By Jonathan Wilson
Former Brooklyn College professor Arturo O’Farrill was one of the latest inductees to the Irish American Hall of Fame. He was a professor in the Conservatory of Music and the founding director of the Global Jazz Studies Program. In O’Farrill acknowledged a certain disconnect or irony in his induction.
“I’m known for something that’s not Irish-American – Afro-Cuban Jazz,” he said in his acceptance speech.
“But it is true that the most Irish trait that I carry is to be headstrong proud and defiant.”
That last remark was in reference to his family’s background in Cuba. The O’Farrill family settled in Cuba in the 1700s, according to O’Farrill, and his ancestors became businessmen and lawyers.
O’Farrill described himself and his father, who was a well-known musician and was nicknamed Chico, as the black sheep of the family, because of the mark they made in the music arts. O’Farrill conceded he showed himself to be very much unlike his ancestors, who built homes and hotels throughout Cuba’s capital city of Havana.
According to O’Farrill, the Irish community and the Latino community have always been close. He recalls an Irish Latino band in Ireland called Salsa Celtica. He said that “they just kind of fit musically.”
O’Farrill is a six-time Grammy award-winning Afro Jazz artist. When asked what went into getting so many Grammy awards, he said, “The first time I got a Grammy I made no effort whatsoever. I released the record and apparently it found favor with the academy members and then as time went on every record we submitted we did a little campaign for, but you really can’t guarantee any of those things. It’s a democratic process and you just have to make music that is integral and we really make lovely music that is very honest and real and I think that appeals to the members of the academy.”
When asked how he felt about being recognized in the Irish American Hall of Fame, O’Farrill replied, “Any honor is humbling because it gives you an opportunity to speak your mind and share from your heart and I think that’s what life is about.”
When asked about the generation of O’Farrils after him, he said, “My sons are musicians now. But more importantly, way more importantly, they’re really nice people.”
That last statement of O’Farrill’s echoed in the words of his speech, and also in the soul of the music he played at Thursday’s ceremony.