Arturo O’Farrill is a five-time GRAMMY Award-winning artist, global jazz studies professor at UCLA and the associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.
O’Farrill recently announced a life-changing project with the New York City Department of Housing Development and Preservation, Lantern Organization and Mega Development Inc. The project will build a new 16,000 square foot Afro-Latin Music and Arts Center (ALMA), and nearly 600 new affordable homes to the neighborhood of East Harlem. In addition to hosting professional music performances, the center will offer free or affordable music education to people of all ages, alongside job training in the arts including an anti-gun initiative. The ALMA will be operated by the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA), of which O’Farrill is the Founder and Artistic Director.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d build a performing arts center and somehow marry it to a social cause like affordable housing, in the rapidly gentrifying East Harlem neighborhood,” O’Farrill said. “Senator Brian Benjamin, whose district this project lies in, thought this marriage of culture and community, ‘raised the bar’ for community building proposals. I’m confident we can bring something like this to LA and California and create conduits for marginalized diverse youth to find their way into elite institutions like The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.”
In a virtual interview, O’Farrill offered insights into his inspiration for his latest album “four Questions,” working with Blue Note Records, co-chairing the School of Music’s Anti-Racism Action Committee, planning for the new academic year and what he’s most looking forward to professionally this year.
Can you share more about the work on your upcoming new album and what it means to you?
It’s the highest honor for a jazz musician to join the Blue Note family. They arguably have the most venerated catalog in jazz history. It’s also very meaningful to me because the music was written for a brilliant Cuban dance company named Malpaso. Since I’m half Mexican and half Cuban, for me to have a series of releases on the most prestigious American label means that we’ve arrived at a point where a Latinx artist can find a foothold in the jazz world without necessarily being relegated to the “Latin” jazz category. My relationship with Cuba and its artists has been a committed one. I don’t go there as a tourist. I don’t go there to support or denigrate a political ideology. I’ve been going for 20 plus years to give thanks to and learn from a people who’ve suffered much yet continue to share generosity through their culture and art. James Early, former Director of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, calls what I do cultural diplomacy. There are some prominent Cuban Americans who’ve criticized me publicly for interacting with the Cuban people, but I do so apolitically and with much love and gratitude.
What inspired you to make your new album?
There are two suites on the record. The first five selections are from a suite called Despedida. The work deals with something we know all too well coming out of a pandemic year. It deals with loss, saying goodbye, parting voluntarily or without choice. I’ve lost many friends over the years and one gets to understand eventually that the joy we feel in life is all the more precious because it is not promised or permanent. The second half of the recording is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and even though the work is not a literal retelling of the story, it evokes the sense of centeredness of Hemingway’s main character even as his journey is filled with a sense of alienation.
What are you most looking forward to professionally in 2021?
I have a very exciting world premiere in September of a work commissioned by the School of the Arts in Columbia University. “Mundoagua” was written to celebrate the year of water and is heavily messaged with climate change, the effect it has on our limited supply of water and the politics that are always involved in who has access to fresh, clean water. I’m hard at work on an opera called Lucero. I am also seeing the limited release of two vinyl projects that I’m very proud of, “The Centennial Suites,” celebrating the centennial of my father Arturo ‘Chico’ O’Farrill who is considered one of the architects of Afro Cuban Jazz, and “Love and Resilience,” a project I created for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Casita Maria. I am also beginning to tour a little. We’ll be touring throughout California in October and I’ll be joining up with my dear brother Cornel West where we’ll be performing “Four Questions” at the Kennedy Center.
During the 2020-21 academic year, the school’s Anti-Racism Action Committee led several key initiatives including the Still Waiting Speaker Series. What would the committee like to achieve in the new academic year?
This is just the beginning for the Anti-RacismAction Committee. We will be issuing a public report and recommendations and we will be working closely with the Dean’s Office to implement the recommendations of the committee members. We expect to hold regular forums and monthly events to which the UCLA community will be invited to continue to dialogue about what makes our community a safer, more welcoming place for all. The Still Waiting Speaker Series will be ramping up and we will have recognized national leaders address us on issues that relate to institutionalized racism in academia but in particular in higher music education.
What excites you most about returning to in-person instruction this fall?
Everything, the camaraderie, the collegiality, the acoustics of laughter in crowded hallways, the chance of bumping into people that only happens when you are going from class to class. But, most of all, the chance to be with students and watch in actual real time as we go on journeys of discovery together.
On October 30, 2021, O’Farrill will perform “Four Questions” with his GRAMMY Award-Winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.. The performance will include a collaboration with preeminent scholar, philosopher and civil rights activist, Dr. Cornel West.