Cuban jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez fled Cuba for Los Angeles six years ago to chase his dream of becoming a successful musician. He came with no more than the clothes on his back, his music sheets, and a commitment from his mentor Quincy Jones that they would make music together.
Now at the age of 29, Rodriguez’s second album co-produced by Quincy Jones, The Invasion Parade, is Grammy nominated for its single "Guantanamera" in the Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella category. More importantly, he’s optimistic about what’s to come for Cuba after President Obama announced the change in U.S. policy towards his home country.
Although Congress needs to ultimately lift the embargo on Cuba, the way is being paved for the two countries to have a normal relationship.
“I don’t know if the change is going to be for better or worse, but we need to experiment with new problems,” he says.
His album's title The Invasion Parade couldn’t be more relevant, as America’s eyes are set on Cuba. It seems like everyone is in a hurry to vacation there before it gets its first Starbucks.
If you ask Rodriguez, change is everything his country needs. Cubans have been living without the freedom to explore other ways of life since communist Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and isolated its citizens.
“Tourists are fascinated with our classic cars, but we don’t have them because they’re cool. We have been fixing and passing them down to our families since the '50s because it’s the only option we have,” Rodriguez explains.
Cuba has some of the most talented musicians on the planet, but with no money or visibility to the rest of the world, many of them will never know their potential. Rodriguez’s father is also a musician who has won the local “artist of the year” award several times and fills stadiums when he performs in Cuba — but he's unknown to the outside world.
Occasionally, musicians are granted special visas allowing them to perform in other countries. One day in 2006, a Cuban art institute received a letter from the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, announcing that they were selecting 12 international musicians to play at their upcoming festival and encouraging Cubans to apply. Rodriguez was one of the lucky ones chosen.
In Switzerland he met Quincy Jones, one of the biggest names in music. After hearing Rodriguez play, Jones knew there was something special about him and suggested they work together. The only problem was that Rodriguez would have to move to Los Angeles, where Jones is based.
Rodriguez returned to Cuba after the festival, but didn’t forget that inspiring moment with Quincy. Like all musicians that return, he brought back new music discovered on the road to share with his friends.
“We are a small community of musicians that share everything we can. Sometimes we come back with CDs or a hard drive full of music. It's one way to inspire each other [with] what is out there.”
Finally in 2009, the time came for Rodriguez to take Quincy Jones up on his offer. Rodriguez joined his father to perform some shows in Mexico, but didn’t intend to return. He made his way to Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and caught a plane to Nuevo Laredo, a town located at the Mexico/Texas border.
Mexican officials held him at the Merida airport and threatened to return him to Cuba. Several hours later he was released and, through political asylum, was granted entry into Texas.
From there he called Quincy and made arrangements to catch the next flight to LAX. Quincy’s manager took him into his home, and the musical adventure began.
Rodriguez is now doing something he’s never been able to do: approach his culture from a different perspective.
“I’ve been around Cubans for so many years. We have created a unique culture, but now it seems like a contradiction that there is no cross-culturalization.”
The Invasion Parade's tracks consist of his own interpretations of songs he grew up with, like “Guantanamera” and “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” and new compositions with collaborators such as bassist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Henry Cole, and percussionist Pedrito Martinez.
The Grammy nomination doesn’t excite Rodriguez as much as you might think. His journey is just beginning, and he won't let an award determine his success.
“Growing up my dream was to find myself through sounds, and that’s an endless process,” he says.
He also helped his parents and brother move to the U.S. and start new lives in Miami, as well as his girlfriend, who now lives with him in Silver Lake. He makes occasional visits back home to Cuba to see his grandmother.
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“These situations make you who you are. My life has never been that safe," Rodriguez notes, adding, I think we should all be more adventurous.”