels and concerts. Recent themes have centered on Stravinsky and Black Mountain College, but this year's series, entitled "Transcending Borders," embraces the growing trend of Latin American and Latino music in North Carolina.

"The idea is to recognize our local musicians here who are playing this music, to bring them onto campus to collaborate with faculty, as well as the audiences, which hopefully will also consist of people from the community," says assistant professor David F. Garcia, himself a musician interested in breaking down the ivory tower walls. "We have tried to target Latinos, to bring them onto campus, for essentially the same reason, to break down these barriers, these borders that tend to separate us artificially."

The series will put scholars, DJs, composers, musicians and dancers together for discussions on everything from Brazil to the Baroque, including contemporary developments in Mexican music, Afro-Caribbean jazz, tango and local Spanish-language radio. Concerts at Memorial Hall and The ArtsCenter highlight local bands such as Orquesta GarDel and Rey Norteño and prominent guest artists such as jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and composer Tania León. The Cuban-born León presents the world premiere of her piece "Ancient," a vocal work based on Mayan and Incan poems and short stories.

Some of the concerts require paid admission, but most festival events are free. "It's definitely designed so that people who either know a lot about the music or a little bit about the music or nothing at all can come and learn something," says Garcia, "and get something out of it."

Few artists transcend musical borders better than Cuban pianist and composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba. From a musical family but classically trained, Rubalcaba is both an icon and an iconoclast in the world of jazz. "Discovered" by Dizzy Gillespie on a trip to Cuba in the '80s, Rubalcaba set new standards for Afro-Cuban jazz with his 1991 album, The Blessing. With flying technical speed and monk-like ellipses, Rubalcaba redacts standards from both the North American and Cuban musical universes, adding codas of his own that render the tunes new.

Rubalcaba doesn't like distinctions between classical and popular music, proving it on his live album, Imagine, which includes a stunning reimagining of the John Lennon tune. Rubalcaba's image negates opposites, too: On one hand, he comes off as the freckled, bespectacled music nerd, someone who's made it his life's work to lift Cuba's neglected classical composers from the dusty crates of history. On the other, he's the epitome of tropical cool, relaxed yet meticulous, his gaze serious behind designer eyewear.

Behind the hip lens, Rubalcaba is on a deep mission: Using his special chemistry at the keyboard to set the history of world music on shuffle. He shared his insights on the process by phone from his South Florida home.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You've recently shifted to a quintet format versus the trio or quartet you've worked with in the past. Why?

GONZALO RUBALCABA: Well, the more people you add in a group, the more possibilities you have to combine sounds and textures and rhythm, so there's more possibilities, more tools to work with. But I think in the end the most important thing is to feel comfortable with the human part. I mean the musicians, what they offer, what you can exchange with them. That is more important than how many people are in the band. I'm enjoying everything we have to say, that we have to speak, between us.

Avatar, the new album, includes a prelude by classical composers Alejandro Garcia Caturla and Amadeo Roldan. Do you see yourself in the tradition of those early 20th-century Cuban composers?

Yeah, well, in part. My whole training, my whole discipline was as part of a classical school in Cuba. And I had that feeling when I was a student that we don't have enough information, or at least we didn't have the opportunity to [access] the classical Cuban music as much as we did the European music. So part of my mission, my work, after I finished school, was trying to get more knowledge about the Cuban [classical] tradition. In the last 15 years or more, that has been one of my targets.

What's your relationship to traditional Cuban music?

[It's] very common and very present in many of my albums, styles like danzon, bolero, Afro-Cuban styles. It's not a music that I learned through albums or through books. It's the music that I was able to see and to hear personally because this is what I heard since I was a little kid.

From people like Frank Emilio Flynn and your father, Guillermo Rubalcaba?

Exactly. I had no idea how important this experience was until I was in my 20s. I really realized how powerful that experience was that I had during those years at home in Cuba. It's because I feel that I have that history behind me that I feel free to work with other cultures, because I feel that I can do something when I work with something different. I'm not empty, you know.

How did you come up with the idea to record John Lennon's "Imagine"?

It wasn't originally my idea. This idea came from people at EMI Toshiba in Japan. They asked me, "Do you think you would be able to play, for example, Beatles music?" And I said, "Well, why not?" It was my idea to work with music not originally jazz, so I wanted to play music coming from different styles, like pop music or boleros.

With a band like the Beatles, people have in their mind a very specific way to play or interpret that music. So it's a challenge coming up with a different position, a different attitude. This is very risky, but I love that. And I love to run those risks, especially when I feel confident about what I'm going to propose. That has been a constant in my career.

You have a particular touch on the keyboard that's very identifiable. Are there things you do technically to achieve this texture?

This is one of the most commonly asked questions: How to produce that sound? I can give a lot of comments and I can talk about all the technical rudiments, how to get quick or to get clear in your articulation, or the movement in the hands and the arms and the disposition of the body, whatever. But at the end, I think your relationship with the instrument is very personal. And the way you approach the piano and touch it is very connected with what you have inside. [Rubalcaba searches for a word, and our conversation shifts into Spanish.]

I could explain about the whole internal process I practice to produce the note. But in the end, I think the result is very spiritual, very chemical. It's related to one's sensibility, to passion, to happiness, to sadness, to the memories and experiences of every player, of every human being. I think everyone has the capacity to say things in a way that is very unique, very personal. You don't necessarily have to play a musical style in the way that history dictates. Sometimes one can play baroque music from a point of view that is outside of the accumulated history of the Baroque.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba plays Memorial Hall Saturday, March 29, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$50. Tania León presents her new work Thursday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Memorial Hall. Tickets are $10-$15. For the complete schedule—including music by Rey Norteño and Orquesta GarDel, dance workshops and seminars—see music.unc.edu/festivalonthehill2008.


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