Yosvany Terry-Cuban born Harvard Music Professor

Dec 10, 2020
2 mins read
Yosvany Terry

Cuban born Yosvany Terry’s childhood home was always filled with music. But his journey to become a Harvard music professor is an inspiration for young people from the Caribbean.

It all started back in Cuba where Terry was born. At first, he was destined to become a clarinetist. That was an obvious choice as at a young age he was set to begin conservatory training.

That all changed when a nine-year old Terry saw a TV ad featuring a saxophone. His love for the instrument was immediate.

Yosvany Terry Saxophone
Source: Yosvany Terry

Music runs through Yosvany Terry’s veins

His father was a famous charanga (Cuban dance music) conductor, violinist, and chekeré. Yosvany Terry and his brothers grew up serious about music, but also kept busy with other pursuits: math contests, volleyball, handball, and badminton.

His desire to learn tennis was thwarted, he jokes, because “it was a capitalist sport.” Describing the “field research” central to his composition process, Terry cites the example of Bartók and Kodály collecting Hungarian folksongs.

In an interview Terry said “I go to the countryside in the middle of nowhere”—recently, Cuba’s Matanzas and Villa Clara provinces—and I get together with these old people to learn about local instruments, chants, melodies, and ceremonies”

Exploring the far-flung origins of Afro-Cuban jazz, Terry’s music has been praised for its “multilevel fluencies,” for delving into history while always pushing forward. He brings this momentum to his teaching, as the new visiting senior lecturer of music and director of jazz bands.

A listener described Terry’s first rehearsal with the Harvard musicians as “a little like boxers circling each other, feinting, seeing how they will move,” but during their 90 minutes together, the band-leader “pulled them toward an idea of what he wanted,” and by the end, audience and band alike “could hear how far we had traveled.”

On a recent trip to Cuba, Terry sat down almost immediately at the family piano to play “La Tedesca,” an 18th-century classical Cuban contradanza. His dad, Eladio, walked in, beating the chekeré, and his mom beamed.

Terry’s musical destiny was forged on this communist Caribbean island. His is a story of duality – adapting to new instruments and assimilating to new cultures for the love of music. Now a professor at Harvard and professional saxophonist, percussionist, and composer with six different bands, he has lived in two worlds “as far as I can stretch my memory.” Terry continues to give back to his native Cuba.

He takes regular trips to Havana, guiding young and aspiring artists, sharing inspiration, and seeking new and authentic opportunities for social progress and inter-cultural collaboration

In recent years, Yosvany Terry’s story has also touched the hearts of young people from the Caribbean. He not only became a leading figure in the development of modern popular music but also a pioneer of music education.

Visit Yosvany Terry Website for more details on what this great Cuban musician is up to

Afro-Cuban jazz is the earliest form of Latin jazz. It mixes Afro-Cuban clave-based rhythms with jazz harmonies and techniques of improvisation. Afro-Cuban jazz emerged in the early 1940s with the Cuban musicians Mario Bauzá and Frank Grillo “Machito” in the band Machito and his Afro-Cubans in New York City. In 1947, the collaborations of bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and percussionist Chano Pozo brought Afro-Cuban rhythms and instruments, such as the tumbadora and the bongo, into the East Coast jazz scene. Early combinations of jazz with Cuban music, such as “Manteca” and “Mangó Mangüé”, were commonly referred to as “Cubop” for Cuban bebop.

During its first decades, the Afro-Cuban jazz movement was stronger in the United States than in Cuba.In the early 1970s, the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna and later Irakere brought Afro-Cuban jazz into the Cuban music scene, influencing styles such as songo.

United Nations – March 25, 2017 marks the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Watch how the contribution of African heritage has influenced the music of Cuba.

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