A family affair

YTHarvard Jazz Bands guest artist Yunior Terry talks about the history of music, his family and playing with the 2019 Jazz Master in Residence Chucho Valdés in concert on April 12.

By Samantha Neville '19

For Yunior Terry, music is a family affair. His first instrument was the violin. Like his older brothers, he was drawn to the instrument their father played.

To this day, music is a family affair. In fact, Terry will be part of the Harvard Jazz Bands concert on Friday, April 12, at 8 p.m. in Sanders Theater. The concert -- Puente Musical: Celebrating. Chucho Valdés -- features the legendary jazz pianist but it also features Terry’s brother, Yosvany Terry, who senior lecturer on music at Harvard and director of Harvard of Jazz Ensembles. Valdés, who has won six Grammy Awards, and whose music inspired the Terry brothers since their youth, is the 2019 Jazz Master in Residence. Speaking of family affairs: On the program for the concert is music by both Valdés and his father “Bebo” Valdés.

Many things have changed since Yunior Terry first studied the violin. Today Terry teaches at New York University and is a freelance musician. He has degrees from CalArts and

Yunior Terry
Yunior Terry Photo: Nicola Dracoulis
Rutgers University. He plays the bass (though he double majored in bass and violin). He also studied jazz, to which he brings the traditions he learned in Cuba.

Music is all I wanted to do since I can remember,” Yunior Terry said.

Terry grew up attending rehearsals and concerts because his father was one of the founding members of the Cuban Charanga group Maravillas de Florida

Terry easily rattled off the names of diverse musical traditions. Lucumí, Bantu, Rumba. Charanga, he said, is a strings-based style of music with Cuban percussion. Arará is one of the Cuban musical traditions that Terry has spent time researching, but he was quick to point out that reading books will teach you only so much about these traditions. You have to “learn some of the rhythmic approach, some of the language of the instrument.” In other words, you have to immerse yourself in the knowledge and the practice. 

We became involved in the Arará tradition, we became part of it, we became initiated into it,” Terry said.

Given that, you might think Terry is a purist when it comes to style. He is not. 

By knowing some of the drumming, by knowing some of the chant, by knowing some of the curves of the melodies and the elements of the music -- we use these elements and we build from them,” he said.

One of his idols growing up was Chucho Valdés. Terry, his brothers and their peers listened to the music of Valdés' group Irakere and wanted to play like its members. It was the combination of different styles that Terry and others found captivating. He said that Irakere “changed the course of music in Cuba.”

Yosvany Terry and Yunior Terry at Harvard
Yosvany Terry and Yunior Terry at Harvard Photo: Alicia Anstead
“We saw Chucho mixing the Afro Cuban music with jazz and with funk, and you know there would be rock, too, and it  brought a new sound,” Terry said. “The group was using all these elements that were foreign to us, but it was fusing it with our music.”

Terry strives for this fusion in his music as well. Nevertheless Terry’s advice to aspiring musicians and artists is this: Know yourself first before trying to get to know someone else. Learn your music first, learn the traditions, learn the history of your music before learning someone else’s music.”

The April 12 concert is the first time that Yunior Terry will play with Valdés onstage.

“My father also played with Chucho at different times,” Terry said. “Chucho was really fond of my father. So for many reasons I feel like this is really important to me, and I’m looking forward to this opportunity.”

And his brother? Yosvany Terry said he hopes people at the concert will take away a “message of connection with other cultures, a message of connection with different parts of the world, a message of unity and a world more unified, a message of love, a message of being open and flexible to receive sounds coming from different cultures."

For tickets to the concert, visit Harvard Box Office in the Smith Campus Center, or click here. Learn more about events during Chucho Valdés' residency, including a free and open-to-the-public conversation with Yosvany Terry on April 11. 

See also: Jazz