Cuban Musicians Bring a Funky Beat to the Charleston Jazz Academy

Jun 5, 2019

Master percussionist Ramon Diaz (left) and student Jarred Daniel (right) play the congas as part of Spoleto's community outreach program
Credit Victoria Hansen

Scribbling notes on a dry erase board just won't do.  So David Virelles plays them instead, on a piano.  The Cuban composer and pianist is teaching a masters class at the Charleston Jazz Academy in North Charleston, as part of the Spoleto arts festival's community outreach program.

In just a couple of hours, he's performing too.

"I hope the students walk away with what it takes to play music," Virelles says.  "It takes a lot of discipline, perseverance and love.  You have to be passionate about it and really spend time to be any good."

Virelles has spent a lot of time, playing the piano since he was a child.  He's not only good.  He's fantastic.  His work has landed on the New York Times, "Best of the Year" list and The Guardian calls him a musician "set to make a big difference in contemporary music for years to come."

The 35 year-old was born in Cuba to musical parents.  His father was a singer-song writer.  His mother played the flute.  Virelles  was trained classically, but has long loved jazz.  He moved to Canada to study and then to New York to work with a variety of musicians who excite him, including Afro Cuban percussionist Roman Diaz who's also from Cuba. 

Together they explore the connections between jazz and Afro Cuban music.

Students at Charleston Jazz Academy take a master class as part of Spoleto community outreach program
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Public Radio

For this class, they focus on Cuban rhythms they instinctively know.  Students of all ages join them in playing, but it can be hard to grasp; like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.

"The beats are all off in a way you wouldn't imagine them," says 8th grader Rachel Lane.  She joins Virelles on piano.  Initially shy and unsure, she catches on.

"I've found a new appreciation for this music," says Lane.

"Not all of our music is like that," says Virelles.  "We have some other things that are more experimental and more textural."

The students get a taste of those more experimental textures when Virelles improvises.  Diaz joins in, chanting at times.  The two speak their own musical language and the room is mesmerized.

So how does Virelle's define his music?  He doesn't.

"I don't really get caught up in you know labels like this is jazz," he says.  "It's all music at the end of the day.

At the end of this class, the students are clearly buzzed with the feel good vibes they've just heard and played.

Virelles heads downtown, to the Simons Center Recital Hall in Charleston to perform for Spoleto Festival USA.   It's his first time with the yearly arts festival.

Before stepping out on stage, he changes from his Thelonious Monk t-shirt to a dressy, crisp, white button up.  But he pairs it with funky, black and white, tribal patterned pants. Virelles is  about to make a first impression, and like his music, it will be hard to define.