Building Campfires . . . with Arturo O'Farrill - Creative Innovators with Gigi Johnson

Episode 6

Building Campfires . . . with Arturo O'Farrill

Question: How can you build campfires, mixing music and social activism?

Guest: Arturo O'Farrill, Founder, Artistic Director, Afro Latin Jazz Alliance; Professor, Global Jazz Studies, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion


Arturo O'Farrill builds campfires and connects music, activism, and community to build momentum to change his areas of passion in the world -- especially in New York.   He shares with us the many projects he is working on, his Grammy-award winning music melding and digging beyond jazz and Latin music roots, his strong beliefs about Cuba and US foreign policy, and his new projects in housing and music in Spanish Harlem.  He talks about the impacts on artists with the Virtual Birdland project, which garnered a Grammy nomination, and his work with Dr. Cornel West with Four Questions.  He recalls his desires to conduct back at age 6 and breaking into his father's record collection and finding Seven Steps to Heaven, locking in his passion for music.  He states with bold examples how "Happiness is marrying your conviction with your art," which frames most of his adult work.  He speaks the vigor about the results of unbridled capitalism -- and does not mince words. 


Our Guest

ARTURO O’FARRILL, pianist, composer, and educator, was born in Mexico and grew up in New York City. Arturo’s professional career began with the Carla Bley Band and continued as a solo performer with a wide spectrum of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis, and Harry Belafonte.


In 2007, he founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the performance, education, and preservation of Afro Latin music.


An avid supporter of all the Arts, Arturo has performed with Ballet Hispanico, Ron Brown’s EVIDENCE Dance company, and the Malpaso Dance Company, for whom he has written several ballets.


Arturo’s well-reviewed and highly praised “Afro-Latin Jazz Suite” from the album CUBA: The Conversation Continues (Motéma) took the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition as well as the 2016 Latin Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Recording. In addition, his composition “Three Revolutions” from the album Familia-Tribute to Chico and Bebo also received the Best Instrumental Composition Grammy in 2018. Arturo’s 2020 album, “Four Questions” won yet another Grammy award in 2021.


Arturo has been a Steinway Artist for many years and is now a Blue Note Records Recording Artist.


Mentioned Links





Timecodes


  • 00:03 Introduction and current work
  • 01:24 Hiring a new bass player with recordings - changing the system he was handed
  • 02:29 ALJA and Building Campfires
  • 04:18 Affordable Housing in Spanish Harlem
  • 07:42 2022 Grammy-nominated songs and their importance to him
  • 08:02 Virtual Birdland with 18 extraordinary artists
  • 09:29 Malpaso and his second Grammy nomination for 2022
  • 09:46 Cuba's ongoing struggles
  • 10:30 Grammys as fuel for Foundation support
  • 11:01 Four Questions with Dr. Cornel West
  • 13:15 Getting Started - pretending to conduct an orchestra at age 6
  • 14:51 How his parents met and his early life
  • 16:32 Breaking into his father's record collection and Seven Steps to Heaven
  • 17:24 Happiness is marrying your conviction with your art
  • 18:20 When Arturo started taking heartstances in the world
  • 18:50 The Drum and the Noise -- drums as symbols of gentrification
  • 19:52 Ramarley Graham, Keith LaMar, and music in mass incarceration
  • 21:48 Getting in trouble: music reflecting back on the world - trouble and liberation
  • 22:13 "You don't have a right to say this"
  • 26:34 More on Cuba
  • 30:08 Hard decisions and being an administrator
  • 31:31 You need to learn to say no
  • 32:16 His songs - extraordinary musicians -- and Accepting Chaos
  • 34:33 Succession and the next voice of leadership
  • 36:05 How to reach out
  • 37:29 Loving Los Angeles and Culver City's funkitude



Your Host: Gigi Johnson, EdD


I run transformative programs, speak/moderate, invest, advise, and produce multimedia on creativity and technology.  I taught for 22 years at UCLA, where I ran the Center for Music Innovation and the podcast "Innovating Music," built four industry-connecting programs, and taught undergraduates, MBAs, and executives about disruption in creative industries.  Before UCLA, I financed media M&A at Bank of America for ten years.


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Sponsored and Produced by the Maremel Institute

Transcript
Gigi Johnson:

I am . . . I'm a fan girl. I will start out with

Gigi Johnson:

that. But I'm a fan girl, not just of your music. So, I'm

Gigi Johnson:

excited when I see you do things like win Grammys, and I'm

Gigi Johnson:

excited though, when I see you do things that are social

Gigi Johnson:

activism. So, Arturo, can you share with us to start out what

Gigi Johnson:

you're doing now?

Gigi Johnson:

I don't mean right now -- you're sitting in a bright yellow

Gigi Johnson:

hoodie in your home in New York. But what are you doing?

Gigi Johnson:

Professionally now?

Arturo O'Farrill:

I am . . . I am involved in so many things.

Arturo O'Farrill:

We just finished doing our part of our concert series.

Arturo O'Farrill:

We paid tribute to a percussionist who passed

Arturo O'Farrill:

recently who's actually one of the most innovative

Arturo O'Farrill:

percussionist that I've ever known. His name is Eddie Bobè.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And we had a wonderful concert at Hostos Performing Arts Center

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with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, my 18-piece big band,

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and guest curator named Michele Rosewoman, and a rhumba group

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with some incredible Afro Cuban percussionists.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And it just . . . it spanned so many different genres and

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styles. And sometimes I look at the things that I do, and I

Arturo O'Farrill:

realize there's no one else who's mixing up rhumba with jazz

Arturo O'Farrill:

with Latin with composition. And so that was really exciting for

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me. And I'm also in the midst. Here's -- here's something

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interesting. We, our bass player just moved to Europe. And so

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we're having bass player auditions, and we did a very

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different democratic process. We sent the word out far and wide

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and received hundreds of video submissions. And we chose 12

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finalists to see in New York. And five of them were women.

Arturo O'Farrill:

I was so excited. I was . . . I was so thrilled. And they all

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played beautifully. I mean, it was just it's such a thrilling

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moment to me, because I hate the way that things have been done.

