Penn Charter graduate Jeff Torchon and his band Conjunto Philadelphia help keep traditional Cuban music alive in Philly while bridging the gap between cultures.
When Jeff Torchon lands in his favorite place in Cuba, Old Havana, he takes in the ancient Spanish architecture, walks the Malecon (the promenade along the sea wall separating Havana from the ocean), and plays with any Cuban musician he can find.
He’s often met with skepticism when he tells new band mates he plays Cuban music, but “they know right away” once he starts into a song. It’s those encounters, playing Cuban music with Cubans in Old Havana, that Jeff lives for and has for over 10 years. It’s also the reason he founded Conjunto Philadelphia, a group that tries its best to bring a little of Old Havana here to Philly by playing traditional Cuban music.
What’s that? We’re not talking Salsa or Latin Jazz, but a type of music that’s getting harder to find as many of its old masters die off — Pre-Revolutionary Cuban music from the 1930s, and 1940s, and 1950s. Known as Son, it’s a precursor to many styles including Salsa. How did a Penn Charter grad and Philly boy develop a love for Cuban music? We caught up with Jeff for the story.
Are you originally from Philadelphia? What’s your background?
I grew up in Plymouth Meeting and attended Penn Charter from 4th-12th grades. I then studied Music Education at Temple (Bachelors degree in 2011 and Masters degree in 2015). I’ve been teaching music since 2011 at Germantown Friends School.
Did you grow up in a Cuban family or is there another reason you identify so strongly with the music?
I’m not Cuban nor is anyone in my family. In fact, nobody in our band is Cuban (but our trumpet player is a 1/4 Cuban). Our lead vocalist is from Venezuela and our Conga player is from Argentina. Everyone else was born in the U.S. I can’t really give a specific reason as to why I love this music but I know the affair began when I saw the documentary “Buena Vista Social Club.” I was struck by the music, the culture, and the allure of this mysterious island that U.S. citizens were not allowed to travel to.
The music was so infectious that once I began hearing it, I just wanted more and more and more. I was trained in jazz piano growing up (and my original major in college was jazz piano performance) but Cuban music was an amazing new world. I had some of the training and background to understand the music, but didn’t realize its profound beauty until I saw Cuban musical legends play in Buena Vista Social Club.
Ever meet any of the Buena Vista musicians?
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few of them — Omara Portuondo (female singer and dancer), Barbarito Torres (Laúd player), and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (Cuban band leader and musician who brought the Buena Vista musicians together for the movie).
Where’s the heart of Philly’s Cuban community these days? (Or is it more of a diaspora here?)
There really isn’t a large Cuban community in Philly. There are definitely Cubans who live and work here, but they aren’t centralized in any particular part of the city. There used to be a Cuban cultural center in the Northeast, but with the older Cubans passing away (the ones who came here escaping Castro and the Revolution), the center hasn’t been as active.
What are some hallmarks of the Cuban music that you play?
We perform the classics that folks associate with a Cuba of the past (such as Lagrimás Negras, Son De La Loma, and Quizás, Quizás, Quizás). Many Cubans that come out to our shows tell us it’s the same music their grandparents would listen to and play for them as kids. We’ve also had older Cubans tell us that our music reminds them of their lives Pre-Castro, when they still lived in Cuba.
What challenges do you face showcasing traditional Cuban music in this city?
One of the biggest challenges is that many folks think Cuban music is Salsa or Latin Jazz. While these styles of music have similar rhythms, the repertoire and sound is very different. The word Salsa is used to describe music with Cuban and jazz elements that was first developed in New York in the 1950s. Cuban music (Son music) is the precursor to Salsa. We’ve developed a strong following of folks who like what we play!
What are some common misunderstandings people have about the Cuban culture?
That travelling to Cuba is dangerous. Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world and in some ways, it’s safer than parts of our country. Also, there’s also lot of animosity lingering from the early years of the Revolution when Castro took property from many people with no compensation. These sentiments have led to a feeling among some people that we shouldn’t interact with Cuba. I believe we should continually engage with them to promote cultural understanding and connectedness with the people of the United States (the rest of the world already does this!).
This music is a passion in my life and I’m so lucky to learn more about it with a group of talented musicians. If you would like to know more about the music, Conjunto Philadelphia, or how you might be able to travel to Cuba, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ConjuntoPhilly.com.
Havana Nights: A Celebration of Cuban Music with Conjunto Philadelphia (Monthly event)
Join us at World Café Live for our monthly Cuban music & food series, which features authentic Cuban cuisine, cocktails, and music! A perfect date night or just a night out with friends. Admission is FREE! Call to reserve your table today: 215-222-1400. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut Street