Afro Cuban jazz great Arturo O’Farrill provides hands-on demo
(Ran as a full page in Westport News 2/4)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Westport, CT – Though recent heavy snowfalls had cooled Westport’s spirits, the hot Latin rhythms that Arturo O’Farrill banged out on a recent Sunday afternoon did much to reignite them.
The pianist, composer, educator and winner of the 2003 Latin Jazz USA Outstanding Achievement Award made an appearance at the Westport Arts Center at 51 Riverside Avenue Jan. 30 to present “Bang on a Drum: Latin Rhythms for Kids” program. The presentation was an introduction for children and their families to Latin rhythms and beats, featuring hands-on demonstrations and education.
“I thought this season we would do world music styles and that it would be great for the community to hear one of the world’s greatest Afro Cuban jazz musicians,” said Brian Torff, Westport Arts Center’s artistic director for jazz. “We always do at least one educational program a year. It’s important to introduce children to the profound value of music to our lives.”
Torff and O’Farrill have a long-standing connection. “I’m a bass player and have performed with Arturo,” said Torff. “We’ve known each other at least 10 years. We spoke about this a year ago and he was very enthusiastic about providing music education.”
To that regard, O’Farrill said, “I founded a non-profit called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, which is dead serious about music education. We have residencies in New York City public schools where we actually give students instruments and small group instruction. We send master musicians into the field to teach them how to play. The kids may not realize they’re working with internationally famous musicians. Performing is teaching and teaching is living, and without it you’re winging it.”
O’Farrill has also served on the faculty at S.U.N.Y. Purchase and the University of Massachusetts and has taught everyone from nursery school students to doctoral candidates.
As a performer, Mexican-born, New York City bred O’Farrill created the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center and produced a debut album, “Una Noche Inolvidable”, which earned a 2006 Grammy Award. A follow-up album with the Orchestra, “Song for Chico”, earned a 2008 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.
Adults and children alike were excited to be in O’Farrill’s company. “There aren’t many live music experiences that you can expose children to that are age appropriate,” said Norwalk resident Susan Blazer, attending with grandson Logan, 4.
Westonite Candace Halpern, onsite with her husband Jeff and son Alexander, 6, said Westport friends, who knew that Alex is very interested in music, invited them. “He’s been studying the piano for a year and a half. I love the up-close, personal and interactive nature of this event.”
Employing a host of percussion tools including metal shakers, clave sticks, congas, guiros, fuche cabasas, sticks and beaters, O’Farrill engaged the crowd with both his personable style but also a step-by-step educational approach.
“Pretend you’re in Puerto Rico and it’s 90 degrees outside and you’ve got your toes in the sand,” the performer said, demonstrating how to strike a conga with both the fleshy part and heel of his hand. “Open, heel, toe, snap,” he called out. Youngsters in the group mimicked his actions.
“Let’s move our bodies,” O’Farrill added, introducing movement to complement the rhythms. “You’ve got to have fun.”
With the audience’s collaboration, O’Farrill gradually built what he called a “Mambo Lasagna” comprised of instruments, sounds and clapping he termed “ingredients”. It was a hot meal to be sure that sated the appetite of attendees, smiles spreading across their faces.