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The way that the . . . the system that I was handed was

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here. You call your buddy and your buddy calls you because you

Arturo O'Farrill:

guys are gonna give each other work. And it's just such a

Arturo O'Farrill:

broken system. And so I'm happy about that. I'm in the middle of

Arturo O'Farrill:

doing so many things. I'm in the middle of planning for recording

Arturo O'Farrill:

in June, and I'm in the middle of doing a trio recording. We're

Arturo O'Farrill:

just getting ready to tour. We're doing huge co ncerts in

Arturo O'Farrill:

the summer. And . . .

Gigi Johnson:

So when you say we . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

The really big thing . . .

Gigi Johnson:

We is . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which is part of

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . . which is really the performing face of the nonprofit

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that I founded 15 years ago called the Afro Latin Jazz

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Alliance. And the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance is actually, as

Arturo O'Farrill:

quiet as it's kept, it's what I really do. What I really do is

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build campfires, and the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance is the

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biggest campfire I've ever, ever built. It's a nonprofit. We

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perform, educate and preserve a very specific slice of New York

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and American culture, which is of course, Afro Latin music, but

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it's just an entry point. Because Afro Latin jazz, Afro

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Latin music is just a way to open the conversation about what

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music is, let alone what jazz is, let alone what Latin is. And

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so we begin to talk about culture, we begin to talk about

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We have a touring season, a performing season, a recording

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equity, we begin to really understand who's telling the

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tale for whom, in this music that we call jazz, that we call

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Latin, that we call, whatever. I'm a classically trained

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season. We have . . . we preserve artifacts, memorabilia,

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musician with, like jazz proclivities and sombrero

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because of my pedigree, so I don't see the divisions but the

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and scores and parts of of music that no one else would possibly

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Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, which put this concert on, which has

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35-50 teaching artists in 21 New York City schools, a

Arturo O'Farrill:

pre-professional training program, we... educating the

Arturo O'Farrill:

do so. And in so doing, we were really kind of stating that, by

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incarcerated population, nursing homes, community centers.

Arturo O'Farrill:

the way, I'm in Brooklyn, as you can tell, let me know [garbled].

Arturo O'Farrill:

We're in the people's People's Republic there.

Arturo O'Farrill:

But, but, but, but, we . . . We just had the biggest, most

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unbelievable development in our history. We . . . .the city of

Arturo O'Farrill:

New York invited proposals to build affordable housing in

Arturo O'Farrill:

Spanish Harlem, and the contractor by the name of Mega

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[Development] and community services provided by the name of

Arturo O'Farrill:

Lantern [Organization] invited us to be a cultural partner. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

they proposed this 18-story affordable housing unit in

Arturo O'Farrill:

Spanish Harlem with a performing arts cultural component. And we

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . . I testified before HUD commissioners and elected

Arturo O'Farrill:

officials and lo and behold they chose to construct Timbale

Arturo O'Farrill:

Terrace. So we will be constructing Timbale Terrace in

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Spanish Harlem 118th Street and Park Avenue, complete with . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

600 units of affordable housing which New York is desperately in

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need of. And, for the first time ever, the Afro Latin Music Arts

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and Community Performing Arts Center. So we're gonna, we're

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gonna have a stage, we're going to have classrooms, we're going

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to have a recording studio, we're gonna have office suites,

Arturo O'Farrill:

a digital editing suite, and the community cafe. And so I know

Arturo O'Farrill:

that my life is not my own for the foreseeable future. I will

Arturo O'Farrill:

be tap dancing a lot to keep this campfire lit.

Gigi Johnson:

Wow. So I was gonna say observation number

Gigi Johnson:

one, it sounds like you don't say that anything is not your

Gigi Johnson:

swim lane. That you don't divide yourself into categories, or

Gigi Johnson:

this is not my space. It sounds like . . .let me back up. "We"

Gigi Johnson:

is how many people then, in the foundation, are doing all these

Gigi Johnson:

things to keep the campfire... campfire lit?

Arturo O'Farrill:

Well, I have a full-time executive staff of

Arturo O'Farrill:

eight. I have a part time staff of four. I have, as I said, a

Arturo O'Farrill:

20-piece, 18-20 piece orchestra, 35 to 50 teaching artists, have

Arturo O'Farrill:

an army of interns and a board of directors, and an army of

Arturo O'Farrill:

volunteers. And so a lot of people are mission-driven in my

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life, which thrills me to no end because nobody's making that

Arturo O'Farrill:

much money in my life.

Arturo O'Farrill:

So I've . . . really beautiful people. I have an executive

Arturo O'Farrill:

director.

Gigi Johnson:

Okay, I was gonna say, and you're a bandleader. So

Gigi Johnson:

in the midst of this, you're a creator. You compose?

Arturo O'Farrill:

I do.

Gigi Johnson:

You're a pianist.

Arturo O'Farrill:

I am.

Gigi Johnson:

You're a teacher at UCLA.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Very much so.

Gigi Johnson:

And a parent of two kids.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And . . . and a dean, an associate dean. So my

Arturo O'Farrill:

life is very complicated.

Gigi Johnson:

And a husband.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Yes.

Gigi Johnson:

Any . . . any other definitions in there of

Gigi Johnson:

pieces of this incredibly full life?

Arturo O'Farrill:

You know, the thing that occurred to me is,

Arturo O'Farrill:

I'm still a child. I'm still a son, my mother and father are

Arturo O'Farrill:

gone. But I still feel very often that . . . that I still

Arturo O'Farrill:

very often feel like I'm a son -- to them. I don't know what

Arturo O'Farrill:

else. I don't cook very well. I wish I cooked a little better

Arturo O'Farrill:

than I do. And I'm just trying to . . .

Gigi Johnson:

A Grammy-winning musician.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Yeah, I'm up for two now. I have seven, and

Arturo O'Farrill:

I'm up for two more. . . which is really thrilling 'cause . . .

Gigi Johnson:

[We're recording this in] March of 2022. And then

Gigi Johnson:

. . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

I'm really thrilled about this one.

Gigi Johnson:

Okay, why are you thrilled about this one?

