Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodríguez plays the soundtrack to his life

By Heather Longley

From a young age, Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodríguez lived a musical life, first studying at a conservatory and later performing with his father’s television band. He might have been isolated on the Caribbean island, but as a youth he was content to learn as much as he could about playing music.

Eventually, years before relations improved between the United States and the Communist country, Rodríguez began dreaming of leaving his homeland for a new life in America.

Others might have been driven by political or economic freedom. Rodríguez just wanted his improvisational music career to thrive.

“I was in a moment in my life that I wanted to experience something different in my life as well as with my music, which, for me, is the same,” he says.

After performing a set at the 2006 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Rodríguez was introduced to legendary producer Quincy Jones, who encouraged him to seek amnesty in the United States to pursue his art. He captured the adventure of leaving with nothing but the clothes on his back, being detained by patrols, and then being set free in the song “Crossing the Border” on his 2012 debut recording, Sounds of Space.

“For me, music is more about life, more about movement, more about feeling. It’s more about who we are,” Rodríguez told NPR’s All Things Considered shortly after his debut dropped. “Sometimes music is not coming from happiness or sadness. Music is coming from … movement, or walking, or crossing the border.”

According to a review on the Latin Jazz Network website, “Crossing the Border” at times explodes with a powerful bass rhythm, “as if he were wishing the old country goodbye with a salute and a flourish.”

But on 2014’s The Invasion Parade, Rodríguez recollects his home country, most notably with his version of the Cuban standard “Guantanamera,” composed in the 1920s by Joseíto Fernández. Rodríguez’s version earned him a 2015 Grammy Award nomination for best instrumental arrangement. His past is still a part of his present and future.

“I always wanted to pay tribute to all of those songs … but I wanted to in my own way,” he recalls. “I always say that the ‘Guantanamera’ I know is different than the ‘Guantanamera’ that Joséito knew because (it’s) not the same when you compose a song (in one time period and) when you try to recreate a song in the moment where we are living today. The music has to be different if you really want to translate what you are living.”

Rodríguez made the United States his home in 2009 and has acclimated to his surroundings, but the most visible difference between the two countries has been good for his music.

“We have created in Cuba a very unique and powerful culture all because we’ve been all around Cubans. You come to the United States, and you see friends whose families are from different parts of the world,” he says. “I play from experiences that I have every day. So living in the United States or living in another country, meeting new people, ... really affects my music because it affects my personality.”

The musician’s recent projects include a collaboration with visual artist Vincent Corpet and drummer Michael Olivera at Jazz á Vienne. In that project, Synesthesia, the musicians perform in real time to the painter’s brushstrokes. In August, Rodríguez teamed with experimental Los Angeles DJ Daedelus and violinist Ray Ushibuko for a live classical music remix. Both performances allowed the pianist to exercise his love for spontaneity. He also has been playing with new instruments and techniques that previously were unavailable to him.

“In Cuba, it’s very difficult to find electronic instruments,” he says. “I am just putting myself in different situations where I can learn from different experiences, and electronic sounds is something that attracts me.”

The result of his life experiences may be unpredictable, but his improvisational music is headed exactly in the direction he wanted it to go.

“It’s like speaking,” he says. “We have a topic. We know we are gonna talk about the topic, but we don't know which words are gonna be the right words for us to tell the story. Maybe we have a song. We know kind of the way that we want to go, but it … depends on how we’re feeling that day. What means maybe happiness for you today maybe is gonna be different tomorrow.”