Cuba’s 20-year-old Composer Leonardo Fabian Gil

Irina Echarry

Leonardo Fabian Gil, left, at the JoJazz 2010 competition.

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 2 —The 13th JoJazz 2010 Festival just concluded in Havana. It’s an event that has led to the “discovery” of numerous young talents and been a launching pad for their careers.  When I arrived the competition was outside the schedule.  Students spent time in a workshop on the string bass, trying to participate while not becoming nervous.  When the competition started, time began to go by at its normal speed.

The composition jury, presided over by Alexis Bosh, assessed the quality of the works, while the audience applauded among others the violin of William Roblejo as he competed with “Mecanica diferente,” as well as Jos Pimiento Gonzalez playing “Asi soy yo” on piano.  One group caught the attention of everyone; it performed two works by a seemingly shy pianist: Leonardo Fabian Gil Milian, who immediately made himself available to speak with us about his studies.

Leonardo Fabian Gil: I’m a graduate from the ENA (the National School of Music), and now I’m studying in my first year at ISA (The Superior Institute of Art).

HT: How old are you?

LFG: I turn 20 on Monday, November 29.  I’m almost in the category of older musicians…

HT: When did you become interested in jazz?

LFG: I’ve studied jazz for about a year and a half.  I’ve always played a lot of European classical music, but I listen to jazz a lot.

HT: But at your school, don’t they teach jazz

LFG: No, it’s been something that I’ve listened to on my own, and I always liked composition.  When I graduated, instead of playing a traditional Cuban work, I spoke with my teachers about playing one of my own compositions.  They told me that I could and that I had enough recognition from the jury… they told me to go for it.

I’m speaking to you about something I did on solo piano.  I thought about a group format, but for that I need to have experience playing with a group.

For the past two months I’ve been playing with Melvis Santa, who was with the female vocal group Sexto Sentido, and with a group called Barrio Chiling.  We play jazz and Cuban music, and I’ve learned a little there.  Let’s say that I was interested a little more in group composition, so I jumped into all this.  I really like the music of the traditional composers like Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes; plus I like mixing it with modern jazz… but not too modern.  But yeah, I like taking music from the traditional to the modern.

Before this I was with Yunier Lombida.  I won a prestigious award in chamber music, receiving recognition for the best performances of Cuban music and 20th century music.  That was in the 2008-2009 Amadeo Roldan Chamber Music Competition, where the guest jurist of honor was Frank Fernandez.

Tell us about the songs with which you’ll be competing.

LFG: These songs that I just presented were composed very recently.  Contradanza de mi…, I like contradanza, and it ends like that in suspended pauses because it can be about my soul, about my love…  Then there was Para noviembre.  I wanted to dedicate a song to the month of November, when I’d be celebrating my birthday and when there would be Jojazz.  That was a must…

The young woman who sang your works has a beautiful voice

LFG: Her name is Leticia Beatriz Trueba Felipe.  She’ll be in her third year at ENA.  She studies choral direction and also began with the group Barrio Chiling.  She loves jazz and is willing to work more in a group setting.

Leticia Beatriz Trueba, center, singing a composition by Leonardo Fabian Gil, left.

Do you have hopes of walking away with an award here?

LFG: Well, I’d like that a lot.  But there were some problems because the audio was horrible.  So when I began to play the drums I couldn’t hear myself.  I didn’t have a reference, nor did the conga player. Up to now a lot of people have liked my songs.  Before presenting them here I had opportunity to play them at the Strawberry and Chocolate club, where Jorge Reyes, Julio Padron, the daughters of Pablo Milanes, and el Chispa were present.  Everybody had a high opinion of my work.  Well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I greatly admire all those who presented their works in the competition.

Do you believe this is a quality competition?

LFG: Yes.  No matter what happens, everything will be of high quality because of the fine quality of all the contestants.

But is that opinion coming from you as a musician or as a friend of those who are competing?

No, as a musician. I believe that anybody here can win an award because I don’t believe that last year there was as much quality as there is now.  That’s what I’ve been told and everybody is paying a great deal of attention to this Jojazz

Is this the first time that you’ve presented yourself?

LFG: Yes, it’s first time.  I thought about the possibility of this one day when Dayramir was performing at the Zorra y el Cuervo nightclub with Cubajazz and Roberto Garcia.  I was in the audience listening when Dayramir asked me to come up on stage.  They didn’t have a bass player, so I played the bass with my left hand on the keyboard.  Then he asked me to play a solo, and I began to play.  People loved it, I’m telling you.  I told myself: well, if you passed this then let’s see… because I wanted to explore this popular branch… I adore classical music and I always wanted to play it, but…well…I also like jazz.

Do you plan to devote yourself to jazz?

LFG: I would like that, if everything turns out well for me.  I’ll continue studying a little more because I have a little more time at ISA…

Thank you, Leonardo, for sharing some of your time with us.  Let’s hope you’re lucky and pick up the award.

Note:  A couple days after this interview, Leonardo Fabian Gil won the JoJazz first prize for composition.