Arturo O'Farrill:

I was gonna say, because two reasons . . I

Arturo O'Farrill:

have up for two. The first one is Best Latin jazz album. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

I'm really proud of this recording, because this

Arturo O'Farrill:

recording came about when the pandemic hit. I freaked out,

Arturo O'Farrill:

because I saw that a lot of people were out of work. And I

Arturo O'Farrill:

didn't know what to do, I felt like I had to do whatever I

Arturo O'Farrill:

could to keep the family together and to keep

Arturo O'Farrill:

people'speople's plates full. So I started this stream, a weekly

Arturo O'Farrill:

stream that we put together, of musicians filming themselves, a

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recording, and then we assemble it and edit video editing. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

then we also mix it professionally, obviously. But

Arturo O'Farrill:

we stream it every week on Facebook and YouTube. It's

Arturo O'Farrill:

called Virtual Birdland. And when we first started it, we

Arturo O'Farrill:

just did it to raise funds to help

Arturo O'Farrill:

freelance artists who had lost their livelihoods. So I'm really

Arturo O'Farrill:

proud of that. So I'm really proud of the story of 18

Arturo O'Farrill:

extraordinary musicians who showed up for work, and helped

Arturo O'Farrill:

help alongside flight attendants and grocery store clerks. And we

Arturo O'Farrill:

raised a lot of money that we gave out in $200 and $500 grants

Arturo O'Farrill:

that literally helped some people stay in New York and

Arturo O'Farrill:

helped some people stay in their field. I will never forget

Arturo O'Farrill:

getting an application from a stand-up comedian. I'm a big fan

Arturo O'Farrill:

of stand-up comedy. So that was like a real high point for me.

Arturo O'Farrill:

So I'm really -- I'm really proud of my musicians.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And then the other recording that is up for best instrumental

Arturo O'Farrill:

composition is my Blue Note recording debut. And it's for

Arturo O'Farrill:

music that I wrote for a Cuban dance company called Malpaso.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And so these two recordings, I don't . . . you never know if

Arturo O'Farrill:

you get them or not. But I just want the story to be told. Both

Arturo O'Farrill:

the story of Cuba and its continuing suffering at the

Arturo O'Farrill:

hands of the United States. President Biden has refused to

Arturo O'Farrill:

overturn all the Trump sanctions that were imposed on the Cuban

Arturo O'Farrill:

people. And the people of Cuba are continuing to suffer

Arturo O'Farrill:

incredible poverty and incredible hardship because of

Arturo O'Farrill:

some insane 60-year-old congressional act that really

Arturo O'Farrill:

basically does nothing -- does not stop socialism or communism.

Arturo O'Farrill:

So both of these things, both of these missions, both of these

Arturo O'Farrill:

stories -- are really important to me. When you get a Grammy,

Arturo O'Farrill:

yes, it's nice to have the statue and all that. But it's

Arturo O'Farrill:

more important that the story be told why you are who you are.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And then on the other hand, the other, the other kind of result

Arturo O'Farrill:

getting Grammys . . . it enables me to walk into a

Arturo O'Farrill:

Foundation's, and get more money to put more saxophones in the

Arturo O'Farrill:

hands of kids in the inner city schools. So it all works, you

Arturo O'Farrill:

know. . .

Gigi Johnson:

And it also is giving a space for your

Gigi Johnson:

activism. So the prior Grammys that you got were for an album

Gigi Johnson:

that was a different set of voices.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Yeah, yeah, I got an A Grammy for Best

Arturo O'Farrill:

Original . . . no . . . instrumental comb..., no, best

Arturo O'Farrill:

Latin jazz Album -- for Four Questions, which is a recording

Arturo O'Farrill:

that I did with Cornel West that deals with the four questions

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posed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal work The Souls of Black

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Folk, and it came out during a very, very, very strong year for

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racial reckoning. And Dr. West could not be clearer as a voice

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of conscience in our day and age. Some people find him

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troublesome. Some people find him an extraordinary civil

Arturo O'Farrill:

rights hero. It doesn't matter what you think of Cornel West:

Arturo O'Farrill:

he is a voice of reckoning. He insists that we deal with who we

Arturo O'Farrill:

are. And I find that personally incredibly rewarding to know

Arturo O'Farrill:

that there are people like Cornel and they're speaking out.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Now I'm surprised that a recording like . . . with . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

with strange music courses in strange meters and all kinds of

Arturo O'Farrill:

like bizarre orchestrations, and Dr. Cornel West, would win a

Arturo O'Farrill:

Grammy. But you know what? I find that in a way, having a

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measure of commercial success with questions with . . . not

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questionable but with with challenging art is proof that

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there are people I don't believe in this stupidity of the

Arturo O'Farrill:

listeneing public, I believe the listening public is smart. I

Arturo O'Farrill:

believe there are people buying music that is active, that

Arturo O'Farrill:

socially active and I believe there are people listening to

Arturo O'Farrill:

recordings that are challenging, and I believe that they

Arturo O'Farrill:

understand that the need for art is to progress, the need for

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artists to be journalistic truth telling. And that's what I try

Arturo O'Farrill:

to do with every record I make. We began this a long time ago

Arturo O'Farrill:

with a record called the Offense of the Drum, 40 Acres and a

Burro, Cuba:

the Conversation Continues -- all my records are

Burro, Cuba:

. . . are without a doubt social and political statements, which

Burro, Cuba:

has alienated me from large parts of the jazz world, but

Burro, Cuba:

also brought me into greater prominence with large parts of

Burro, Cuba:

the jazz world. There are institutions that won't touch

Burro, Cuba:

me, and institutions that invite me back year after year after

Burro, Cuba:

year. So you know, the lesson being that if you speak your

Burro, Cuba:

truth, you're going to offend some and also endears them.

Burro, Cuba:

So I want us to go backwards in time. And I am assuming,

Burro, Cuba:

especially from your parentage, there wasn't a time where you

Burro, Cuba:

weren't doing music. How old were you when you started . . .

Burro, Cuba:

or remember doing music?

