At first the names Arturo and O’Farrill don’t seem to belong together. But, in the long, romantic history of the Hibernia-Hispania connection, they do: Bernardo O’Higgins liberated Chile; the San Patricios Brigade fought for Mexico in its War of Independence; the Milesians, settlers of ancient Ireland, sailed from Spain to “the Promised Isle.” Then there were those lucky sailors, survivors of the Spanish Armada who, after being tossed on the shore of West Ireland, liked what they saw and just…stayed.
When the Catholic King James II was deposed, many Irish natives, realizing a grim future lay ahead, left Ireland, including a son of County Longford reborn in Cuba as Don Ricardo O’Farrill y O’Daly. Descendants of the Don prospered in Havana and today, their family mansion is the 4-star Hotel Palacio O’Farrill, featuring a Salón Longford. Havana was where Chico O’Farrill, father of today’s inductee, was born and rejected his father’s career choice (law) for himself, instead becoming a jazz musician and the star of the 1940s Afro-Cuban music scene. He brought his bold, fiery sound to New York, wrote with bebop greats to create a new style by fusing Latin rhythms with jazz. Chico never returned to Cuba. But his son, our Hall of Fame inductee, Arturo O’Farrill – pianist, composer, educator, and six-time Grammy winner – has returned for his father.
Arturo has been America’s de facto cultural diplomat to Cuba, performing and teaching there since 2002. He has succeeded in building a bridge between the two countries despite decades of hostility between their governments. Arturo played the same role in Cuba that Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie played as “jazz ambassadors” to the Soviet Union, a mission that helped defuse tensions during the Cold War. By performing with Cuba’s musicians and educating its youth, Arturo employed music’s greatest strength: the ability to communicate without saying a word.
In 2010 he was in the immigration area of José Martí Airport when he noticed something odd, “The guy who took my passport was smiling broadly, really beaming.” He soon found out why – President Obama had normalized relations with Cuba. Within 48 hours he was recording CUBA: The Conversation Continues, which later had critics raving, “A visionary album…by imagining the future, Arturo has given us something timeless.” Eight months later, he was at the newly re-opened U.S. Embassy when the American flag was raised for the first time in 54 years.
But Arturo’s career didn’t begin in Afro-Cuban jazz; he first replayed Chico’s father / son conflict and rejected the music and culture of his own father. A piano virtuoso from an early age, Arturo vowed to avoid clavé, the five-beat pattern elemental to Cuban music. He wanted to forge his own musical identity working with groups that blended hip-hop, funk, and disco. At 19, experimental artist Carla Bley was in a bar, heard him play, and immediately recruited him for her band in an upcoming show at Carnegie Hall. After four years with Carla, Arturo went solo to tour the globe with, among others, Wynton Marsalis and Harry Belafonte.
Arturo returned to his roots in 1990 when his father, after years of obscurity, enlisted him in his comeback. “I was able to let go of many ghosts of the past,” Arturo said when asked about his shift in musical direction. With his son at the piano, Chico conducted the 18-piece big band, “My father was a brilliant man, and the honorable thing to do was help him get his art out. It was very much a filial responsibility, but an artistic responsibility as well.” It was during this time that Arturo found his true context, “I realized that the music we call ‘Latin’ is unbelievably important, unbelievably beautiful, and unbelievably hard to play…”
The comeback gave the senior O’Farrill the greatest success of his career and a series of albums produced by Todd Barkan followed. The savvy producer found a fundamental difference between the O’Farrills, “Arturo is a very protean figure, more protean than even his dad because he has a wider scope of interests and influences.” To honor Chico, who died in 2001, Arturo assembled the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Band, later renamed the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) a nonprofit arts and education organization that found a home at Lincoln Center and later at Symphony Space.
A passionate educator and man of scholarship, Arturo has been a professor at various colleges, now teaching at the Manhattan School of Music while spearheading an important program in the New York City public school system. The ALJO, under his direction, has provided instruments and instruction to public schools and produced a gifted youth orchestra, the Fat Afro Latin Jazz Cats. His message to his students, “Do things that sound beautiful and have a life of their own. That’s more important than you, the artist; it’s about the art.”
Seemingly tireless, Arturo continues to travel, performing both with his own band and other orchestras, producing albums, working with dance companies, and writing ballets. He’s received commissions from multiple institutions from Lincoln Center to the Apollo Theatre. He and his wife, Alison Dean, a classical pianist, have two sons, Zachary (a drummer) and Adam (a trumpeter), who formed their own musical group: the O’Farrill Brothers Band. The legacy continues.
The kid who rejected his musical heritage is now the global spokesperson for Afro-Cuban music. And speaking of heritage, Arturo co-founded and plays with Bill and Heather Bixler in a Celtic-Latin group, the Auction Project, creating “a place where Celtic reels merge with gospel and funk.” Their version of “She Moves Through the Fair” is unforgettable. Arturo is again returning to Ireland this summer, where he’ll tour and study traditional Irish music. It’s all more fodder for his television work-in-progress, Rhythms of Life, a series showing how the “universal language” offers windows into the lives of people around the world. Arturo’s recent and successful concert in Abu Dhabi, featuring artists from the Middle East, brought home the joyful message: music is what brings us together. ♦
Rosemary Rogers co-authored, with Sean Kelly, the best-selling humor / reference book Saints Preserve Us! Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need (Random House, 1993), currently in its 18th international printing. The duo collaborated on four other books for Random House and calendars for Barnes & Noble. Rogers co-wrote two info / entertainment books for St. Martin’s Press. She is currently co-writing a book on empires for City Light Publishing.
Watch the videos below of Arturo O’Farrill’s remarks upon being inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame and his performance of “O Danny Boy” at the Pierre Hotel in NYC on March 14, 2019.