Even the first 17th-century settlers in New York, organized by the commercial venture of the Dutch West India Company, were a diverse mix of Europeans, Africans and South Americans who spoke a total of 18 languages. Four-hundred years later, 37 percent of New Yorkers come from another country and speak some 800 languages.
In the city’s ninth annual Immigrant Heritage Week (April 17-24), the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and its partners (including WNET/Thirteen, the parent company of MetroFocus) honor the histories and traditions of the city’s immigrant communities.
But immigrants are also the innovators of contemporary New York. This week, MetroFocus profiles immigrants who are shaping the arts, activism and politics, and technology and science, today. Musicians Arturo O’Farrill of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and guitarist and composer Stephane Wremble are featured here.
Arturo O’Farrill grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but he couldn’t resist his Latin roots. In part, because the Mexico-born pianist and composer is the son of legendary jazz composer Chico O’Farrill. “It’s a cultural reality that I’m doing what my father did,” says O’Farrill. “Particularly in Latin America, sons are expected to do what their fathers do.”
He now leads a Grammy Award-winning band, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and has a regular, Sunday-night gig at Birdland. But it took a while for him to ease into his destiny. “Because of my background, people assume all I do is Latin jazz even though I play everything from symphonic music to reggae,” says O’Farrill. “Early on, I couldn’t figure out why certain groups wouldn’t call me for gigs. Then I looked at my father’s career and realized that despite writing 12 albums for the Count Basie Orchestra, he’ll always be lumped into the category of Latin jazz. I suspect this is perhaps my fate as well.”
O’Farrill says his Latin heritage also takes root in his everyday disposition. “I tend to run hot. I’m passionate. Everything is larger than life,” he says. “I move to a different rhythm—whether that is genetic, hereditary, or cultural, I don’t know—but it’s definitely different from the typical American pace.”
He considers his music to be American. “We are jazz musicians playing Pan-American music that is not necessarily only for dancing or only for listening,” he says. “It’s an aesthetic that is more often found here in America. When we perform in Cuba, Mexico, or other places in South America, we bring our unique, aggressive exploratory programming to the stage.”
O’Farrill started his orchestra and educational programs after noticing a void in the representation of Latin and Afro-Cuban music in New York City. “Latin jazz isn’t just a ruffled shirt, maracas-shaking, jazz hybrid,” he says. “The idea that you can have intellectual, passionate music that includes hand percussion—that moves feet, head, and heart—is still foreign to the jazz world. The world has taken notice, but the inner conduits of jazz power still treat us like an afterthought or a side diversion.”
Living in the United States had always been a dream for Stephane Wrembel. “I was so fascinated by the landscapes, the cities, and the way things are done here,” says the French guitarist, who now lives in Brooklyn. “In terms of music, there is nothing better than New York City—the high level of musicianship, the variety of styles, the creativity and the vibe.” Wrembel moved to New York in 2000 but still holds on tight to his French roots, especially the Django Reinhardt technics that were handed down to him directly by the Gypsies (largely Roma and Sinti) of the French countryside.
“I am a nomad at heart,” says Wrembel. “I love being on the road and feeling things move around me. I get to freely express that side of me living the musician’s lifestyle in New York.”
The city’s diversity has certainly found its way into Wrembel’s music. He learned to play the oud, a Middle Eastern pear-shaped guitar, and his newer compositions have tinges of Indian, African and Asian influences. His fifth and latest album “Origins,” to be released in May, reflects the cultural hybrid that is now his life. “There is a very strong Impressionistic element to my playing,” says Wrembel. “It allows me to blend any style into a kind of soundtrack.”
What never changes, he says, is the way he experiences the world—it’s always a bit imaginary; a bit of a fantasy. This fancifulness may have been what appealed to filmmaker Woody Allen, whose own musicianship can be heard when he plays clarinet with his jazz band at the Cafe Carlyle. Allen asked Wrembel to score his films “Midnight in Paris” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
You can hear Wremble’s compositions live, several nights a week, at places like The Bubble Lounge, Barbes, Bar Tabac, Empire Rooftop Lounge and Fada.
“I’ve been here so long I don’t really know anymore what side of me is American or French, ” says Wremble. One thing that has always remained clear however, is how he feels about both places. “France is my mother country and I love her as such,” says Wrembel. “New York is more like my crazy, wild girlfriend.”