Burro, Cuba:

I remember being six years old, maybe younger, and stealing into

Burro, Cuba:

my father's composing studio and improvising, sitting at the

Burro, Cuba:

piano and pretending I was directing an orchestra and I

Burro, Cuba:

think I remember mimicking or applause -- [[haaaaaa]] -- crowd

Burro, Cuba:

noise . . . and I would improvise these things that I

Burro, Cuba:

just pretended were symphonic works. And that was as a kid.

Burro, Cuba:

And of course, being the son of a Latin . . ., an Afro Cuban

Burro, Cuba:

pioneer, Chico O'Farrill, it was expected that I would follow in

Burro, Cuba:

his footsteps. So I of course, was sent to Manhattan School of

Burro, Cuba:

Music Preparatory Division at the age of six, and I rode the

Burro, Cuba:

104 bus up and down Broadway with my Bach and Beethoven,

Burro, Cuba:

Mozart. And strangely enough, I could add a little bit of talent

Burro, Cuba:

so I could actually play the piano with some measure of

Burro, Cuba:

skill. And so I got, you know . . .

Burro, Cuba:

. . . and I did it dutifully because, you know, on my free

Burro, Cuba:

time, I would listen to Elton John, and Chicago, Blood, Sweat

Burro, Cuba:

and Tears, and, I know, those ancient bands that nobody knows

Burro, Cuba:

anymore.

Gigi Johnson:

So your family moved from Cuba to the United

Gigi Johnson:

States to New York?

Arturo O'Farrill:

No, my father moved to Los Angeles first, met

Arturo O'Farrill:

my mother there, and then moved to Mexico where I was born and

Arturo O'Farrill:

then from Mexico to New York.

Gigi Johnson:

And how did he meet your mom?

Arturo O'Farrill:

I think that they met . . . she was . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

she was. . . my mother was a wonderful, wonderful singer. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

my father just must have fallen in love with her . . . heard her

Arturo O'Farrill:

sing somewhere and invited her to sing with him. It's a real I

Arturo O'Farrill:

Love Lucy story in a way. I mean, because he was a beloved

Arturo O'Farrill:

bandleader in Mexico. He had his own orchestra, she sang with

Arturo O'Farrill:

him, they traveled.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And eventually, I guess, you know, New York beckons as it

Arturo O'Farrill:

does many people . . . as Los Angeles does many people, and

Arturo O'Farrill:

there but for the grace of God, I could have ended up in either

Arturo O'Farrill:

location. Thank God, I ended up in both. And I'll tell you

Arturo O'Farrill:

something really funny about this. This is really wild. The

Arturo O'Farrill:

last year of my mother's life, she had a little bit of

Arturo O'Farrill:

dementia. And she would periodically look at me and go,

Arturo O'Farrill:

"Mijito, how do you like living in Los Angeles?" And I'd look at

Arturo O'Farrill:

her and I'd say, "Mom, I don't live in Los Angeles." This went

Arturo O'Farrill:

on for a year. And I did. . . I had no clue that I would end up

Arturo O'Farrill:

being on the faculty of UCLA, where I literally live half of

Arturo O'Farrill:

the year.

Gigi Johnson:

So you were . . . you were training in piano from

Gigi Johnson:

a very young age. Was this then where your heart . . .? You said

Gigi Johnson:

this started kind of on a more obligatory basis. Did this catch

Gigi Johnson:

fire for you? Did you instead want to be an activist, did you

Gigi Johnson:

want to be some other . . . ?

Arturo O'Farrill:

I can tell you . . ., I can tell you exactly

Arturo O'Farrill:

what happened. This is a true story. For some reason, my

Arturo O'Farrill:

mother and father kept everything under lock and key.

Arturo O'Farrill:

They locked the phone, they locked the living room, they

Arturo O'Farrill:

locked the record collection. I didn't know where that was from.

Arturo O'Farrill:

But somehow I broke into the living room, I broke into my

Arturo O'Farrill:

father's record collection. And that pulled out the very first

Arturo O'Farrill:

album I could which was Miles Davis' Greatest Hits [1969]. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

there was something about Miles Davis, his face. That just I got

Arturo O'Farrill:

to hear this music. So I put this record on and I heard Seven

Arturo O'Farrill:

Steps to Heaven. And I tell the story a lot, but it's really

Arturo O'Farrill:

true. I felt like the heavens opened up. I felt like a light

Arturo O'Farrill:

shone down from heaven. And I felt like a choir of angels

Arturo O'Farrill:

validated the fact that all I wanted out of life, all I wanted

Arturo O'Farrill:

out of existence out of sentience was to be able to play

Arturo O'Farrill:

like Herbie Hancock.

Arturo O'Farrill:

That's all I wanted. And, and it took several decades before I

Arturo O'Farrill:

realized that being able to play like Herbie Hancock is not

Arturo O'Farrill:

happiness, that being famous is not happiness. It took several

Arturo O'Farrill:

decades of knowing that being able to make a living as a

Arturo O'Farrill:

musician, it's not happened to me a long time to realize that

Arturo O'Farrill:

happiness, for me anyway, is marrying your conviction with

Arturo O'Farrill:

your art. That is when I really began to experience

Arturo O'Farrill:

satisfaction. And having been able to do that . . . to create

Arturo O'Farrill:

the Afro Latin jazz Alliance and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra,

Arturo O'Farrill:

to do social and politically active, work and active, I mean,

Arturo O'Farrill:

politically aware recordings and find a measure of acceptance and

Arturo O'Farrill:

success and that all of that has led to this moment we're about

Arturo O'Farrill:

to enter into a physical brick and mortar manifestation of my

Arturo O'Farrill:

social and political ideology. It's an absolutely crazy . . .

Gigi Johnson:

When did you start. . . When did you start

Gigi Johnson:

exercising that side of you? Music was early -- when did you

Gigi Johnson:

start to take a heart stance in the world in addition to your

Arturo O'Farrill:

I remember the moment that happened. I remember

Arturo O'Farrill:

music?

