Chico left Havana for New York in 1948 to continue his classical music studies at Julliard; he soon was hired as an arranger for Benny Goodman. He went on to write Dizzy Gillespie’s celebrated “Manteca Suite” and many other pieces, becoming known as a pioneer of Cubop, which he interpreted as a sophisticated fusion of Latin and avant-garde jazz idioms.
The elder O’Farrill moved with his family to Mexico in the 1950s, before moving back to New York in the mid-sixties. He visited Cuba for the last time in 1958. Although he left Cuba as en emigre, not an exile, politics intervened.
“Late in his life he was invited to go back to Cuba,” Arturo O’Farrill recalls. “But he received communication from the Cuban American community that if he did, he would be boycotted. And It scared him.”
Chico never returned to Cuba. He died in New York in 2001; he would have been 95 years old this year.
“Toward the end of his life he said ‘I'm ready to go back,’” O’Farrill recalls. “But he was old, he was weak, he was infirm and he wouldn’t have survived the trip,”
O’Farrill, 56, a Grammy-winning composer, pianist and bandleader, has been traveling to Cuba for the past 18 years. He has undertaken a series of collaborative performance and recording projects there, including 2015’s Cuba: The Conversation Continues, which was recorded in Havana just after Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“I’ve been going back and forth when it was comfortable and when it was uncomfortable,” O’Farrill comments. “When it was easy and when it was not easy.”
He had first scheduled the trip to take his father’s ashes to Cuba for September, but it was canceled because of the delicate health of his mother, Lupe Valero O’Farrill.
“Now we are confident that we will be able to take her to Cuba for a really extraordinary trip,” he says.
It is a groundbreaking event, representing the unfulfilled wishes of many Cuban artists who left Cuba and never returned. Among those was Celia Cruz, who remained in exile until her death in 2003. Her song called “Por Si Acaso No Regreso” (“In Case I Don’t Go Back”) addressed the pain of never returning to Cuba.
“I feel in a way it is a very symbolic gesture,” O’Farrill says of his father’s burial in Havana, adding that Cuban and American agencies have worked together to make the trip and the tribute possible. “It represents Cuba welcoming back an ex-patriot son who changed the way of music. And it’s a gesture on the part of American people that shows that the things that count in life are cultural, they are not political or ideological.”
O’Farrill and his family will be received by the American ambassador in Havana, and will also join Cuban officials to talk about creating jazz and Afro-Cuban music studies programs at Havana’s university-level music school.
The pianist stresses that the trip has taken on more importance since the election of Donald Trump, which, he says, "will undoubtedly reverse the progress that President Obama and President Castro have made.” O’Farrill is calling for a grassroots mobilization against Trump.
“[Chico’s return to Cuba] is a compelling example of someone being welcome to their homeland even as ashes, based on their contribution to the world,” O’Farrill says. “It’s important to state unequivocally that music, art and life will overturn the tenets of hatred.”
Dictators come and go, but what really unites us are the things that we share.” he adds.