Arturo O'Farrill:

it was during a cruel despots reign in New York City. That

Arturo O'Farrill:

horrible man by the name of Rudolph Giuliani was the mayor

Arturo O'Farrill:

at the time. And he started . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . . because he was the mayor that generally acquiesced to

Arturo O'Farrill:

gentrification. And all of a sudden you have very wealthy

Arturo O'Farrill:

people moving into very poor neighborhoods. And the first

Arturo O'Farrill:

thing that wealthy people do when they move into poor

Arturo O'Farrill:

neighborhoods is complain about the noise. That's the first

Arturo O'Farrill:

thing they do. So he started arresting drummers. He started

Arturo O'Farrill:

confiscating drums. And because they had drum circles throughout

Arturo O'Farrill:

the parks, and I remember driving with my family, to some

Arturo O'Farrill:

family vacation upstate, and all of a sudden this idea took root,

Arturo O'Farrill:

this offense that the drum represented the wealthy, that

Arturo O'Farrill:

the drum represented information and communication of the drum

Arturo O'Farrill:

could be used for great good or great bad. And, and it's the

Arturo O'Farrill:

symbol . . . so it became kind of this avatar for me of what

Arturo O'Farrill:

social justice was. And I really -- I literally remember drawing

Arturo O'Farrill:

up, writing, typing up a plan for a recording that would be

Arturo O'Farrill:

socially active. And it ended up being Defense of the Drum.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And then, around that same time, or several years after that,

Arturo O'Farrill:

there was the murder of a young black man by the NYPD. His name

Arturo O'Farrill:

was Ramarley Graham. And he was in the Bronx and some undercover

Arturo O'Farrill:

officer had seen him put something in his waistband and,

Arturo O'Farrill:

and followed him into his home without a search warrant, broke

Arturo O'Farrill:

down the door. And in the presence of his grandmother and

Arturo O'Farrill:

brother shot him to death. No weapon was found; no drugs were

Arturo O'Farrill:

found. And he was the same age as my youngest son at the time

Arturo O'Farrill:

and so that that further galvanized this whole

Arturo O'Farrill:

involvement that I now have with music on the inside, mass

Arturo O'Farrill:

incarceration. I just finished working on the beautiful

Arturo O'Farrill:

recording with Keith LaMar, who's a young man that's on

Arturo O'Farrill:

death row in Ohio because he was accused wrongly of murdering

Arturo O'Farrill:

people during an incarceration -- the whole story is long.

Arturo O'Farrill:

But the point is that my social and political convictions, my

Arturo O'Farrill:

diatribes against the military industrial complex, my this . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. just absolutely despise that the criminal justice system is

Arturo O'Farrill:

slanted towards literally hurting and destroying the lives

Arturo O'Farrill:

of young black and brown men. I mean, there's so many things

Arturo O'Farrill:

about the world that call me into action, that say to me, you

Arturo O'Farrill:

have a voice, you have a platform, you have no choice.

Arturo O'Farrill:

I'm assuming you don't say it that nicely at times.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And the truth of the matter -- and this really, is what I

Arturo O'Farrill:

believe. And I know a lot of people will preach that art

Arturo O'Farrill:

should be abstracted. The artists should not have

Arturo O'Farrill:

opinions. That artists should be about beautifying the world. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

I say, Bull. I say that the artist has a responsibility to

Arturo O'Farrill:

reflect . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

I've said it in worse ways.

Gigi Johnson:

I'm assuming it's not Bull most of the time.

Arturo O'Farrill:

It . . . I've been known to .... to use a

Arturo O'Farrill:

questionable word or two every every now and then. But yeah, I

Arturo O'Farrill:

feel like the job of the artist is to unfailingly reflect back

Arturo O'Farrill:

to the world for now and forever what they observe and so that's

Arturo O'Farrill:

what I've done. That's how I've lived my life. It's . . . it's .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . it's gotten me in much . . . .as I said, it's gotten me in

Arturo O'Farrill:

much trouble. It's also liberated me in some ways -- in

Arturo O'Farrill:

ways that nothing else can.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And you know, I literally I gotta tell you story. This is I

Arturo O'Farrill:

don't think I've told the story ever. But it really happened.

Arturo O'Farrill:

During the middle of the deplorable half-assed

Arturo O'Farrill:

administration that we had prior to this one. And we were

Arturo O'Farrill:

performing in Birdland. We're performing and it's a piece that

Arturo O'Farrill:

we do called Llegará, Llegará, Llegará, which means We Will Get

Arturo O'Farrill:

There. We Will Get There, We Will Get There. And I started to

Arturo O'Farrill:

introduce this. This is a packed jazz nightclub, one of the most

Arturo O'Farrill:

famous nightclubs in New York, and I'm introducing this tune.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And I start by saying, "We're going to play a piece that fills

Arturo O'Farrill:

me with hope, because the words are Llegará, llegará, llegará.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And no matter how, how much struggles we're going through,

Arturo O'Farrill:

we will get there." We start telling people we will get

Arturo O'Farrill:

there, we will get there, we will get there, no matter how

Arturo O'Farrill:

depressing the news is coming out of Washington. And as soon

Arturo O'Farrill:

as I said that, I hadn't even said Trump, I hadn't even said

Arturo O'Farrill:

any particular . . . I just said . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

Somebody in the audience yelled out, "Hey, FU, you don't have a

Arturo O'Farrill:

right to say that." And somebody from the bar said, "Hey, FU, you

Arturo O'Farrill:

don't have a right to tell him what to say. This is a jazz

Arturo O'Farrill:

club." I'm a bandleader for many years. So I immediately,

Arturo O'Farrill:

like, started the piece. And as we're playing, I realized these

Arturo O'Farrill:

two parties are fighting, and then yelling at each other. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

then we continue to play. And at the end of that tune they are

Arturo O'Farrill:

still screaming at each other. So I go right into another tune.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And as we're playing this tune, I realized that the people who

Arturo O'Farrill:

originally yelled out are leaving their seats -- there's

Arturo O'Farrill:

about five of them. And they're going towards the bar, where

Arturo O'Farrill:

they're going to get into some sort of altercation with the

Arturo O'Farrill:

person who was rightly protecting the right to opinion

Arturo O'Farrill:

and free speech in the United States. Anyway, I see that

Arturo O'Farrill:

things are about to go out of hand -- out of control. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

luckily, the owner and the bartender throw these people

Arturo O'Farrill:

out, throw them out. And I at the end of the set, I go up to

Arturo O'Farrill:

the owner, Johnny Valenti, who's a trustee of this music and has

Arturo O'Farrill:

been for many years. I love to Johnny and I say, Johnny, thank

Arturo O'Farrill:

you for having our back. And Johnny says, Arturo, I think you

Arturo O'Farrill:

should go back to the dressing room. These people are outside

Arturo O'Farrill:

and they're giving the Nazi salute and screaming Heil Hitler.

Gigi Johnson:

Oh, wow.

Arturo O'Farrill:

In New York, in Times Square. I mean, in the

Arturo O'Farrill:

level of of ignorance of the people who were grilling the

Arturo O'Farrill:

Supreme Court Justice yesterday. I mean, these people, Ted Cruz,

Arturo O'Farrill:

these people are Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, I will not

Arturo O'Farrill:

vote. I mean, the level of hatred and white supremacy, that

Arturo O'Farrill:

the level of disregard for the poor, for the . . .for those who

Arturo O'Farrill:

have mental challenges, the disregard the violence that is

Arturo O'Farrill:

taking place in our cities, in Los Angeles, in New York City.

Arturo O'Farrill:

The anger, the level of anger, all of this must be spoken out

Arturo O'Farrill:

against. And you know, I'm sorry that so many of my colleagues in

Arturo O'Farrill:

the music business don't do it, but many do. But sometimes it

Arturo O'Farrill:

seems to me like, like, you know, Cornel and I were

Arturo O'Farrill:

lamenting sometimes the leadership that we have in our

Arturo O'Farrill:

jazz world, and we looked at each other and literally said,

Arturo O'Farrill:

it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that sting. You know,

Arturo O'Farrill:

and it's . . . it. . ..I just . . . I . . .I can't . . . I can't

Arturo O'Farrill:

ignore. I can't . . .I just can't ignore. I can't ignore the

Arturo O'Farrill:

sheer level of . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

What was the word I used today? I don't know. I don't remember.

Arturo O'Farrill:

But there's a lot of . . . Oh, psychopathic. I can't. . . I

Arturo O'Farrill:

can't ignore the level of psychopaths that unbridled

Arturo O'Farrill:

capitalism unleashes on the planet. The psychopaths, that is

Arturo O'Farrill:

just . . .it's . . .it's completely beyond the pale. You

Arturo O'Farrill:

know, we are watching people send penis-shaped rockets into

Arturo O'Farrill:

space while hundreds of millions of people are dying. It's just .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . it's psychotic, psychotic, and I will not be silenced. I

Arturo O'Farrill:

will not. Ever.

Gigi Johnson:

And you've taken this with a broad array of

Gigi Johnson:

issues as well. So can you share about your bringing music and

Gigi Johnson:

musicians between the United States and Cuba?

Arturo O'Farrill:

Oh, my God. We have been fed so much

Arturo O'Farrill:

misinformation about Cuba. Yes, there are problems in

Arturo O'Farrill:

governance. Yes, there's problems and governance here.

Arturo O'Farrill:

There's problems and governance there. But the Cuban people are

Arturo O'Farrill:

noble and resilient people who . . . the ones that haven't

Arturo O'Farrill:

abandoned Cuba, or the ones that haven't left for betterment. I

Arturo O'Farrill:

understand the need to leave a poor and starving country. God

Arturo O'Farrill:

knows we know all about migration. But to come to this

Arturo O'Farrill:

country and embrace right-wing capitalism and Republicanism.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Because you don't . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . . You know, I've been down there. And it's, you know, all

Arturo O'Farrill:

this stuff, all this stuff you hear about the party and

Arturo O'Farrill:

oppression. Freedom of the press? Do you know what it costs

Arturo O'Farrill:

to have a good publicist? I mean, we don't have freedom of

Arturo O'Farrill:

the press. We have misinformation. There were

Arturo O'Farrill:

pictures of demonstrations in Cuba, with bloodied heads that

Arturo O'Farrill:

were later found to be pictures of demonstrations in Colombia. I

Arturo O'Farrill:

mean, it . . .that the amount of misinformation . . . the amount

Arturo O'Farrill:

of anger towards a poor nation and impoverished nation, the

Arturo O'Farrill:

embargo is an act of such criminality. That. . . it's . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. it's . . . it's one of the . . . it's one of the truly great

Arturo O'Farrill:

criminal acts of the 20th century, and . . . and you know,

Arturo O'Farrill:

our history of going into countries in Latin America and

Arturo O'Farrill:

the Middle East, of supporting puppet dictatorships and coups.

Arturo O'Farrill:

We are so guilty of the very thing we accuse Russia of, as

Arturo O'Farrill:

ugly as it is. I mean, I'm just, you know, I'm being honest, but

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . . and the thing about Cuba is, I don't go there to support

Arturo O'Farrill:

the party or to oppose any I go there, because those people are

Arturo O'Farrill:

some of the most noble and beautiful people I've ever seen.

Arturo O'Farrill:

The truth of the matter is, also is that it's my, it's my

Arturo O'Farrill:

birthright. My blood is Cuban blood coursing through my veins,

Arturo O'Farrill:

the music, the sound of Cuba, the soul of Cuba is inside of

Arturo O'Farrill:

me. I don't go there to prop up this or that established

Arturo O'Farrill:

government in you know, what, and I talk a lot to government

Arturo O'Farrill:

officials in Cuba, and they're . . . They're like, what's going

Arturo O'Farrill:

on? That's the . . . you know, they're struggling to . . . to

Arturo O'Farrill:

just survive. We, you know . . .

Gigi Johnson:

And you're not just making these connections.

Gigi Johnson:

You're bringing people together, in yet another campfire. So that

Gigi Johnson:

it's not just having these beliefs or perspectives and

Gigi Johnson:

strong beliefs, but it's actually taking action around

Gigi Johnson:

them. So you've been both creating music and events, to be

Gigi Johnson:

bringing people together from different walks of musical life

Gigi Johnson:

between the US and Cuba.

Arturo O'Farrill:

There's a very balanced series of documentaries

Arturo O'Farrill:

called The War on Cuba, produced by Oliver Stone and Danny

Arturo O'Farrill:

Glover. And I strongly urge whoever is on the fence, whoever

Arturo O'Farrill:

doesn't understand . . . it's the most. . . I've been going

Arturo O'Farrill:

back and forth to Cuba for 20 years, four and five times a

Arturo O'Farrill:

year. I know firsthand of what I speak, and I would encourage

Arturo O'Farrill:

anyone who's on the fence about what they think they know about

Arturo O'Farrill:

what was going on in Cuba to see this documentary, what's called

Arturo O'Farrill:

The War on Cuba. And, and then come back and talk to me after

Arturo O'Farrill:

that.

Gigi Johnson:

So what have been the hard decisions you've made

Gigi Johnson:

as an artist, as a professional? What have been the things that

Gigi Johnson:

you have taken big leaps to do, or have maybe walked into brick

Arturo O'Farrill:

[Sigh] I think taking on the mantle of

Arturo O'Farrill:

walls about?

Arturo O'Farrill:

administration. Taking on the mantle of administrator. Having

Arturo O'Farrill:

to become. . . I . . . I'm fond of saying anybody who seeks

Arturo O'Farrill:

leadership should have their head examined and is the last

Arturo O'Farrill:

person who should have leadership. I kind of took all

Arturo O'Farrill:

of this on because no one else was doing it. No one else was

Arturo O'Farrill:

taking Latin jazz and insisting that it was African, no one else

Arturo O'Farrill:

was taking Latin jazz and insisting that it could be

Arturo O'Farrill:

creative. That it didn't have to just be mambos. No one else was

Arturo O'Farrill:

taking this music and saying that's much bigger than Latin or

Arturo O'Farrill:

jazz. In fact, it's Middle Eastern, and South Asian. No

Arturo O'Farrill:

one was taken on these big issues. And all of it has

Arturo O'Farrill:

involved a tremendous amount of sacrifice on my part, to

Arturo O'Farrill:

administrate. I'm the world's worst administrator. But I'm

Arturo O'Farrill:

smart enough to delegate. . . [very creatively . . .]

Gigi Johnson:

[I would say] no, that's because I've worked with

Gigi Johnson:

a lot of really bad administrators.

Arturo O'Farrill:

I'm smart enough as an administrator to .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . to surround myself with really brutally talented people.

Arturo O'Farrill:

But that has, that has been . . .

Gigi Johnson:

I totally agree with that.

Arturo O'Farrill:

That has been . . . that has been a real load

Arturo O'Farrill:

for me to ... to . . . to be an artistic director, a professor,

Arturo O'Farrill:

a dean, a composer, a pianist. I don't balance anything well.

Arturo O'Farrill:

That's. . . that. . . In fact, if if truth be told, that's

Arturo O'Farrill:

probably the. . . the thing that most people tell me, is you

Arturo O'Farrill:

need to learn to say no. But the sense -- the urgency of what I

Arturo O'Farrill:

see -- is bigger than even my own comfort level . . . on the

Arturo O'Farrill:

hard decisions. I mean, I've, you know, probably traumatized

Arturo O'Farrill:

my children. Hopefully, if I'm, if I'm lucky, they'll have big

Arturo O'Farrill:

therapy bills and . . . . and they'll go on to make their own

Arturo O'Farrill:

hideous mistakes.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Are both of your sons musicians?

Arturo O'Farrill:

Are they ever. Right now, they're both in Europe touring.

Arturo O'Farrill:

They're both in Europe touring; they're both brilliant. My son

Arturo O'Farrill:

Zachary is like literally amongst -- and I know that

Arturo O'Farrill:

people are gonna think this is partial and I want to talk to

Arturo O'Farrill:

this issue for a second too -- he's literally one of the best

Arturo O'Farrill:

drummers I get to play with. And my other son, Adam, he's a

Arturo O'Farrill:

trumpet player, he's a composer, his recording got, like top 10,

Arturo O'Farrill:

one of the top 10 jazz records of 2021 by the New York Times.

Arturo O'Farrill:

My record didn't even get that [chuckle], which is really,

Arturo O'Farrill:

really cool.

Gigi Johnson:

I remember talking to you, and he was practicing,

Gigi Johnson:

walking behind you. And I was just hearing. . . [chuckle]

Gigi Johnson:

hearing horns . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

They're both extraordinary musicians and . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. but to me that . . . they're really sweet human beings. And

Arturo O'Farrill:

that's because my wife is very down to earth. She's very, very,

Arturo O'Farrill:

very even-keeled.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Like my saying, my mantra. I just made this up. That's why it

Arturo O'Farrill:

hasn't been widely publicized. My mantra is: Accept Chaos.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Embrace chaos, be the chaos. And Alison's mantra is: If it's

Arturo O'Farrill:

not biting at your heels, leave it be. Together, we balance each

Arturo O'Farrill:

other out.

Gigi Johnson:

It's ying and yang

Arturo O'Farrill:

We really balance each other out. And I

Arturo O'Farrill:

think my kids, and sometimes I look at them, and I see a lot of

Arturo O'Farrill:

her. And just enough of me. And I'm so grateful for that.

Gigi Johnson:

Fascinating. We've been talking already for a half

Gigi Johnson:

an hour, and it's been really wonderful. We probably could and

Gigi Johnson:

should talk after this, about where you'd want to go with a

Gigi Johnson:

lot of this work. But -- anything that you'd like to

Gigi Johnson:

mention [that] we haven't talked about in our conversation?

Arturo O'Farrill:

I am. Yeah, I mean, I there's a lot of things

Arturo O'Farrill:

that I would say. I mean, I know I had one thing specifically

Arturo O'Farrill:

that I wanted to talk about, and I don't remember what it is.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Maybe it's aging, that I wanted to talk about. I don't know, I

Arturo O'Farrill:

am . .

Gigi Johnson:

You are two years older than me. So be careful how

Gigi Johnson:

this goes.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Oh oh. Okay. Well, I am definitely not going

Arturo O'Farrill:

. . .

Gigi Johnson:

Aging . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

I'm not touching this.

Gigi Johnson:

No, no, no, keep going. Keep going. Aging is an

Gigi Johnson:

interesting relative term, but aging.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Well, I've been thinking about succession

Arturo O'Farrill:

and moving on and finding the next voice of leadership. And I

Arturo O'Farrill:

don't know how to find it. I know where it's going to come

Arturo O'Farrill:

from, but I'm hoping that it's . . . I'm hoping that whoever

Arturo O'Farrill:

takes over what I build this, a woman, maybe a woman of color,

Arturo O'Farrill:

maybe someone who's ready to . . . To take it past . . . way

Arturo O'Farrill:

past where I've taken it, because, you know, I see that

Arturo O'Farrill:

the work that I do is not music. As I said, it's it's, it's

Arturo O'Farrill:

campfire building, and it's interconnected, it's

Arturo O'Farrill:

interdisciplinary. And it is something that, that I really,

Arturo O'Farrill:

really don't want to disappear. I don't. . . I think there are

Arturo O'Farrill:

not enough people who are connecting social political

Arturo O'Farrill:

activism with culture, conversation and art making and

Arturo O'Farrill:

it's, it's not something that's easy to do, or popular. People's

Arturo O'Farrill:

Republic.

Arturo O'Farrill:

You can't escape the sounds -- you really

Gigi Johnson:

People's Republic,

Gigi Johnson:

can't.

Gigi Johnson:

Arturo, we're gonna have you back on the show,

Gigi Johnson:

time permitting. You have all sorts of great irons in the fire

Gigi Johnson:

here. If people are in New York, they can see you right now,

Gigi Johnson:

again, we're recording this in March 2022. You've been doing

Gigi Johnson:

concerts and shows.

Gigi Johnson:

How can people reach out to you? We're gonna put things in the

Gigi Johnson:

show notes. They can find your great music and the things we've

Gigi Johnson:

mentioned. How could they find you and what do you need right

Gigi Johnson:

now?

Arturo O'Farrill:

They can certainly find me through my

Arturo O'Farrill:

website, https://arturoofarrill.com/,

Arturo O'Farrill:

http://www.afrolatinjazz.org. They can find me performing this

Arturo O'Farrill:

summer, some really extraordinary concerts. We're

Arturo O'Farrill:

doing a recreation of my [Abu Dhabi] concert Cuba meets

Arturo O'Farrill:

Khaleeji, the Middle Eastern roots of Afro Cuban jazz. It is

Arturo O'Farrill:

in this beautiful park in New York called Little Island Park.

Arturo O'Farrill:

And we're also doing . . . I did a documentary two years ago,

Arturo O'Farrill:

three years ago now. That was released by HBO Max [2020]

Arturo O'Farrill:

called Fandango at the Wall, which deals with the concerts

Arturo O'Farrill:

that we did at the Tijuana . . . at the border of Tijuana and San

Arturo O'Farrill:

Diego. And it follows us as we voyaged to Veracruz to find the

Arturo O'Farrill:

masters of Son Jarocho. It's a fairly beautiful film, but we

Arturo O'Farrill:

are actually going to recreate that incredible experience

Arturo O'Farrill:

adventure in Brooklyn Bridge Park with some unbelievable

Arturo O'Farrill:

artists that were also part of the recording. It's all very . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

. it's you know . . . They can also find me in my office in

Arturo O'Farrill:

Ostin Music Building. Room 208. The Schoenberg School of Music

Arturo O'Farrill:

at UCLA.

Gigi Johnson:

Don't just drop by, though. Please make an

Gigi Johnson:

appointment.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Yeah. Give me a call . . .

Gigi Johnson:

You're splitting your time between Los Angeles

Gigi Johnson:

and New York.

Arturo O'Farrill:

By the way, I love Los Angeles. I'm not one of

Arturo O'Farrill:

those New Yorkers who's like nyah nyah nyah. I love Los

Arturo O'Farrill:

Angeles. I have we discovered so many incredibly beautiful things

Arturo O'Farrill:

and neighborhoods and pockets. And I live in Culver City, which

Arturo O'Farrill:

is the People's Republic of Culver City, just like Brooklyn.

Arturo O'Farrill:

It's a walking place. You can walk everywhere. There's

Gigi Johnson:

Well, next time you're back in Los Angeles, you

Gigi Johnson:

funkitude . . . I mean, it's . . . it's . . . I'm happy in Los Angeles.

Gigi Johnson:

can see that . . . . the people's non-Republican of

Gigi Johnson:

Monrovia and we can get together and talk. I love it. I'm near

Gigi Johnson:

the Pasadena area, not near Culver City. But it's been great

Gigi Johnson:

having you on the show and I'm looking forward to keeping track

Gigi Johnson:

of your adventures and actually maybe prying into a few more

Gigi Johnson:

areas of mischief. So . . .

Arturo O'Farrill:

I can't wait to interact. We got it. We got

Arturo O'Farrill:

to do some damage, you and I. We got to do some damage.

Gigi Johnson:

We will do some damage. So.

Arturo O'Farrill:

Thank you, Gigi. Take care.

About the Podcast

Show artwork for Creative Innovators with Gigi Johnson
Creative Innovators with Gigi Johnson
Creative industry change agents who build and create against the grain and with inspired ideas join us to inspire and amaze.

About your host

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Gigi Johnson

Gigi Johnson founded Maremel, which runs transformative programs, invests, advises, and produces multimedia on creativity and technology. Her current initiatives include the Amplify Music conferences, podcast, channel, and research with 45 organizations; books on technology and creative work; events on local creative startups; and a new creative industries skills training program. She taught for 22 years at UCLA, where she ran the Center for Music Innovation, built four industry-connecting programs, and taught undergraduates, MBAs, and executives about disruption in creative industries. Before UCLA, she financed media M&A at Bank of America for ten years. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership for change from Fielding Graduate University, an MBA from UCLA Anderson, and a BA in film/TV production from USC.